The Thames Flood Barrier. Photo: David Dixon, Full license linked at bottom of article The Thames Flood Barrier. Photo: David Dixon, Full license linked at bottom of article

We must consider the most deprived as we adapt our cities to deal with climate change, argues Alistair Cartwright

From deadly heat island effects to the concentration of megacities in coastal and delta regions, urbanisation is at the forefront of climate change – both as source and site of environmental catastrophe. Yet so many policies to adapt cities for a changed climate also paradoxically ignore or even aid the environmentally destructive effects of urban development.

Consider these two sets of facts. In the five years to 2018, developers in England built 84,000 homes in high flood risk areas. Not only has development expanded in floodplains – encouraged by cheap, easy-to-access land and planning relaxations under the Coalition government – but building in these risky areas has happened faster than elsewhere. Intense downpours are also increasing the risk of flooding from surface water, often in urban areas unaffected by rivers or tides. In England and Wales, the rate of new residential development at major risk of this recently prominent kind of flooding has roughly tripled over the last decade, and, factoring in river and coastal areas, the proportion of new builds at serious risk of inundation could increase by anything from 2% to over 30% due to climate change. That’s according to a study published earlier this year by Viktor Rözer and Swenja Surminski from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

At the same time, the UK Environment Agency plans to spend £5.2 billion on flood defences over the next six years. The investment, which covers 1,000 schemes next year, amounts to over five times the value of the government’s ‘Net Zero Innovation Portfolio’.

We have a situation, in other words, where billions of pounds worth of public investment is being pumped into infrastructure designed to counter the risks of flooding while developers continue to build in flood risk zones. Private development doesn’t happen merely regardless of official environmental policy. As a report by the College of Estate Management pointed out, flood defences tend to give confidence to developers, even if the risks, which remain substantial, are becoming more unpredictable due to extreme weather events fuelled by climate change.

That confidence is part of why development continues unabated in London and the Thames Gateway area. Developers simply assume that the Thames barrier offers enough protection and that the government will take ‘all measures necessary to prevent the capital from flooding, including a more effective replacement when the useful life of the existing barrier comes to an end.’

Add to this the tendency to allocate flood defences according to the value of property assets rather than population levels, with funding weighted towards London and the South East as a result, and the emerging synergy between climate adaptive measures and speculation in the built environment becomes clear.

To put it more bluntly, public funding of flood defences and other adaptations as they are currently framed supports and ultimately subsidises property speculation. The resulting development often then reduces the land’s capacity to absorb water, increasing the risk of floods even more. 

This twisted relationship between capitalist urbanisation and adaptive measures pursued in isolation also drives inequality. Take a set of parallel phenomena related to the insurance industry, a key part of the built environment’s financial infrastructure.

In 2020-21, the volume of property covered by the government-backed reinsurance scheme, ‘Flood RE’, increased by 11%, with over 350,000 households covered since the scheme’s inception in 2016.

At the same time, insurers are known to be setting exorbitant premiums and excesses for those most at risk of flooding, effectively moving away from the principle of mutuality (where a wide net of policies covers the worst outcomes for individuals). In the Doncaster suburb of Bentley, for instance – hit hard by floods in 2019 – low income households were being asked to cover excesses of £7,000, while many young renters had no contents insurance at all.

Government underwriting of risks, in effect, is failing to prevent insurance companies from using their greater knowledge of environmental changes – via high resolution flood maps and more sophisticated climate projections – in order to shift costs onto the most vulnerable.

In the run up to COP26, ‘adaptation’, ‘resilience’, and ‘building back better’ have become the watchwords of Boris Johnson’s professed commitment to action on climate change.

There can be little doubt today that adapting to climate change is indeed vital. Climate devastation is already with us. The full impact of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere are yet to reveal themselves. Just as frighteningly clear, though, is the fact that adaptive measures only make sense if we are able to prevent climate change from reaching the kind of worst case scenarios predicted by a 2°C+ or 3°C+ rise in average global temperatures. Much beyond that and most adaptations contemplated by governments today become meaningless – to the same extent that social life as we know it becomes unthinkable.

Fighting climate change at source by opposing the criminal approval of new oil and gas explorations in the North Sea and elsewhere therefore has to go hand in hand with a radical, social justice agenda for climate adaptation. Adaptation is essential, but it matters very much who it is for, what it consists of, and how it is paid for and carried out.

Why are flood defences not subsidised by taxing or levying developers, rather than the other way round? A flooding action group in Morpeth has called for exactly that – arguing that housebuilders should pay into a collective fund to protect residents. And why should adaptive measures be disproportionately weighted towards London and the relatively wealthy South East when the worst hit areas have been Norfolk, the Rhondda Valley, Yorkshire and elsewhere?

As the sociologist Eric Klinenberg has said, every adaptation implies a decision about who benefits and who doesn’t. Wherever there is a discussion about adaptation, pressure needs to be applied to counter the gravitational pull of existing concentrations of capital. Adaptations can work with the natural environment rather than against it and bring major benefits to deprived communities. But these things rarely happen without left-wing organisation at the grassroots.

Rather than the rhetoric of ‘building back better’, and insurance schemes advertised on the quick-fix model of ‘flood on Friday, back up on Monday’, we need adaptations that treat the social and the environmental as one indivisible whole. For that, we need to recycle rising land values to generate funds for insulating old homes, while making it impossible for insurance companies like Norwich Union – which base a substantial part of their business on flood risks – to continue to invest in fossil fuels.

The challenges are immense, but the mood of popular rejection of the status quo, with people flooded out of their homes heckling Boris Johnson, and fire victims in Greece telling politicians to go ‘fuck yourself’, shows that the door is wide open to a radical answer to the climate crisis.

COP26 in Glasgow this November must become a point of convergence for everyone fed up with the betrayals and empty words – a chance to forge new alliances between climate campaigners, housing activists, scientists, architects, trade unionists in the construction industry, local mutual aid groups and more.

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.

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