Protecting against flooding requires large upfront investments. For instance, shoring up railways to prevent the ballast under the tracks from being swept away is a mammoth job, costing millions. In the face of that upfront cost, waiting until the flooding happens, then repairing it afterwards can look more attractive. However, that does not take into account the knock-on costs to the country in the travel disruption this creates.
Collins wants government to take a longer-term view. He points to the Thames Barrier. A direct response to the floods of 1953, the Thames Barrier was one of the single biggest civil engineering projects ever undertaken in the UK. Two decades in planning, 10 years in construction, it cost more than ￡500 million when it was opened in 1984. According to Collins, it should continue to protect London adequately for several decades, perhaps to 2050. The existing barrier took 30 years to put in place. He believes work should be starting now on a possible addition or replacement.
Another key area for government is planning permission, stopping people and companies from building in high-risk areas. Yet there are few constraints. In fact, the Committee on Climate Change found that not only are we continuing to build homes on flood plains, but we are building them faster than ever.
This is putting more and more people at risk of the sort of misery that retired architect Jeff Clarke suffered when his Tewkesbury, England home flooded in 2007. It was the loss of his childhood encyclopedia that brought home the heartbreak.
“It was given to me by my Welsh grandmother, and she’d written in it: ‘To Jeffrey on his fourth birthday.’ As a book, it wasn’t worth tuppence, but I’d had it all these years. It’s silly little things like that that make you feel your loss,” he says.
He remembers having to throw away his crockery.
“They insisted we destroy it, as it couldn’t be decontaminated of the pollution” — a polite way of saying that the tea service had been covered in sewage.
That is one of the dirty secrets of flooding in Britain. While images of flooding are often quite jolly — men wading down the high street, kids getting a kayak to school — what you do not see is that the muddy waters invading these houses are filled with sewage. The smell alone is hard to forget, survivors say.
“The whole experience was absolutely devastating,” Clarke says.
It took him nearly a year to make his house habitable again.
Insurers ought to be key players in protecting against these catastrophes. Here, too, the story is one of failure. The recent spate of flood disasters, from 2007 on, has spooked the major insurance companies. They are now threatening to break with the “gentlemen’s agreement” that has operated since 1961, under which all UK householders — or at least those whose homes were built before 2009 — are guaranteed access to flood insurance even if they are at serious risk. That agreement with government will run out in June this year and as yet, there is nothing to replace it. Benyon, whose responsibility for the issue has been subsumed by the Cabinet Office, will say little except that progress is expected “soon.”