On Thursday December 5th the east coast of the UK was battered by high winds and rain, causing a tidal surge which flooded many homes and caused wide-spread travel disruption. It is estimated that 1400 properties were flooded, with some of the worst damage being experienced on the Norfolk coast where several towns were evacuated and where seven houses were lost to the sea in the village of Hemsby.
Like earlier extreme flooding and tidal surge events, the most recent storm raises pressing questions about the relative responsibilities of the government, private insurance companies and individual home-owners for both assessing and managing the risks of flood damage. Memories of the 1953 North Sea flood, where a tidal surges over-topped sea defences and led to the deaths of more than 300 people, have been frequently evoked this week. It was after this flood that British government was forced to reassess its responsibilities towards those living in areas vulnerable to future flooding and storm surges, and consequently embarked on a programme of constructing flood and sea defences across the country.
According to a recent paper by Tom Ball, Alan Werritty and Alistair Geddes in the journal Area, this paradigm of hard-engineered flood defences was dominant until 2004, when a number of factors such as the projected impacts of climate change, the unexpected impacts of certain engineering solutions and the prohibitive cost of sustaining flood defences around all vulnerable settlements led this approach to be de-emphasised. The approach moved towards bolstering the resilience of vulnerable communities, rather than offering comprehensive protection, creating a much greater role for the insurance industry in mediating flood risk and vulnerability, along other ‘softer’ management approaches.
This transitional arrangement between the Government, private insurers and home-owners shifted again with the 2007 summer floods in the UK which are thought to have cost insurers £1.7 billion. In the aftermath of the floods the Government intervened to encourage insurance providers to agree to a ‘Statement of Principles’, where they committed to adopting a cross subsidy between homes in low and high risk flooding areas, rather than simply refusing to ensure or charging astronomically high premiums for those most vulnerable to flood damage. The relevance of this fragile settlement to the most recent storm, is that this Statement of Principles expired in June of this year, creating the possibility for yet another transition in how the burden of risk and vulnerability management is shared between our three central actors.
Following last week’s floods, the Observer newspaper reported on the Government’s new flood insurance scheme, which is designed to cater for houses in high risk flooding areas which will no longer be covered by conventional private insurance schemes. As Ball et al point out in their paper, the UK is unusual in not having had provision for state-subsidised flooding insurance until now. However, as the Observer reported, this new government insurance scheme seems unlikely to produce any long-lasting settlement in the management of flood risks and vulnerabilities, as it proposes to cover only 500,000 homes; a much smaller figure than the number of homes projected to experience a high risk of flooding in the 2020s by the Government’s own climate change impacts assessment.
The history of approaches to flood risk and vulnerability over the last 60 years alerts to the ways in which the methods, rationalities and bureaucratic arrangements have shifted substaintially over time. However, it is also important to be attentive to how these moves have interacted with changing relationships between the state, insurance providers and ordinary citizens in the face of the threat of flooding, and the different degrees of responsibility and financial burden these sometimes subtle changes place on each actor.
Tom Ball, Alan Werritty & Alistair Geddes 2013 Insurance and sustainability in flood-risk management: the UK in a transitional state Area, 45(3): 266-272
Half a million homes at risk are not covered by flood scheme Observer, 7 December
UK flood defences praised for saving lives and property on east coast Guardian, 6 December
Storms, floods and tidal surge devastate the UK’s east coast – in pictures Guardian, 6 December
Norfolk floods: seven Hemsby homes badly damaged by waves BBC News, 6 December