The UK government has welcomed the completion of the independent review* recently, aimed at reducing the risk of surface water flooding across England. It has begun taking action to implement some of its recommendations, including ‘Build Back Better’ and supporting the principle of offering insurance discounts for householders who have installed property-level flood resilience measures. The action will build on the recent publication of the government’s long-term plan for managing flood risk and coastal erosion to create more physical resilience measures, the Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Policy.

At LexisNexis Risk Solutions, together with other industry bodies such as Flood Re and the ABI, we have for some time been lobbying for measures that will help the insurance industry play its part to the maximum extent. These include the piloting of Flood Performance Certificates, effectively a traffic light or rating system to standardise the risk measurement of an individual property’s protection level. It’s a measure that will standardise the flood risk status of a building in relation to property elevation, flood history and proximity to the river bank, and the presence of resilience measures such as flood protection doors, permeable exterior paving, planting, roof runoff management, higher placement of electric fittings, the usage of higher and lower floors, and many other factors.

Flood Performance Certificates have the potential to bring much needed clarity to the overall ecosystem of national flood protection that currently disincentivises all the parties – housebuilders, building standards regulators, local planning authorities and the home owners themselves –from taking some important steps towards greater protection.

Despite warnings from the Environment Agency and the Committee on Climate Change, from 2001 to 2011 alone 200,000 new houses were built on the flood plain in England, whilst at present there are nearly 500,000 homes that have been given planning permission and are waiting to be built on the flood plain**.

The UK has been building homes in the highest risk national flood zones, defined as one in a hundred years risk of flooding (or zone three), at the rate of around 10,000 per year.

One in ten national flood gauges broke new records in just one year

The latest Environment Agency data shows that a quarter of their gauges of water volume and flow on main rivers have broken previous records over the last ten years: 10% of them broke previous records, over the 2019-2020 winter alone. February 2020 was the wettest February on record in England, and the fifth wettest for any calendar month since 1862. Rainfall across England was 258% of the average for the month, and in some places 400%. During the same month, the highest or second highest levels on record were recorded in 13 rivers.

To a certain extent FloodRe has brought part of the solution, even though it’s an umbrella of support that makes insurance widely available and affordable for private homes and mostly not for commercial or small business premises. Insurance providers have been picking up the bill for flood crisis events (and ultimately policyholders do so too, in the form of higher premiums).

But the pay-out of an insurance claim after the event is still only a partial remedy, leaving as it does the misery and significant disruption to people’s lives and livelihoods.

Help needed for commercial and small business risk

Surface water flooding occurs when the volume and intensity of rainfall overwhelms local drainage. It is a risk described by DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) as affecting over three million properties in England. Like all flooding, it can damage homes and businesses, causing people distress and anxiety, and can result in the closing of roads, railways, schools and hospitals, as well as having environmental impacts.

One in ten of all new homes in England since 2013 have been built on land at the highest risk of flooding, according to official figures, potentially leaving tens of thousands of people in greater danger from extreme winter storms. It’s a state of affairs being driven by ambitious housebuilding targets – 300,000 new homes every year in the 2020s – and gaps in accountability. Local authorities say they are hampered by the lack of suitable sites. Government spending on flood defences at the regional level is rising but still not enough. Meanwhile, there is the possibility to build safer, higher and redesigned homes.

There is a need to close the circle on community flood resilience, in theory and in practice, making more of the risk data available where it is needed.

There is a growing scientific consensus that climate change, related to global warming, is bringing not only rising sea levels, but also more regular extreme rainfalls and storms. Much of the UK drainage infrastructure is ageing, and in need of significant maintenance or replacement. New property developments risk reducing the capacity of the land to provide natural drainage, and has the potential to increase surface water run-off.

The government has called for clarity as to who is responsible for constructing and maintaining drainage systems and their various components, which is crucial for their effective operation. Such clarity is often lacking in the present arrangements. Ownership of surface water drainage features is fragmented across a range of both public and private parties, including local authorities, highway authorities, internal drainage boards, water companies, and private individuals and businesses. Powers and duties to manage drainage features are often less than clear cut.

Flood risk data enhancements in LexisNexis MapView

Officials at DEFRA have now accepted the widely held perception among flood risk management practitioners that existing planning and building regulation control often provide insufficient focus on how surface water can best be managed in new developments. They have called for more professional expertise to be brought to bear in decision making on all local authority planning applications where there are surface water drainage implications.

From the insurance viewpoint, at LexisNexis Risk Solutions and with the latest data enhancements to the LexisNexis MapView service we already hold many of the risk attributes necessary to help drive the national initiative on Flood Performance Certificates: elevation, location down to the detail of an individual property outline or polygon, as well as physical property attributes such as roof, construction type, the list is growing.

This would be the first step towards embedding a code of practice for flood resistant building design, building on the work done by individual insurers such as the Zurich Flood Resilience Measurement for Communities (FRMC) project, created by Zurich Insurance.

Some important discussions are already under way with our insurer clients and third-party data participants. Such prevention and protection measures, and not just reparations after the event, are the natural role for the insurance industry to be playing. Now is the time for all stakeholders to do their part, and it is data enrichment and data standardisation over the shared data platform that is going to make this a reality and bring the benefits to property owners.

[UPDATE: In February 2021 the UK government unveiled its joint industry and Flood Re plan on insurance payments for flood-hit properties. The changes aim to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Flood Re and to accelerate uptake of property flood resilience measures. They include:

  • The ability for Flood Re to offer discounted insurance premiums to households that have fitted property flood resilience measures, such as airbrick covers or non-return valves
  • Permitting the payment of claims to include an additional amount to ‘build back better’, in a more flood-resilient way
  • Exploring whether there’s more that the Flood Re scheme could do to accelerate uptake of flood resilience, including whether the scheme’s currently available funding could contribute
  • Exploring whether Flood Re premiums should be further reduced
  • Technical changes to improve the scheme’s efficiency.]

*Surface Water and Drainage: Review of Responsibilities, DEFRA

**Committee on Climate Change ‘UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Report’

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