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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 August 2007, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Transcript - Keeping Britain Dry

Keeping Britain Dry

DATE: 06:08:07

JEREMY VINE: Hello, I'm Jeremy Vine and this is Panorama. We've had the wettest start to the summer for over 240 years, and we're being warned that from now on we should expect the unexpected.

LEIA ROSENBERG: Every time it rains I'll be at the window waiting to make sure the brook hasn't breached the banks again. And to be honest, if I could just go somewhere else I would go.

VINE: The recent floods have cost 14 lives and left over half a million people either homeless or without power or safe drinking water. The likely cost to the country - six billion pounds.

CARIE LYNDENE: I believe it's a criminal act to be actually allowing people to buy houses here knowing that there's a potential to flood.

VINE: So are we going to repeat the mistakes of the past or grip this thing once and for all. The Government is urgently reviewing the impact of the floods on our essential services. Schools and hospitals and our power and water supplies. More than a million of us live in homes which are at risk of serious flooding. So, if there's more wild weather on the way, what can we do to flood-proof Britain, and can we afford it?

KATE SILVERTON: To try to find some answers I'm going to follow the flow of the most recent floods and the trail of devastation they left behind. Well this is where our journey begins, the source of the River Seven, high in the Cambrian Hills in mid Wales. The rain that falls here flows some 200 miles down to the sea. During the storms the swollen river that it became brought misery to more than a 100 towns and villages along its route. Well we'll follow the full course of Britain's longest river to find out what we should be doing to prevent disaster the next time the rains come, and they will. Remember when an extraordinary weather event was an early spring or an Indian summer?

CHRIS FOLLAND Head of Climate Research The Met Office: There are very clear changes that are happening to the climate: heat waves, droughts and heavy rainfall events, floods are the chief changes that we would expect to see. The extreme storms might well become more extreme.

SILVERTON: On Thursday the 19th July the Welsh hills were already saddened from days of heavy rain. A Met. Office warning was issued reporting high altitude winds and a heat wave over Europe was about to funnel a powerful storm towards the West of England. The storm would put the river into flood. By the time it hit Shrewsbury the river was six times higher than normal. It came as no surprise to a town that had already been engulfed three times in a decade. After the floods in 2000 Tony Blair headed for the Severn to make a promise his successor is now under pressure to match on a much wider scale.

TONY BLAIR: [Speaking in Shropshire] Frankly we're going to have to do more because these are the worst floods since 1947 but they are only two years after previously very bad floods, and talking certainly to the emergency service people here, they reckon that it's perfectly possible they'll be having to cope with this type of problem again in the next few years.

SILVERTON: Too right. Walls were then built along a part of the river and in 2003 portable barriers arrive. The first big test came 3 years later when the flood defences successfully held back the Severn. They worked again in this summer's flood. But the wall and barriers come at a price, and a stark lesson in the economics of flood defence.

JOHN ADAMS: They protect some 74 properties and that was the basis of the original scheme.

SILVERTON: And at a cost of....?

ADAMS: About six million pounds.

SILVERTON: Which sounds like an awful lot of money, so would it be cost effective to roll this sort of flood protection system out along the rest of the Severn?

JOHN ADAMS The Environment Agency: The Severn is a massive river with wide flood plains. It wont be possible to defend every community and certainly would not necessarily be cost beneficial either.

SILVERTON: So what should we be doing?

ADAMS: We've got to learn to live with the floods and to look to ensure that we don't further develop in the flood plains and put more people in property at risk.

SILVERTON: Much better, says the Environment Agency, to leave flood plains as natural sponges to soak up the swollen waters. But as I drifted down the now gentle river, I could see it isn't getting its way. The pressure to house people and the attraction of waterside living is just too strong.

Dr IAN ROTHERHAM Sheffield Hallam University: If we squeeze right into the banks of the river very, very close and you can see the height of the flood control banks that they had to build in order to do that.

SILVERTON: We've just got a new property, a new development here for example.

ROTHERHAM: Yeah, that's the exact situation, and look how close it is.

SILVERTON: Okay, it's close to the river but they have built a wall. Is that sufficient to protect them?

ROTHERHAM: That will deal with one of the issues. Now building on a flood you are at risk. They're protecting that immediate risk by producing a very large effective flood barrier. The problem then is, that's actually squeezing the river itself into this narrow corridor which is not a natural situation for a river. It pushes the water into a small area which increases the velocity, the power, the damage. It moves water down stream incredibly quickly. It means that everybody downstream is going to get a dollop of water very sudden and very powerful.

SILVERTON: So with no escape the water is channelled towards the under-protected neighbours. A golden opportunity to restore the natural balance of the river in Shrewsbury has been lost. The town's football stadium has occupied this prime plot of land for almost a century, but now the club has moved and the site is being turned into a 50 million pound housing development.

What did you have to do?

ROTHERHAM: We looked at the problems on the river and the flooding.

SILVERTON: The arguments against building on floodplains are not new. We've had governments from the 1920s saying it was folly to build on floodplains. The Environment Agency still believes it's folly. There are other developers who say the same. What's your response to those who feel that we should be setting aside this land as a critical natural asset in times of flooding?

ERIC WOOD Director, Mosaic Group Ltd: The answer simply is there are some sites too valuable not to build on, and too involved into the community to turn around and suggest they can just be left fallow.

SILVERTON: The Environment Agency objected to the plans because of the site's history of flooding. But the local authority went ahead anyway. There was a compromise. The developer agreed not to build on the land closest to the river and put half a million pounds towards the local flood defence scheme. That will protect the new homes and houses nearby. The developer says without his cash that important scheme would never have gone ahead.

WOOD: We had to make the payment here, because if we didn't make the payment it would not have happened. There was no government money available to make this happen. It was all down to us to turn round and sit down with them and say look, let's work together. I think the trouble is, the government talk very well, they don't always deliver. I'm not just talking about this government, I think successive government's as well.

SILVERTON: That's left the Environment Agency playing without a full deck of cards.

ADAMS: What we're trying to do now is to minimise the impact, even though our advice has been ignored about developing the site in the first place.

SILVERTON: Does that not frustrate you, that you're now having to work with instead of really it not happening at all?

ADAMS: It's all part of the process to protect people and property.

SILVERTON: That's a very government agency line might I say? (laughs)

ADAMS: (laughing) It is, but there's more than one way, if you're a poker player, there's often.. you keep on playing hands until you get the win that you want.

SILVERTON: But how many hands are they winning? This scheme might represent a sensible compromise, but elsewhere the Environment Agency has lost the argument on ten major developments where it believed life and property could be at risk. Despite the Environment Agency being the government's experts, it seems the Planning Authorities and Whitehall think they know best.

ROTHERHAM: I've stood in the middle of South Yorkshire and I've seen it. I've stood in the middle of Worcestershire I've seen it. I'm sure ten years ago if they would have said it was all safe and secure, after the last floods we've heard they gave assurances. Their assurances are worthless. Climate change is changing the basic rules of engagement.

SILVERTON: That change may already be evident. Down river at Worcester the flood water peaked 15ft above normal summer levels. That was a disaster for farmers who lost valuable crops at the height of the growing season. This is Worcestershire, the vale of Evesham. The land here is rich and fertile. Agriculture is crucial to the area. But is the way we're farming intensively and on the flood plains also contributing to the problems brought by the floods? Experts and farmers have different views on that. During times of flood some farmers allow their land to be inundated. This absorbs water that would otherwise surge downstream. They feel they feel they should be compensated for that.

STEVE WATKINS Sheepcote Farm: We have spring onions that were destined for the supermarkets but they are total scrap. That's 100% loss.

SILVERTON: How much, what's the price on that?

WATKINS: The total loss to this particular farm is about a quarter of a million pounds.

SILVERTON: Farmers can't insure on harvested crops, the cost to the industry in the Severn Valley alone will run into tens of millions of pounds. Compensation or not, we'll pay the price through higher grocery bills. While farmers are victims of floods, the way the land is farmed is having an effect on the flow of the river.

Dr IAN ROTHERHAM Sheffield Hallam University: Well basically for the last 50 years there's been a huge intensification in the way that we farm the land. So we've seen marshes and wetlands turn to pasture, pasture turn to arable, and at each stage you need more and more drainage. To convert to arable you have to drop the water below the level of the roots so the plants can grow, otherwise they die. So you need drains, you need to have the water off particularly in the summer, and the consequence of that drainage is that water runs off the land incredibly quickly, that means it goes back into the river system and moves downstream incredibly fast.

SILVERTON: So channelled by urban development and joined by the run off from farming land, water rushes downstream to a place with an unenviable title - the most flooded town in England. Population: 2,600. You'd think that if there was anywhere that should have adequate flood protection it's Upton. Instead it has to rely on temporary barriers. This time they didn't arrive. Given the force of the flood traders accept they probably would have flooded anyway, but it's becoming impossible to do business here.

GRAHAME BUNN The King's Head, Upton upon Severn: We took the pub over in 2000 and as I'm sure everyone remembers we had the horrendous floods in 2000. We made a big claim then and the insurance company the next year would only give us insurance with a 25,000 excess on flooding. And then the following year we couldn't even get flood insurance and it's only this last year, coming up, where we've actually got flood insurance again, so we were just so lucky.

SILVERTON: What did they say to you then, last time around, when you couldn't get, were the reasons they gave?

BUNN: Well what they actually said was, we don't insure against the inevitable.

SILVERTON: Yet Upton doesn't qualify for the defences. We saw up at Shrewsbury. The Environment Agency has a point system and Little Upton just doesn't have enough. So everyone gets wet.

GIRL: [On caravan site] We've just literally got down here and it was this deep and it's come up about half a metre since we've been down here, about an hour... half an hour. Just come up and you can't even walk through it now.

BUNN: If we have another year like this, this is now the sixth flooding incident we've had in eight months, then I can't see how businesses... not just on the riverside here but how businesses in Upton generally will be able to survive because we sort of rely on our tourist trade here. This is July, everyone keeps forgetting, this is July and look at us, we're not in flood. It's awful.

SILVERTON: Unless the point system is changed, could Upton, or at least part of it, be our first community to be surrendered to the elements?

BUNN: If this becomes the norm then I could see Upton turning into a ghost town, it wont be able to survive. We can't keep being cut off like this.

SILVERTON: But they will. Despite this flood, Upton wont get permanent defences. And what about bigger towns like Tewkesbury just seven miles downstream? It's at the confluence of the Severn and Avon which also flooded. Despite being so vulnerable its only defence against flooding are its water meadows, and that means Tewkesbury marks the limit of what's possible with flood defence.

WOMAN: [wading through flood water] We've lived up here for over 40 years and we've never ever had anything like this.

SILVERTON: The best way to assess just how vulnerable this community is, is from the tower of its famous abbey, built on high ground in the centre of the town. Fir Ian Cluckie, an expert in hydrology, this summer's floods have been a rude reminder of Tewkesbury's ancient past.

IAN CLUCKIE: I spoke to a resident of Tewkesbury a few nights ago who described her house flooded, no water supply, no electricity and it was like living in the dark ages.

SILVERTON: Can you realistically pay for effective flood defences for places like Tewkesbury?

IAN CLUCKIE Professor of Hydrology, Bristol University: No, I think looking round this town it's surrounded by rivers. It's a medieval town. The only way is to build the equivalent of a medieval wall around the entire town which would look horrible, cost hundreds of millions of pounds.

SILVERTON: Hundreds of millions?!

CLUCKIE: Hundreds of millions of pounds and is not going to happen.

SILVERTON: If historic houses can't be defended then essential 21st century utilities have to be. Just outside Tewkesbury, built right on the Severn, is the Mythe Water Treatment Plant. Essential services like these are meant to withstand a once in a century flood. But in the early hours, two days into the flood, the works were overwhelmed. When I was last in Tewkesbury, at the height of the floods, the water reached the top of that gauge which just seems extraordinary now when you look at the water levels. But what's more extraordinary is that this vital water treatment plant wasn't better protected, and it's not the only example. There are nearly 3000 water and power plants built on land at severe risk of flooding. Surely now something needs to change to better protect them. Given how strategic it is as a utility, it's a water treatment plant, and how many people it serves in this region, would you say that was sufficiently defended?

CLUCKIE: I think the evidence is that it wasn't because so much temporary work has had to be done in order to protect the public water supply. So I think it points out the problem of having key bits of infrastructure on the flood plain which are not necessarily defended at the same levels as the rest of us are.

SILVERTON: With so many essential plants at risk, the utility companies are now being forced into some unwelcome calculations. The cost of better defences and infrastructure will be severe, and as customers we've already been warned it'll be us who'll have to fork out. Then there's the question of the nation's other flood defences against rivers and the sea maintained by the Environment Agency.

CLUCKIE: There is going to be an enormous bill, at the end of the day you and I are going to pay it, hopefully not just you and I. But the reality is we're looking at about a billion pounds per year needed to continuously invest in infrastructure.

SILVERTON: A billion each year?!

CLUCKIE: A billion each year, and with climate change bearing down on us, or probably we're in it, we have to put more investment in order to stand still.

SILVERTON: A glimpse of the future without that kind of investment came 12 miles downstream from Tewkesbury. During the peak of the flood more than 3 billion litres of water were pouring through Gloucester every hour. Just outside the city another crisis for another of our essential utilities was unfolding. Half a million people almost lost power when the water reached Gloucester's major electricity sub station, images that must have brought a chill to those responsible for keeping the country running in times of emergency. But how did it come to that?

GORDON BROWN: It's very difficult to predict in what particular area the rainfall is going to have the biggest impact, and when an electricity station or a water station is under threat people have got to act very quickly.

SILVERTON: In the sixth richest country in the world, families were reduced to queuing for water. How many of us knew just how fragile our infrastructure is. The military called in....

OFFICER: [Distributing water] You're allowed two per household.

SILVERTON: And police on the streets keeping order. Officials worked relentlessly, helped by being able to use the portable flood barriers which hadn't reached Upton. The waters were held at bay - just.

EMERGENCY SERVICES: I would say within 6 inches of 500,000 houses being out of electricity.

SILVERTON: A shock to the system in every sense of the word. Perhaps though, a welcome one, are there too many bodies responsible for too many elements of our utilities infrastructure and flood defence. There'll be a government inquiry of course, and those who work in flooding fulltime, and not just when it's newsworthy, hope a new single authority will emerge.

CLUCKIE: That's what's lacking at the moment. It's a direct result of the privatisation of all the basic utilities and the gaps between local authorities, the gaps that exist between them and water companies, OFWAT driving their spending policy, the Environment Agency doing strategic floods. All of these little bits, they're not joining up properly, so that has to get sorted, and only the politicians can do that, so the inquiry really ought to focus on that, what went wrong with the system at the moment, or what can we learn from it in order to survive climate change which is coming.. bearing down on us at a rate of knots.

SILVERTON: Otherwise...?

CLUCKIE: Otherwise we're living with floods and we learn to swim better.

SILVERTON: Swimming lessons would have come in handy at Long Levens on the edge of Gloucester. The residents on this new estate bought their homes thinking they were moving in to a beautiful location by a gentle brook. They say they had no idea they were actually living on a flood plain.

LEIA ROSENBERG: I moved here about... just over 4 years ago. There was no mention of us being on a flood plain at all. It was basically nice family house on a nice estate in Longlevens, no knowledge of it flooding and the same with all the other residents. We've appointed independent solicitors to sort our mortgages out and not one person was led to believe that we're on a floodplain of any risk at all.

CARIE LYNDENE: This house was a show house. It was the last house on the estate to be bought and it certainly didn't have anything in the sales prospectus that it was on a floodplain.

SILVERTON: Conveyancing solicitors may provide information about flood risks, but they're not obliged to, so it's a case of buyer beware. Some of the residents don't expect to be back in their homes until next year. Better information for home buyers and a more transparent insurance system has to be a priority for any new flood authority.

ROSENBERG: This here where I'm stood is my kitchen door, or was my kitchen door. Along here were the cabinets and my cooker, and I have wall units up here, a fridge freezer. Obviously all the washing machine and appliances were here, a kitchen table, big cupboard under the stairs, and it's all just been ripped out. It's just gone in the skip.

SILVERTON: After being flooded twice in a month, the estate is now a high risk area for insurers. The repairs to Leia's house will cost around 20,000. Her insurers have said they'll cover her this time, but they've warned her premiums will go up.

LEIA ROSENBERG: I could be looking at 50, 60, 100 pounds a month and I just don't have that sort of money to spend out each month. People have quoted excess figures of thousands, and if that's the case, is it even going to be worth me getting insurance if my excess is going to be thousands of pounds because I wont have that either.

SILVERTON: The people I've met along my journey have said they're fed up with politicians who turn up in the aftermath making promises and then moving on. Given the government's intention to build hundreds of thousands of new homes on floodplains in the next 12 years, where is the reassurance that those homes will be properly protected and covered by insurance in the long-term?

If, in the future, the insurers say we are not going to continue to underwrite these sorts of properties, will the government underwrite the insurance for those people who are otherwise living in worthless properties?

HILARY BENN MP Secretary of State for Environment: Well that's a very difficult question for government. We're going to have to look at how we're going to work our way through this problem.

SILVERTON: America does it, they have a government backed insurance...

BENN: Well they do, and we'll have to think about what to do in those circumstances, but up until now what we have been able to do with the insurance industry is to have an agreement that we will invest more in flood defence. That's what we've done and that is what we're doing, and in return the insurance industry has said that they will make flood insurance available to the vast majority of properties in the country.

SILVERTON: But not all of them Mr Benn. We rang ten companies about getting building and contents insurance in the worst affected Longlevens postcode. More than half of the firms said 'No'. The industry is already signalling the government should spend more in keeping up its end of the bargain.

STEPHEN HADDRILL Director General Association of British Insurers: I think unless we see the kind of investment that we need in flood defence, and I'm talking about the very long-term, the next sort of 20- 30 years, not next year or the year after that, then we will see a risk that Britain becomes like other countries where it's the taxpayer who has to bail people out rather than the private sector, rather than the insurance industry, and I would certainly regret that. I think the government needs to reflect on these recent events and increase the level of expenditure that it's proposing.

SILVERTON: But the government says it is spending more as a result of the recent floods. It's just announced an extra 200 million to add to the current 600 million the Environment Agency has to spend, not the billion a year though that some say we need.

BENN: We'll get.. the additional 200 million will be there by 2010/11. We're in the process of deciding exactly how we're going to phase it over the period of the next few years. But it's a sign of the government's clear commitment to invest more in flood defence.

SILVERTON: That's not enough for the Associated British Insurers though, they say they need the money now.

BENN: Well the Association of British Insurers have said that we need to increase to 750 million pounds, we're going to increase to 800 million pounds, so I think that does show the government's commitment to invest more.

SILVERTON: But three years is a long time to wait for the Environment Agency. It already has a backlog of no less than 28 key flood defence schemes that will cost 122 million pounds alone. And as our experts keep reminding us, the risk models we use need to be updated to take into consideration the rate of climate change. That's something the insurance industry is already responding to. Less than two weeks after the flooding and already the flood map of Britain is being redrawn.

JAMES HAVARD Air Worldwide Ltd: The model is going to be used by the insurance industry and when they have a particular risk they'll run it through the model and decide whether the model is worth insuring or not. And on that basis we'll either issue the insurance policy or not.

SILVERTON: It's so accurate there'll be winners and losers literally on the same street. If wild weather becomes more frequent,, future generations could be looking at a very different landscape.

CHRIS FOLLAND Head of Climate Research The Met Office: There are two threats from flooding. One is from rivers and the other is from sea level rise, and that could actually be a bigger problem than the river flooding, and I believe it's the policy at the moment of the government that certain areas should be abandoned to the see because it's not possible to build defences everywhere, at least against the rising sea levels. It's a dilemma that will run and run.

SILVERTON: Journey's end, the Bristol Channel where the river meets the sea. Abandoning land to rising sea levels is something we've become resigned to. During my 220 mile trip following a river sent crazy by the rains, I've seen crops, businesses and homes ruined. Are we now going to have to accept that we can't afford to protect the land and everything we've built on it from the effects of the weather either.

Every expert we've spoken to on this journey agrees, the risk models we use to assess and defend ourselves against these extreme weather events are out of date. We're under threat from the skies and the sea and with climate change these dramatic events are likely to become more frequent and severe. The cost will be monumental and you can bet we'll all be paying the bill for decades to come.

JEREMY VINE: Kate Silverton reporting there. Now you may well be wondering those home information packs the government brought in came out this month. They must include, surely, information about flood risk? They don't.

Next week: "On a Knife Edge" how inner city teenagers run the gauntlet of gang violence that's claimed 18 young lives this year in London alone.

Keeping Britain Dry
03 Aug 07 |  Panorama
What you've said
07 Aug 07 |  Panorama
How flood projects are funded
06 Aug 07 |  Panorama


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