Zurich's David Nichols on building flood resilient communities

As flood events become more common, the industry and government need to do more to explain flood terminology and the flood resilience grant scheme needs a complete overhaul, according to David Nichols, chief claims officer at Zurich.

Rapid urbanisation, increased construction in flood-prone areas, as well as more extreme weather events and sea-level rises are just some of the drivers behind the acceleration of flood-related events. Establishing Flood Re was an important step to make insurance cover more accessible for householders but, as the impact of floods becomes more significant, this raises a number of long-term challenges.

Limitations of physical flood defences

Increases in extreme weather events across the UK, likely as a result of climate change, are increasing the number of properties and businesses at risk of flooding. However, flood defences have design limits and can be overtopped – even if they don’t fail structurally – meaning they aren’t failsafe and losses can occur. HM Treasury also allocates flood defence funding that favours urban areas. In Doncaster flood defences were built to protect the highly urbanised city centre but further downstream there were no flood defences. Consequently, all the water flowing rapidly along the river’s course from the protected urban areas resulted in the flooding of homes, farms and rural businesses elsewhere.

The ‘one-in-100-year’ flood return period terminology traditionally used by the insurance industry, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency might actually make matters worse. It is hard for the general public to tangibly interpret from this information their chances of being flooded and they may underestimate the need to take steps to reduce their risk. More needs to be done to bring this more to life in terms people can understand such as communicating flood risk as a certain percentage of occurring over a period of time.

For example, a one-in-100-year flood risk over a 30-year period – the average lifetime of a private home mortgage – equates to a 26% chance of being flooded at least once during those 30 years. There is also a need for a much greater recognition that even the best defences can be over-topped. Residual flood risk for new flood schemes must, therefore, be made much clearer to local communities.

Building on flood plains

According to official figures, 1.8 million people live in areas that are at significant risk of flooding. New developments on flood plains will inevitably add to the long-term flood risk as well as the cost of flood prevention. Local authorities, planning committees as well as house builders must avoid inappropriate developments in areas at risk of flooding, while increased transparency around planning decisions against the advice of the EA must be more easily available to ensure those buying or renting property can make informed decisions.

Flood infrastructure investments need to be part of a wider portfolio of solutions that provides communities with an ongoing flood risk reduction strategy. At the moment, there is still a tendency to build back rather than ‘build back better’ or build forward/sustainably. There need to be better incentives to install flood resistant and resilient measures, and help better protect properties from future flooding. Insurers have a role to play in supporting customers when flooding happens and talk about the value of making homes and businesses more resilient to future floods.

Fitting flood-resistant measures, such as flood guards, can help prevent or reduce the amount of water that can get into a property, while flood resilience – using materials such as water resistant plaster – can limit flood damage if water does get into a property.

In the wake of large scale flood events such as Storm Desmond and Eva in 2015 and the flooding in South Yorkshire in November, the government can provide impacted residents with grants of up to £5000 to install flood resistant and resilience measures. However, take-up is often low, largely due to the lengthy and complicated application process and also because the work often has to be self-funded and then reimbursed by the local authority. The flood resilience grant scheme is not fit for purpose and requires an urgent overhaul.

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