Ritchie on flood defences

That is because flood defences – bar the odd sand bag – are almost invariably communal. No one can build a sea wall of any meaning for one house. Flood plains work communally, or not at all. And things like the Thames Barrier are beyond the capacity of the private sector because they have no mechanism available to fund them without the problem of free-riding coming into play. The rate of return on them is high, but only if you can find a method to capture it. That method is called tax.

This is indeed true. Which is why it’s so odd that Ritchie thinks pensions should be invested in bonds hypothecated to flood defences. It’s a public good, non rivalrous and non-excludable. Thus it is, absent tax, extraordinarily difficult to appropriate any revenue stream to pay off the bonds. This is simply lending to the government and it’s very difficult indeed to see why pensions should be invested in that. Especially since at the current (or any likely future) interest rate on government bonds you would be losing money on your pension investments.

So flood defences are an ideological issue. The individual is not capable of defending themselves against flood water in most cases. Communities can and states are well placed to reallocate resources to ensure the vulnerable are protected. This is, therefore, a role for the state, like it or not.

That is exactly why this government has been and is cutting spending in real terms, and plans to continue doing so.

Ah, no, not really. There has indeed been an ideological change but it’s not one about money. It’s more of an environmental thing. Over the past decade or so there’s been a realisation that it’s possible to go overboard on flood defences. A rigid insistence that the cost must never change, that cliffs must always be protected: that’s the old dogma. The new one is that we should allow the environment to change naturally: except where doing so would be prohibitively expensive, like allowing London to flood. But the odd patch of Norfolk? It’s been either silting up or washing away for millennia. So, allow it to keep happening.

We have had an ideological change: but it’s from the greenies in the Environment Department, not in the Treasury.

41 comments on “Ritchie on flood defences

  1. I’d also note that the “coast must never change” line is still being religiously followed when it comes to marginal Pacific islands.

  2. SE, thanks, now it makes sense :)

    Just to be awkward though, isn’t this ultimately just the public sector paying people to live in unsuitable places? There’s lots of high ground in the UK. If you don’t want to replace your sodden carpets every few years, build a house on that high ground and live there. Is it rational to keep the water out of where it wants to go?

  3. Or, build hoses on stilts. Whenever one sees these flooded places- including my mum’s house in Easter 1998- the water never seems to be more than a few feet high. Seems you’d beat about 90% of the problem if you raised everything about 10 feet, and made sure everyone keeps a boat for those times when you have to float, rather than walk, to Mr Patel’s for a pint of milk.

    Also, monowheel motorbikes with a flotation device based “aquatic mode”.

  4. Murphy’s certainly one with a limited pattern of responses. Richie’s first reaction to the onset of rain would be “something should be done!” to stop the rain. Followed by “I should be given an umbrella & my clothes replaced at public expense”. The idea, it’s his responsibility not to stand in it, doesn’t figure.

    Closer to your “changing attitudes to change” point.
    If it’s liable to flooding, don’t build there.

  5. Is it rational to keep the water out of where it wants to go?

    Only by providing water places it wants to go more.

    But the issue is actually deeper than that. Generally, people have wanted to live near water sources – for a variety of reasons. It is just that our definition of “unsuitable” has changed recently (particularly in geological time). Fitted carpets, for example.

    And, of course, moving continuously on the margins of what is considered “a good place to live”.

    I saw or heard some research being announced that Bronze Age Albionians preferred to live on river islands? The fact that we find the odd hill fort about the place says more about the survivability of those than about their commonality.

  6. Or, build hoses (sic) on stilts.

    Ah, yes. But how would you make those differently-abled appropriate (aka disabled friendly)?

    You couldn’t even use one of those electric lifts marring the front of so many Victorian buildings because electric and water mix so well.

  7. When I moved house I picked an area not subject to flooding. It was not that hard.
    Subject to dropping into mineshafts and subject to roads dropping into holes but not subject to flooding.
    How hard is it to provide water with a place to go first, a place to flood first?

  8. How hard is it to provide water with a place to go first, a place to flood first?

    Well, it requires land (in the right places) and planning permission. Given that getting hold of those two is non-trivial (especially as NIMBY would have significant meaning for a flood area), and that it would require common sense etc, wholly beyond the pale for UK urban planners.

    I would note that although my house hasn’t flooded, the old cattle byre out back has (within folk memory). This is despite us being halfway up a hill. All it takes is enough running water deciding that the right way to run is through, rather than past, you.

    Notes the probably inappropriate animistic reasoning going on in this thread. Of which I am as guilty as others.

  9. There is of course no personal interest of Ritchie here on flood defence expenditure, given that Downham Market seems to be about only 10m above sea level and has a bleeding great river running through it.

  10. @Ian
    “Or, build hoses on stilts. ”
    I’m taking you did mean houses there :)
    But quite. But then you have to accept the consequences. Lot of stabilisation of the ground so your stilts aren’t washed out. A solution for things like sewers. You don’t want to be clearing toilet paper off the lawn every time there’s heavy rain. Solutions for emergency vehicle access. Not the mandatory aspect but practical. If you’re expecting an ambulance to be available when you have heart attack it’s your Responsibility to enable that.
    Trouble is, of course, by the time you’ve done all that, it’s an expensive house. Maybe you balance that by buying the land cheap.
    Trouble is, the current rational is to buy the land cheap, then socialise the costs through flood defense work or insurance claims.

  11. Surreptitious Evil

    It’s not the change in the coastline that matters; it’s the RATE of change!!! You know, the second differential.

  12. Incidentally.
    I will be watching the future of your landmark Olympic facilities with great interest. There’s a reason, in an area where land has been at a premium for 3 centuries, not so long ago the area was used for grazing horses. They may indeed have got their flood solutions correct. But when you’ve seen that whole area 4 foot deep in fast flowing waters half a mile wide… Better be good.

  13. “build houses on stilts”

    Friends of mine who live in a (posh part) of New Delhi get flooded every year during monsoon season. Therefore all the houses are built with cement floors, electric sockets halfway up the wall on the ground floor and nobody has carpets or other not-water resistant items on the ground floor. Mildly annoying to not be able to use your ground floor for a couple of weeks but life goes on pretty much as before.

  14. The local authority gave planning permission to build a housing estate on the outskirts of the small old market town a few miles from my parents’ village.

    Didn’t occur to these geniuses that there was a reason the town had stayed small ie had not encroached onto the old riverside meadows now covered in hideous Barrattite boxes.

    So we pay wages (and pensions, and sickies) to the fools who give planning permission, then we pay again to mop up their mess when the rains come.

    Meanwhile, not one of them loses his or her job.

    The Courageous State means never having to pay for your own mistakes.

  15. @Shinsei1967
    But you’ve not described how they cope with services. Whist they’re retreating to their dry second storey & waiting for the waters to subside, is the other (non-posh) part of Delhi wading around in their shit?
    Sounds like more cashing in on advantage, socialising costs.

  16. The question which never seems to be asked (let alone answered) is why the Environment Agency cannot do all this stuff with 9500 people instead of 11,000, while Germany and France manage it with agencies a tenth of the size.

    Ritchie is batting for public sector nest-feathering and over-staffing. The ‘ideological’ argument about flood defences is a bollocks straw man.

  17. Rob – we’re an island, maybe it is worse for us?

    Just guessing, not defending!

    (Quite sure that they are overmanned, and that 20% of that staffing is press officers dedicated to creating global warming scares.)

  18. @ interested
    UK may be an island, but have you seen the size of continental rivers? Thames, largest river in UK (?) is a piddling thing 80 odd miles from rise to source. Rhine’s catchment starts a thousand miles back in Switzerland. Stand on the bridge in Bordeaux & the water flowing under you comes from an area not much smaller than England. The whole of Entre Deux Mers (The premiere vinyards of Margueax etc), the coastline through Landes towards Spain, are the sandbars of that Gironne & it’s tributaries.

  19. Both the Thames and Rhine used to be just tributaries of the big fuck off river that climate change turned into the English Channel.

  20. bloke in spain
    January 7, 2014 at 10:59 am

    @Ian
    “Or, build hoses on stilts. ”
    I’m taking you did mean houses there :)
    But quite. But then you have to accept the consequences. Lot of stabilisation of the ground so your stilts aren’t washed out. A solution for things like sewers. You don’t want to be clearing toilet paper off the lawn every time there’s heavy rain. Solutions for emergency vehicle access. Not the mandatory aspect but practical. If you’re expecting an ambulance to be available when you have heart attack it’s your Responsibility to enable that.

    They seemed to have managed at Cock Marsh in Bourne End. But is only a few houses so perhaps it wouldn’t scale.

  21. Or maybe they haven’t managed, Simon
    You see on TV. Bit of flooding & the brave emergency workers in their dayglo, yadda yadda yadda. if you’re managing, you shouldn’t be needing emergency workers. it shouldn’t be an emergency. it’s supposed to be planned for.

    FFS Ian. Historic climate change is a myth. There never was a Doggerland, The world has remained unchanged since the first primeval estate agent crawled ashore. Get with the program or there will be words.

  22. @ the OP
    “Thus it is, absent tax, extraordinarily difficult to appropriate any revenue stream to pay off the bonds.”

    Let’s try something. Probably wont be popular & shot down in flames. But:
    From now on, the risk of flood damage isn’t the homeowners risk. make the developers, planning authorities, surveyors, architects severally & jointly responsible. Responsibility to be discharged by posting a bond, to avoid build & skip. Applies to all development, anyone, anywhere. Bond transferable with property, as an asset. High risk areas, bonds are expensive, low risk, trivial. Now it’s the holders of the bond money’s got the problem. Balance of spending on flood defense or paying claims.
    Retrospectively? Current householders. You bought it, your problem. They can buy the bond rather than insurance. With a loan if required. if the bond’s expensive, Go sue your developer, planning dept, seller’s estate agent, surveyor for wrongful description.
    Maybe the bond money holders turn into big civil engineering concerns. Maybe pension funds want to lend against bond security to finance sea walls. The more sea wall built the more secure the bond fund. If as a result, there’s v. low risk, what remains is just a pile of money earning income for the holder.

  23. There’s an estate in Blackpool, part of the fees payable by the developer to build was for a pumping station to be built by the council, and ongoing annual fees towards running cost of pumping station. The area gets minor flooding from heavy rain – turns out years later the council never built the pumping station. Its certainly needed!

  24. @BIS

    Yep that’s true, but it seems to be tidal sea surges causing a lot of the problems at the moment, and re rivers it’s not the size of the river that’s the issue but the size of the flood plain and what (if anything) they build on it.

    Not that I don’t think they are overstaffed / tossers / overstaffed tossers.

  25. @ interested
    True. I use to live on a flood plain. The Rhine. See Ian’s comment. in called Flanders. The whole plain is everything from Piccardy to northern Holland.

    It’s the weird thing. Continentals don’t seem to be able to hack commerce too well but can do civil. Our local river’s the Lys.. Sort of a bit of the Rhine system’s got itself cut off. Small by our standards but major by British. Flows through an area with a slope of about a meter from one horizon to the other. I drive around & there’s a pretty bit of stream near Merville. One of its tributaries. Not a building in site. Winter it floods & I use the other road.. They don’t build there. Flooding isn’t a big feature in Flanders newspapers. Rarely hear of it. But we do have lots of dykes, levees, drains etc keeping where they do build above water.

  26. Seems that as usual we are in privatised gains/socialised losses territory.

    it should be simple enough to ensure that for all planning permission given one of the requirements is that flood insurance be provided by the builder so that the true cost of living in a given spot would be reflected in the price of the property.

    if an area was uninsurable (ie, likely to flood) there would be two options – either not build there or provide credible flood defences as part of the development.

    maintenance of said defences would be on a sort of condominium principle.

  27. @Martin Davies – That’s mad – how are the council members not in prison/sued to pieces. Do you have a link for this?

  28. “We have had an ideological change”: but if memory serves, wasn’t there a wee Wedgwood -Benn estate miraculously spared this new doctrine?

  29. @Cuffleyburgers
    It’s roughly what I’m trying to do above. But how do you insure now for an event might be 40 years in the future? If you have some sort of running insurance scheme, who pays the premiums?* Who assesses risk? It’d be impractical for a developer to commission an environmental study for the whole of the E. Coast to build one house in Suffolk. What about risk change? If the assessment’s coming from the planners, they’ve got to be made to stand it up. Or you get the situation Martin’s mentioned above. The planning granted on condition the pump was paid for. Then no pump.

    Other thing with long term insurance, to air a pet peeve of mine, what are you paying for? Forty years of what should be reasonably priced premiums for lowish risk, your not really paying much insurance. You’re mostly paying our friends in the financial industry to shuffle paperwork. It shouldn’t be a job creation scheme for insurance executives.

  30. Interested
    January 7, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Yep that’s true, but it seems to be tidal sea surges causing a lot of the problems at the moment,

    The problem was exacerbated because we were on a particular high Springs. I checked a few places and without the storm surge HW was very close to the Highest Astronomical Tide. So anyone using that for planning will have been disappointed because the surge will probably have sent HW well above their defenses. Not that I thing HAT is used for planning just using it as for comaprison.

    If it had been Neaps I suspect a lot of those coastal floods wouldn’t have happened or at least wouldn’t have been as newsworthy.

    and re rivers it’s not the size of the river that’s the issue but the size of the flood plain and what (if anything) they build on it.

    As discussed some time ago on this blog, there’s also the problem of upstream work. Many, some, a few, places that now flood regularly didn’t when the houses were built.

  31. That’s mad – how are the council members not in prison/sued to pieces. Do you have a link for this?

    Because it is actually quite difficult to sue the members of an elected assembly for decisions taken within the vires of that assembly. You can sue them for crime, you can sue them for exceeding their remit, but reversing a decision to build something they are not legally required to isn’t outwit their powers. Also, the planning application conditions don’t have contractual validity. They can be varied …

  32. @MartinDavies

    If funds not committed within 5 years and it is a Section 106 Planning Gain agreement, the developer can get it back.

  33. Sorry no link, just know one person who lives on the estate who got in contact with the developer and the council about the flooding.

  34. Retrospectively? Current householders. You bought it, your problem.

    There’s a problem with this. A lot of the flooding in the UK is due to rivers bursting their banks which never did so historically. Why? Because more land which used to absorb water is being paved over, with the water run-off being sent straight into the nearest water course, which then overflows. I don’t mind charging a homeowner for flood defenses if he bought in a place which has traditionally flooded, but not somebody who bought on dry land which is now prone to flooding because of mis-guided developments elsewhere.

  35. @Tim
    It was actually aspects like that I had in mind. If existing property holders bought flood indemnity bonds the bond issuers would have the incentive & the clout to oppose developments caused the problem or require mitigation measures. It could happens with insurance companies carrying flood cover now. Except there’s nothing in it for them. if the risk increases they just increase the premiums.
    The essential problem with flooding is the cause & cure end is all big money with power & the suffering end, individual homeowners with little..

  36. What do you expect from Murphy? The ‘Coalition’ are doing something (anything) therefore in Murphy’s world this means what the ‘Tories’ are doing is wrong and must be condemned.

    I just want to be there when Osborne warns Murphy not to cross the road because there’s a van coming. “No there isn’t” the pompous little prick will say and march out into the road.

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