A cold and wet time for housebuilders.

The National Post of 13 December 2007 reproduced the text of a letter sent by 100 leading climate scientists and other experts to the Secretary General of the United Nations. The letter told him that “There has been no net global warming since 1998”. It urged the UN to concentrate on encouraging national and international efforts to adjust to whatever climate changes might lie ahead, rather than thinking UN action could stop climate change.

This winter has been particularly severe in large parts of the Northern hemisphere. China has been experiencing Artic conditions, with heavy snowfalls disrupting travel and economic activity. Temperatures have been falling to 20 degrees below zero in the mountains and on the steppes of the former Soviet Union. There are reports of frozen rivers and frozen hydro electric systems leaving people with no power and no heating in the appalling cold.. This is not proof of a new ice age – just a reminder that weather is difficult to predict and variations can be wild.

Here in the UK a wet summer has been followed by the occasional wet period in the winter. The flood threat is ever present. The government dashes around issuing press releases, setting up enquiries, promising more of our money in future years, but still does not get on with the jobs of clearing water courses, improving ditches and working with the water authorities and local authorities to strengthen our flood defences.

I have put in evidence to the Prime Minister, at his request. I have put the same evidence to DEFRA. I have given written and oral evidence to the Pitt Review. I have had meetings with people from the Environment Agency and the local Council, and have exchanged many a letter with water companies and all the army of regulators and governors in this area.

It is a prime example of massive spending on a lot of well intentioned regulation and administration, with all too little of the money being spent on anything useful. The final irony is the possibility that many of the government’s planned 3 million new homes will be built on flood plain.

The government has been struggling with Gordon Brown’s sweeping dictat that there will be 3million more new homes by 2020. When he announced it it was difficult to see how people would afford them, as house prices were soaring out of sight of the would be first time buyer. Now prices are weakening, it is difficult to see which housebuilders will be able to afford to build so many. Offering people homes on floodplains, after the images of last summer, will not be an easy sell. It will be even more difficult if insurers say they will not insure them, or if they want high premiums for taking the risk.

The answer to all this is simple. The government should spend more of its current huge regulatory budget in this area on practical measures to improve flood defences. It should not allow building on floodplain, unless the developer has a scheme which will ensure no flooding and make a contribution to better water management. Mr Brown should recognise that a 3 million target may be difficult to achieve in the current climate. Housebuyers are put off by the declines in house prices, and housebuilders are constrained by tight credit and shrinking margins on their work. The government should b e relieved if the housebuilding rate does not fall. They should not expect in these current difficult economic conditions to see a surge in housebuilding to the new higher levels of the PM’s imaginings.

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8 Comments

  1. Neil Craig
    Posted February 14, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    There is a serious lack of sunspots which suggests we are heading for cooling. Despite all the eco-fascist propaganda being churned out by the BBC & media it is now imposible to get a bet on forthcoming cooling which shows where the smart money is. Catastrophic warming was a Luddite scam, as indeed was the new ice age predictions of the 1970s, whose solution was also cutting technology & stopping ordinary people flying. We should not let ourselves be bounced into a new ice age scare.

    Building on floodplains is often the best way & is fine so long as rivers are properly managed. You, after all, work in a building & indeed city which would not be there had building on floodplains been prevented.

  2. Stuart Fairney
    Posted February 14, 2008 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    JR

    As someone who works in the house building industry in land acquisition and development planning, your post really struck a cord with me. The fundamental problem is land availability (so please ignore anyone who tells you a boxed "IKEA home" with cheap construction costs is the answer). Vast amounts of land are effectively sterilised from possible development by arbitrary planning designations such as green belt, AONB, outside wholly arbitrary settlement boundaries etc, etc ad nauseum. Developers tend to look at any land that doesn't come with these fatal restrictions. Some of this land falls within flood plains (though it is critically important when talking of floodplains to state what category of floodplain it is, see PPS25 for definitions). If more land was released, we would never need to build on a floodplain again, (and it would help with the problems of affordability if we simply built more).

    Also, a willingness on the part of the Environment Agency to accept the efficacy of technical solutions to flooding (such as raising ground levels whilst allowing for flood water storage under buildings), would help matters significantly.

  3. Stuart Fairney
    Posted February 14, 2008 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    If I may, the link to which you refer
    http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=16

  4. Brian Pol
    Posted February 14, 2008 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    I happen to believe that global warming is happening and is largely man made but I'm certainly not 100% sure.

    However, considering the finite nature of oil, the precautionary principle, the moral/aesthetic value of preserving species and habitats, is erring on the side of caution whilst investing heavily (initially with public subsidy) in technology and moving away from excessively consumption driven lifestyles a sensible, and generally 'conservative' attitude?

    Reply: It certainly makes sense at current energy prices to devote more effort to fuel conservation, and for the UK and the US to work away to reduce dependence on imported oil and gas from politically unsettled parts of the world.

  5. Dr. Christopher Wood
    Posted February 14, 2008 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Houses can be built on flood plains if proper, and very obvious, engineering solutions are put in place. For example, build like "the magnificent mile" in Chicago (similar set up at Bath University), where "everything" is built one floor above ground level.

    If anyone walks down North Michigan Avenue in Chicago to "see the sights" few realize that they are in fact walking one level up from ground – the road traffice too, the plaza in front of 401 North Michigan and across the street from the British Consulate Office – one floor up.

    Walk to your front door without stairs, since your car would be parked on your driveway like everything else: one floor up.

    25 feet up – houses will not flood even if there was a 15 foot flood. Instead of building to stop inevitable flooding – BUILD WITH FLOODING IN MIND.

    The houses, roadway, parks – all one floor up. So while the houses are built atop concrete 'sticks', to the person walking in the front door or parking outside their house, don't walk up steep steps to reach their front door. "Wacker" in Chicago is a road on ground level, but one floor below street level, i.e., one floor below "Upper Wacker".

    There are engineering solutions – just takes imagination and some $$$ to build whole towns that can handle a 15 foot flood without problems, "like it is not there".

  6. Ian Evans
    Posted February 15, 2008 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    I am delighted to see a reference by a mainstream politician to the lack of overall global warming over the last decade (evidence for sea level changes is also very questionable!). This should surely raise major alarm-bells for those who try to lead public attitudes over the role of man in ongoing global climate change.

    As a retired scientist, I worry greatly about the over-heated claims for the supposed certainty of climate change science (in particular for what can be achieved with current computer modelling studies). Should these claims be proved groundless (as seems not at all unlikely to me: though, equally, far from being certain) the reputation of science and scientists will doubtless fall to join that of journalists and politicians – present company excepted! More debates exposing both sides of the issue would be much healthier – and might save current politicians from future ridicule!

  7. DennisA
    Posted February 15, 2008 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    The history of weather in the UK shows many periods with far worse flooding than recently, many with great loss of life. Here is just one period as an example:

    1872-1879:
    These eight years began with the wettest calendar year in the England and Wales Precipitation series, and culminated in the second wettest summer in that set; the 'growing-to-harvest' periods (May – September) of 1872, 1875, 1877, 1878 & 1879 all experienced well-above average rainfall – that of 1879 being some 160% above the 'all-series' mean. Summer-time temperatures were also either 'average' or depressed, the 1879 Central England Temperature value of 13.7degC was some 1.5deg C below the all-series average.

    Lamb writes: "the summer was the wettest and one of the .. coldest in the long instrument records for England. The cold, wet weather delayed the ripening of the harvest, so that even in East Anglia in some places the corn had not been gathered in by Christmas. The decline of English agriculture, which lasted for fifty years, dated from this time."

    There are many more examples of the British climate in action at this excellent history of British weather, I believe the site owner is a retired Met. Office meteorologist. http://booty.org.uk/booty.weather/climate/histcli

    This puts the hysteria about climate change into perspective; we live on a wet island with lots of hills and rivers, we will always have floods which will vary in their incidence and severity, regardless of which car we drive or which lightbulbs we use. We should deal with that rather than waste money on "X-box" computer modelling and carbon footprints.

  8. Neil Craig
    Posted February 16, 2008 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Stuart you are right that the main problem is unavailability of land with planning permission, as opposed to mere land, a regulatory system that rewards builders who treat their councillors well better than those who treat their customers well.

    However if all that were fixed & it could be very quickly I think the "IKEA" style modular homes could solve the shortage speedily. We are still in the Victorian age regarding housing but a Henry Ford could come along & produce mass cheap reliable, draftproof homes fairly easily if the regime would let him.

    Imagine a car built individually, piece by piece in your back garden with government inspectors demanding individual design changes. It would cost 50 times what real ones do & might manage 25mph.

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    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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