By Daniel Margrain
James Bevan, the chief executive of the environment agency who said it was the job of the government to hold him to account, spoke out in support of its chairman, Philip Dilley. Bevan rebuffed criticism that the environment agency avoided telling journalists that Dilley was in Barbados at Christmas at the time of some of the worst flooding the UK has ever seen, while at the same time claiming he had been honest, transparent and straightforward. The paradox was not lost on this writer.
Meanwhile, according to analysis by the Committee on Climate Change, homes continue to be built in England’s highest flood risk areas at almost twice the rate of housing being built outside of flood plains. Housing stock in regions where flooding is likely at least once every thirty years has grown at a rate of 1.2 per cent every year since 2011. By contrast, housing outside of flood plains in areas with less than one in a thousand years’ chance of flooding, increased by an average of just 0.7 per cent over the same period.
So we are building houses on flood plains at twice the rate we are building houses in places where its far less likely to flood. Maybe I’m missing something here, but isn’t it illogical to build twice as many houses on flood plains given that flooding devastates lives and communities and, according to analysis by accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, flood damages could run as high as £1.3bn?
It would appear that the government is not taking climate change seriously enough and therefore are not preparing adequately for it. Perhaps Prime Minister David Cameron is taking his cue from the BBC’s Weather’s Sarah Keith-Lucas who appeared to be unaware that the mild and wet conditions throughout December in the UK are related to climate change.
Whatever the case, Cameron cannot use the excuse that he wasn’t warned about the impact cuts to defences would cause in terms of flood damage. In 2011, for example, the National Audit Office (NAO) estimated the annual cost of flood damage in England to be £1.1bn. So one might reasonably ask why the Conservative government then proceeded to cut flood defences by 8 per cent resulting in the loss of 1,500 jobs?
All this comes on the back of government promises to build a million new homes in climate change ravaged Britain by 2020. Yesterday (January 4) the Tories pledged the commissioning of the construction of 13,000 homes on public land owned by the tax payer, describing it as a huge shift in policy, the first of its kind since the Thatcher government. But how many of the 13,000 will be affordable and will the million target be met?
The situation at present is that the combined efforts of the government, councils and the private sector are in no way sufficient enough to meet Britain’s housing needs. The other day, I had a walk along the Thames and the visible presence of cranes and other signs of construction activity on the nearby brownfield sites looked, on the surface, impressive. However, when one looks behind the facade an altogether different, less optimistic, story begins to emerge.
Home ownership in Britain is at its lowest for a generation and the actual supply of homes for sale is not meeting the demand for them. In part, this is explained by the fact that there are an insufficient amount of new homes on the one hand, and that there is a scarcity of second-hand housing on the other. The solution to solving the lack of available housing requires more than the vague and repeatedly unfulfilled promises of this current Tory administration.
What is needed is the kind of boldness and vision that was adopted after WW2 in which the term “homes fit for heroes” was first coined. At that time, a coordinated house building programme of some 300,000 council homes were built for the masses over many years. This figure is similar to the amount that Jeremy Blackburn from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) is calling for today. “We…. need 240,000 units a year....”, Blackburn said. “We are not building enough….There are a number of other things the government can do including enabling local councils and housing associations to build more.”
Despite this, house builders such as Berkeley, Barratt, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey are sitting on huge plots of land enough to create more than 600,000 new homes. RICS predicts that the current supply shortfall will push up house prices by 6 per cent across the UK this year with the highest rises likely to be seen in East Anglia which is forecast to rise by 8 per cent.
Paradoxically, East Anglia is one of the areas in Britain that is at the greatest risk of flooding as a result of climate change but is among the areas where the greatest amount of new homes will be built. I can only assume that the higher predicted percentage increase in property values in East Anglia will be as an indirect consequence of any expected rise in ecotourism in the region.
For those who already cannot afford to buy, there is a rent increase of 3 per cent on the horizon for 2016 too. With the options for renting and buying increasingly becoming out of the reach for many, particularly the young, the battle lines are being drawn between those who are effectively being denied the right to a home on the one hand, and the government who are not living up to their promises to meet demand on the other.
In London and other major cities, access to what little remains of council housing is almost non-existent. This is being exacerbated as a result of the decision of numerous local councils throughout the country to ‘gentrify’ former council estates (of which the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle in London is emblematic) through a process of social cleansing that increasingly involves the relocation of entire communities from the localities that normally have long established roots.
The social cleansing of communities has negative knock-on affects in terms of the undermining of long held social networks and local economies upon which local businesses depend for their livelihoods. Increasingly major cities, particularly London, are becoming hubs for the property investment portfolios of the super rich who, in many instances, buy up entire reconstituted apartment blocks only for them to subsequently be left empty or rented out at exorbitant rates.
The hollowing out of inner city communities in this way is the product of specific social policies adopted by governments’ predicated on an ideological template intended to bolster the interests of a small minority, many of whom have little or no connection to the communities they invest in. These investors are given priority over and above those who are anchored in the said communities, who do have links.
Given the political will, the housing crisis, could and indeed should, of been solved many years ago. But the point is, there is no political will on the part of the government to solve the crisis because the interests associated with international capital run counter to such an eventuality. We are currently in the frankly absurd situation whereby apartments’ – in many cases entire blocks – lie empty or are occupied for part of the year by transient populations’, while simultaneously growing numbers of British people are unable to afford, or otherwise are being denied access to a necessity of life which is what a home of ones own is.
This madness is indicative of the irrational and contradictory nature of capitalism in arguably its most debased form. It’s the fact that capitalism is first and foremost premised on greed rather than satisfying human need means it is one of the most wasteful and inefficient economic systems for allocating resources known to man. The current housing and flood crisis are both symptomatic of this.
In terms of the latter, we only have to see how flood policy is determined by perverse incentives, often as the result of public money (via farm subsidies) that not only make flood disasters inevitable but are specifically intended to:
“prioritize the protection of farmland above the safety of towns and cities downstream. By straightening, embanking and dredging rivers where they cut through fields, drainage boards accelerate the flow of water, making flooding downstream more likely. protect the rich landowners and their country estates rather than the towns and villages.”
For Tories like Cameron, the moral concept of community and the satisfying of fundamental human needs, of which the former is dependent, implies the rejigging of ‘market forces’ away from the priorities associated with capital towards human beings. But such a ‘bucking of the market’ requires government intervention and the Tories only intervene when the need for the redistribution of wealth presents itself in an upwards direction.
Yesterday on twitter, I was reminded of the consequence that decades of neoliberalism has had in this regard. According to the latest figures on inequality, the share of wealth of the richest 1 per cent now exceeds that of remaining 99 per cent.
Cameron’s announcement yesterday offers no new extra investment in affordable homes, just as there was no new extra investment for flood defences. People on modest incomes will have little hope of being able to afford to buy or rent in the future.
The proposed construction of one million homes by 2020 is a pledge that Cameron’s government which predicates its policies on short term goals for short term electoral gain, has no intention of ever meeting. Perhaps the best, and perhaps only solution, will be to utilize the impacts of climate change by living on a barge in the swamp flood plains of the new British terrain.