Boris Johnson can't tackle the climate crisis without tackling the housing crisis, too

James Moore
A man surveys the flooding in Berwick Road, Shrewsbury, near the River Severn, as warnings of further flooding are issued across the UK: PA

Every time half of Britain finds itself underwater, the Environment Agency cries: “Stop building on flood plains.”

Sir James Bevan, the agency’s CEO, said something like that in a speech yesterday. He also called for better flood protection and suggested that it would be a good idea to look at ways of making communities more resilient to these events, which have become a regular occurrence.

Insurance companies typically steam in at the same time. Right on cue, Jon Dye, chairman of the Association of British Insurers, piped up. As well as warning about building on flood plains, he called on the government to increase spending on flood defences to £1.2bn a year, while wagging his finger at successive administrations for failing to keep pace with the required investment. He didn’t use the word “austerity”. But I will.

You can understand why the leaders of these bodies got up on their soapboxes every time we have one of these events: the best time to get people, particularly people in power, to engage with issues of floods and housing is when our TV screens are awash with waterlogged streets.

The trouble is, as soon as the floods have receded, people switch off.

Britain faces a housing crisis, which both men recognised in their respective speeches, and which is particularly acute when it comes to affordable homes.

Successive governments have made gaudy promises to build more only to miss their targets by wide margins. Trouble is, throwing ‘em up wherever there’s space, such as on flood plains, creates a problem, because as well as a housing crisis, we face a climate crisis – and right now, the two are crashing into each other.

Climate scientists predict more extreme weather events as the planet heats up. This will not be the last time people talk about record rainfall or use the word “relentless” to describe the downpours that have caused rivers to burst their banks across the country.

If you insist on building on flood plains – and the ABI is concerned about developers doing just that, despite the difficulty of insuring properties built on them after 2009 (older houses are covered by the industry-funded flood reinsurance scheme Floor Re) – you’re basically asking for trouble.

What do you do? Sir James actually had some sensible suggestions. For example, he floated (sorry) the idea of building houses with garages on the bottom floor, so people’s living area would be above flood level. Predictably, this was enough to cause at least one knuckle-headed Tory MP to blow a gasket, per the Bridgewater Mercury. This despite the fact that variations on the theme have been used since, well, the Stone Age.

Managing the intersection between the climate and housing crises requires people to exert their brains. Trouble is, the current government is a bear of very little brain.

One thing that might help would be for Boris Johnson to keep a housing minister in post for longer than a few months. The door to that office has been revolving faster than a spinning top in recent years. Said minister should be mandated to work with colleagues in the environment department, as well as Sir James, Mr Dye and people like them – people who know what they’re talking about, in other words – to come up with a solution.

But that’s just a fantasy, isn’t it. We’ll be here again – if not next year, then in a couple of years’ time.

What will it take to prevent a repeat of history? A tsunami, maybe? The Thames Barrier failing? Perhaps floodwaters pouring through Westminster would concentrate minds – though I wouldn’t get your hopes up.