Public left to cope with misery as politicians flounder in the floods

The costs of extreme weather could become a constant feature of life in Britain

Homeowners on Ham Lane and Meadow Way in Old Windsor in Berkshire, under water, miserable and now without electricity or working toilets, were sent five chemical toilets on Wednesday.

Half a dozen more of the emergency toilets were shipped on Thursday to their neighbours in Datchet, three miles away on the other side of the Thames, where they were set up at two normally busy road junctions.

Meanwhile, Veolia rubbish trucks in both districts were making their weekly rounds where they could, not always successfully. Problems with litter collection have been encountered during past floods, but never for so long. And an end is not in sight.

Five thousand properties in Britain have been flooded since before Christmas, creating misery, anger and despair. However, the numbers are a fraction of those at risk.


Almost six million properties in England are in danger of flooding from rivers, or the sea. For 500,000 of them, that risk is deemed to be considerable by the Environment Agency.

In all, one in six houses are in danger.

Each year, flooding costs £1.1 billion (€1.3 billion). However, a recent investigation suggests that bill could rise to as much as £27 billion a year in 60 years because of climate change, and humans’ impact on the landscape.

Up to now, the British government's flood prevention figures have oscillated. Once, communities secretary Eric Pickles put it at more than £3.1 billion over five years, compared with the £2.7 billion spent in Labour's last five years in power.

However, the figures have been subject to some manipulation, since they include spending promised by, or expected from, private landowners – some of which has not arrived, or cannot be predicted.

In 2010, chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne budgeted for a spend of £2.17 billion up to 2015, a fall of 6 per cent in real terms. However, the Committee on Climate Change – an independent statutory advisory body – gauges that the cuts have been much deeper, up to a fifth in real terms.

In reality, the best estimate is that the Environment Agency is spending £500 million approximately, though it was barred by the Treasury from investing in a project unless each £1 spent on prevention saved £8 in possible damage.

That rule has changed in the crisis, though it is of little use to those suffering along the banks of the Thames or those in the west country where no work can be done until water levels fall.

The UK could apply for European Union disaster relief funding – something that has to be done within 10 weeks of calamity striking – though it seems set on not doing so, which is a signal of how much the debate has been infected.

The crisis has illustrated, yet again, a deeply unpleasant side to British politics, where individuals can be set up for sacrifice by those higher up the rankings desperate to cover themselves.

In this case, the target, former Labour cabinet minister Lord Chris Smith, has hardly helped his own cause. Firstly, he failed to visit Somerset until six weeks into the crisis.

Then, his story changed as the floods got worse.

Pickles – who can hide a degree of viciousness behind a folksy “I’m but a blunt speakin’ northerner” demeanour – was sent out to ram the dagger home, saying that he would not print “Save Chris Smith” t-shirts.

Belatedly, though one has to wonder why they thought it would be any different, No 10 Downing Street realised that the public recoils from the sight of Machiavellian politics in moments of real challenge, particularly when it is delivered cack-handedly.

The Environment Agency, which can be a lumbering beast, argues it must prioritise urban areas over farmland, while it argues less publicly that there are times when man has to retreat in the face of nature’s challenge.

Equally, it argues it has to sack 500 people this year. However, it has tried to do too much.

Councils in Kent, for example, used to clear many smaller drains, but that work
migrated to the agency, which has not done it as often, or as well.

Many affected homeowners will worry about how long the waters will last; how long it will take for homes to dry out; how long the insurance companies will take to pay out; and just as importantly, if they can ever get cover again.

There are plans to impose a levy on all homeowners of £10.50 each a year to cover the costs faced by those most at risk.

However, the devil, as ever, will be in the detail. Leasehold and privately-rented properties would be excluded. So, too, would the most expensive properties.

Once, the levy, expected to raise £180 million each year, is in place it will be paid into the Flood Refund, which will operate as a not-for-profit reinsurance scheme managed by the insurance industry.

Back in Datchet, once on the banks of the Thames, but now surrounded by it, locals have cause to worry about man, as well as nature, after police arrested a man allegedly tooled up to loot abandoned houses.

The days ahead will be wet and dreary.