BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 26.05.02

Film: David Grossman asks what more the Government is going to do to meet the threat of more flooding in vulnerable areas of England and Wales.

DAVID GROSSMAN: Misery by the gallon. The floods of two-thousand caused over a billion pounds worth of damage - in human heartache the costs can't be measured. But these are scenes we may have to get used to - the Government's latest climate change study predict winter rainfall may increase by thirty per cent over the long term. Already the experts say rivers are rising more often - the need for flood defence has never been more vital. Even before the flood waters drained away from here in Worcester and from other parts of the country the Government promised urgent action to try to prevent that kind of devastation from happening again. What was needed it's argued is not only better physical defences against flooding but also better protection against building, for the green areas around rivers that are needed to allow floodwaters to seep away before they become a problem. But many of the people who live here and in other flood threatened communities say almost nothing has been done, and if there isn't action soon, their homes could become uninsurable and potentially worthless. ANDREW LANSLEY MP: Well the worst case scenario of course is that the consequences of climate change mean very substantially greater flood risk in future and that if we don't have flood defence measures in place, a lot of people will be, well they'll be driven out of their homes. MARY DHONAU: The Government are acting very, very slowly. They've commissioned lots and lots of studies into flooding, but nothing has been done to stop it. It's still going to happen. If we flooded tomorrow, to the same levels as the year two-thousand we would flood just as badly. GROSSMAN: Flooding is a problem that threatens a significant proportion of the population. The Environment Agency estimates that one point nine million properties in England and Wales are at risk from flooding - that's about five million people. MARY FRANCIS: It's quite a serious problem. I mean we have two aspects of it. One is that flood defences haven't been maintained in a sufficient way. And the other is that we have got increasing prospects of more, of rain, over the coming fifty years or so. Something like a, an increase of up to a third in the amount of rainfall, and those two things together mean that many homes are not protected. GROSSMAN: In Worcester one of the homes to be hit in two-thousand belonged to Mary Dhonau. Today the waters have gone but she thinks they'll be back - this house has been flooded in seven of the past nine years - rainwater mixed with sewage. DHONAU: Well this room here is at the moment a makeshift kitchen as I'm having a new one. But during the floods of two-thousand, it my two little boy's playroom and we woke up in the morning and found all their toys floating in sewage. GROSSMAN: And how high did the water come up to then? DHONAU: Well at the worst it came to window-sill height. GROSSMAN: And this is raw sewage? DHONAU: Yes it's raw sewage, yes. We've been flooded seven times, we've made three insurance claims, so this is our third floor. GROSSMAN: From her window, Mary can see the local water company starting work on a sewage pumping station that should mean that any future flooding won't be nearly so vile. But as a whole, Worcester isn't any better protected according to its MP. He says there's still nothing concrete to show for nearly two years of worry. MICHAEL FOSTER MP: Certainly there isn't any defence that's going to be in place by this coming autumn, nor was there obviously for the autumn and the winter period that's just gone, and people have to sort of cross their fingers and hope that the flooding didn't repeat and, and thankfully it didn't but it was very close. GROSSMAN: As the late spring rain falls on Worcester the river Severn fills up but this time sweeps by. Many believe the delay in getting better flood defence in England and Wales is caused by fragmented planning - a tangle of national, regional and local bodies with criss-crossing remits. The lead national organisation is the Environment Agency - its chairman says the time has come for a more streamlined approach. SIR JOHN HARMAN: There are a range of committees around the country who take the decisions on flood defence. Now, now this, this is fragmented, there, there are local committees, there are regional committees. We have to deal with twenty-nine decision making authorities in coming to our annual flood defence budget, as well as government, and its, its contribution through grants, so it's quite a complicated arrangement, and when things go wrong or when there's a flood, it's actually not an easy arrangement for the public to understand and it can be very frustrating to find out who's actually responsible for your flood warning or flood defence service. FRANCIS: It is a, a dreadful maze, all the local authorities in the country have responsibilities for planning flood spending, and for undertaking it. We also have the Environment Agency, we have numerous other planning authorities, and we are pretty sure that there's not a sufficiently co-ordinated system to ensure that the money that is available is spent very efficiently. GROSSMAN: Lovely weather for some no doubt but the pressure for new homes means many, like these, are built on flood plains. Not only are such houses more vulnerable to flooding themselves but also instead of slowly seeping through open ground, rain rushes into the river off tiles and tarmac. The Government has tightened up the local authority planning guidance for building on such sites - but rivers of course don't respect local authority boundaries and the flooding impact of development can hit many miles downstream. LANSLEY: One of the most important things that ought to be done is to institute what's known as catchment management, that is looking at the whole catchment of a river. You know, whether it's the Great Ouse or whatever it might be, and look at that as a co-ordinated responsibility with a body, probably a sort of catchment wide body in place of the present Flood Defence Committees who have that responsibility to ensure that flood defence and the management of that river is co-ordinated. GROSSMAN: Now to get some idea of how high the water floods in a place like Worcester - in November two-thousand it came from all the way down there and reached a mark on the cathedral wall - there. Now the question is, is it economic to try to defend against this level of flooding - the Government insists that to work that question out you need to take into account the value of the property you're trying to defend. But critics say that discriminates against places like Worcester with average or lower than average property prices . FOSTER: A small house owned by a relatively low income family is less likely to be defended than a large house which is owned by a higher income family, and clearly that's not fair, and there are many people who argue against the current formula, on the fairness basis. But also, just looking at the value of the property, to work out what the cost of flooding is, I don't think takes in to account the full impact of flooding, the social costs experienced by those that are flooded are enormous. GROSSMAN: In Worcester, the Severn View Hotel today has a somewhat drier view than it had in two-thousand. It's where the local flooding action group meets. ACTUALITY: "This is the map of Worcester. There are eleven cells - each cell has got to pass the cost benefit ratio." GROSSMAN: They believe the current system means they won't get defended. ACTUALITY: "If we lived in Maidenhead or in Henley of course we would because our houses would cost more and I just want to know what you think about that?" DHONAU: My house is my castle, everybody's house in Worcester is their castle. It just has the same feeling of value to us, just because we're in a different part of the country it really shouldn't mean that we have, don't have the right to be defended. HARMAN: What the system doesn't really reflect, and we think it should reflect is the value of the people that it's protecting. We think it should be much more people based, one only has to deal as we do and our staff do all the time, with people who have been affected by flooding to know that it's a traumatic experience, it can have huge impacts not only in the short term but the long term, it's almost the worse thing that can happen to you as a family, other than a death in the family, is to be flooded. GROSSMAN: Sorting out insurance is one of the chores that goes with being a homeowner but for Mary Dhonau and the millions of others threatened with flooding it could soon become impossible. As flood damage claims go up so could premiums to the point where they become unaffordable. FOSTER: The prospect of flooding insurance being withdrawn from businesses and residents in my constituency has quite literally, been a time bomb waiting to go off. The prospect of people having to pay repairs, bills for ten, fifteen thousand pounds every time a property floods, and not have insurance cover to, to cover that cost quite frankly doesn't bear thinking about for those home owners, and of course the other side to it, is that they wouldn't actually be able to sell the property either, because no one would want to buy it. GROSSMAN: It's easy to see why the insurers are getting nervous, the national bill for flood damage is currently about eight-hundred million pounds a year but it's predicted to rise to one point eight billion over the longer term if there's no extra spending on defences. FRANCIS: Insurers are businessmen, they want to retain their customers wherever they can, but if in exceptional cases, homes are flooding year after year after year, it does just become uneconomic to afford the kind of levels of payment that would be necessary to get insurance. So in some cases yes, there's a danger of not being able to get insurance, but I stress, insurers want to maintain cover, where ever they can. GROSSMAN: The scale of the autumn two-thousand floods shocked ministers - who promised action. Seeing the devastation for himself, Tony Blair was warned insurers could start withdrawing cover. The industry though agreed to continue covering existing policyholders if the Government spent more on defences. That agreement though ends in December and insurers say they've yet to see the rise in spending they're looking for. FRANCIS: The Government has been carrying out a very thorough review of its spending plans for three years to come. And, we wanted the Government to have time to make that assessment and to reach its decisions about what flood defences it could afford. We're very much hoping that we'll hear a favourable result based on the Government's own figures, we believe that more spending of about a hundred and forty five million pounds each year, is needed. GROSSMAN: So if the Government is going to spend all the extra money on flood defence it's going to take to keep the insurance industry happy - where is it going to come from? Well, up to now, defences like the Thames Barrier here in London have been paid for out of general taxation - but a new government report suggests alternative sources of finance. Why not, it asks, impose a tax on developers who build new homes in flood prone areas - or, and most controversially, why not ask everyone whose home is at risk from flooding to pay towards the cost of defending it. HARMAN: The Government's talking in its consultation about a developer connection charge. In other words, if you build new properties in the flood plain, you do add to society's costs. You add to the agency's costs. That ought to be accounted for and so, if money can be recovered through that route, that would seem to us to be sensible. On the other hand, the idea has been put forward that a, a sort of tax is levied on every individual living in the flood plain, we don't think that's sensible. We don't think it's fair, WEATHER REPORT: The weather really has changed - we had a line of torrential rain moving through last night, flashes of lightening, rumbles of thunder... GROSSMAN: In Worcester Mary Dhonau already finds she has to keep a constant eye on the weather forecast - so with that and the worry of losing their home insurance are flood victims to be taxed more as well? Mary's local MP says the idea just doesn't make sense. FOSTER: They bought the home expecting a flooding event, one every two hundred years, but now because of climate change it's one every five years, then it, it isn't fair to ask the home owners themselves to pay for the flood defences and we should look through the General Taxation Fund I think to find a way of helping them overcome what is a natural phenomena or arguably one that we have caused nature to create. GROSSMAN: The test of the Government's commitment to better flood defences will come in July when the Chancellor announces his spending plans for the next three years. But many believe more money is only the beginning - flood defence they say needs urgent reorganisation if it's to meet the challenges of what looks like being a much wetter future.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.