Sunday 22 September 2019

Foresight over flood prevention could reduce toll of €1bn drain on resources

New defences are not the only answer in the fight against flooding, writes Colm McCarthy

Extra capital spending will never eliminate flood damage and the schemes announced last week will take many years to implement. Photo: PA
Extra capital spending will never eliminate flood damage and the schemes announced last week will take many years to implement. Photo: PA
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

Thursday's announcement that the Government plans to spend €1bn on flood defence over the next decade follows a comprehensive assessment by the Office of Public Works of flood risks and the possible ameliorative measures.

Until fairly recently, expenditure on capital works ran at about €30m per annum. The increase to about €100m is already under way and reflects the perception that flood risks have increased and that extra public capital can usefully be devoted to mitigating future damage.

Claims on property insurers have also been rising and climate change is forecast to increase the frequency of extreme weather events.

This means that measures to avert flood damage and to prevent the creation of new flood risks need to be designed around policy models that take future climate change into account.

But extra capital spend will never eliminate flood damage and the schemes announced will take many years to implement.

The OPW has conducted assessments, including value-for-money analyses, which have led it to identify the 118 schemes which will be prioritised and 50 schemes are to go immediately to design and planning.

Some possible schemes have not made the cut - it is not worth spending millions to protect a handful of low-value properties - but the detailed project-by-project evaluations have not yet been released, which is a pity.

Expect local politicians to lobby intensively for the inclusion of all possible schemes, good value or not, between now and the general election.

The immediate problem for thousands of households around the country is the non-availability of flood cover in their household insurance policies.

Flood damage is included in household policies covering fire and other risks but insurance companies can decline to include the flood component in what they see as high-risk areas.

The much-improved risk information now available as the fruit of the OPW's work has the unintended consequence of improving the ability of insurance underwriters to identify high-risk areas.

They can then quote higher premiums, a bigger ''excess'' (the initial portion of a claim borne by the policyholder), or simply exclude flood damage from the list of risks covered.

As long as they are uninformed about differential risk, insurers are more likely to charge similar premiums to everyone, in effect cross-subsidising the bigger risks from the generality of low-risk customers.

And most customers are low-risk. Even in the worst years, the number of homes flooded so severely as to require evacuation has been numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands, but they have not been the same ones each time.

The OPW studies have concluded that about 34,000 properties across the country are at non-trivial risk of flooding at some stage, perhaps decades away. There are more than 2.3m properties connected to ESB Networks, so about 98.5pc of properties do not face any serious risk of flooding.

They can go on fire, of course, or get damaged by storms. The insurance industry body Insurance Ireland estimates that just 2pc of all the properties insured have an exclusion relating to flood risk.

Home insurance is not compulsory. While the customers are volunteers, coverage is high in Ireland by international standards. This high penetration rate, if it can be maintained, provides the base for a level of cross-subsidy to high-risk customers and there have been calls for some form of compulsion on insurers to provide cover in the problem areas.

However the insurers are volunteers too: there are about 12 companies active in the Irish market but none of them can be required to offer cover in any particular line of business, or to any particular customer. In particular, it is difficult to see how a company, however selected, could be compelled to insure a specific grave risk at a loss-making price.

There is a Flood Insurance Bill dating from 2016 nestling somewhere in Leinster House, introduced by Michael McGrath TD of Fianna Fail, which seeks to do something along these lines but it has been resisted by the industry. It is worth remembering that insurance companies go bust: the public will be paying a surcharge on insurance policies for many decades to come to finance the cost of insurance collapses, the most notable of which was the Quinn affair.

The Government has introduced a re-location scheme for what might be termed the ''hopeless cases'', homes that are so prone to flooding that prevention measures are not economic.

For those homes which are less threatened, but whose owners cannot secure insurance cover, there will be political pressure to find a solution.

Happily, the number of such cases is limited and will diminish as flood control measures are implemented.

There has also been a new planning policy on flood prevention since 2009 (the essential injunction is ''do not build things in the floodplains of rivers''). It is no longer possible to secure planning permission for buildings likely to be casualties of the next big flood event.

But it is clear from newspaper photographs and TV footage that many of the householders flooded out in recent years were occupants of houses and even apartment blocks built during the bubble years prior to the collapse in residential construction in 2008.

Every one of these units must have secured planning permission from the local authority and it is surprising that no inquiry has been conducted into these planning decisions.

There is a small ghost estate of unsaleable houses, already semi-derelict, in one midlands town I pass occasionally built not long ago in a field the locals have always called ''the Swamp''. In how many such cases did the planners raise objections only to be over-ruled? Were there cases where no objection was raised when it should have been?

Flood prevention is more important for the longer term than the remediation of current problems in flood-prone areas. The evidence for global climate change is persuasive and small countries have a responsibility to adapt to whatever seems most likely to happen, acknowledging that domestic policy actions will make no difference.

In Ireland's case, domestic greenhouse gas emissions could be doubled or eliminated altogether with no impact on the climate outcome.

What can be done is prudent adaptation to the weather patterns likely to arise, in so far as they can be foreseen. Buildings can reasonably be expected to last a century or even longer.

Whatever is built over the next decade or two will still be in place at the end of the current century and research carried out at Maynooth University, Met Eireann and elsewhere suggests that the recent occurrence of more extreme weather events is a taste of things to come.

There are computer models which predict, with caveats and margins of error, that Ireland is likely to see significantly wetter winters and drier summers by mid-century as well as some increase in surrounding sea levels.

This means higher risks of flooding in river basins as well as in some coastal areas. Ireland is not short of land for development but could spare itself the cost of yet more flood defence measures in areas that should have been kept free of development in the first place.

Last Thursday's €1bn bill could have been lower with more foresight.

Sunday Independent

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