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Stopping immigration will not curb flooding

Rod Liddle in this week’s Spectator has a fiery article about the English floods (the Scots have not been flooded, but their turn may come). It starts off in poetic fashion. When Rod is good, he’s very good:

England’s habitually well-mannered and inoffensive chalk streams have been uncharacteristically full of themselves this last week or so — as you may have gathered from your television evening news programmes or, if you’re unlucky, your kitchen.

The Pang in West Berkshire, for example, rarely bothers anybody. Scarcely 15 miles in length, its job is simply to adorn the Thames in agreeable manner, as if purchased from a sort of riparian Accessorize. Not this week, though. It has puffed its chest out and pretended to be one of those hectic, rough, uncouth northern rivers — the Tees, say — all swirling brown water and ill-concealed anger. It is possibly in your front room right now, making itself at home. The same is true of those other gently bourgeois downland streams; the Windrush, bored of the Cotswolds, engulfing the village of Standlake. The Ock pelting down from the White Horse hills, spilling its load hither and thither, the Lambourn doing its best to drown all those expensive horses. What has got into them all of a sudden? Not just rain, surely?

Liddle then goes on to argue that the floods are not really caused by global climate change – we have had lousy wet summers before – but by a different change: mass housebuilding. He argues that as more homes and roads are built, rainfall has fewer places to soak into the ground and runs off quickly, creating “flash-floods”. As more houses are built, so the argument goes, the flash-flood problem will get worse. Solution: build fewer homes, or at least build them in places where the drainage has been sorted out. This makes a degree of sense.

The problem I have with this article, however, is that Liddle misses obvious points and then goes on to ride his hobby horse, anti-immigration, in a rather trite way. Here’s one paragraph:

Three fairly calamitous floods in the last seven years, for example (2007, 2004 and 2000), the latest seriously affecting a vast swath of the population, something like five million people in all. And the cost is already estimated at more than £3 billion. Meanwhile insurance premiums are likely to rise between 15 and 20 per cent as a result, according to the Association of British Insurers.

I suspect the total insurance bill could be even higher. If insurance premiums do rise, then if housebuilding did operate in a genuine free market – it does not, unfortunately – then those higher premiums would incentivise housebuilders and would-be occupiers to build them in places at low risk of flooding. That is why I fervently hope that the government does not try to limit increases in insurance costs, but on the contrary, lets them rise sharply to remind people of the costs of living in a flood plain. If the government tries to artificially subsidise people by capping insurance costs – as I believe happened in the Mississippi Delta in the US – it creates a moral hazard problem.

However, Liddle does not make this point. Instead of using insurance premiums as a market method of constraining construction on flood plains, he wants to limit housebuilding by direct state action, and goes on to argue that Britain does not need new homes anyway, since our indigenous population is quite stable. No, it is all those smelly foreigners and welfare-sponging migrant workers:

Nobody has factored in the cost that accepting migrant labour — a workforce characterised by low skills, low aspirations and of a necessarily temporary nature — will incur. But we might hazard a pretty good guess. A higher crime rate occasioned by the entirely understandable sense of injustice experienced by a poorly paid immigrant labour force; a concomitant constant drain on our health and education and social services, resulting in higher and higher council tax. And the provision of cheap, ugly housing which, remarkably, manages to square the circle of increasing the likelihood of both flooding and chronic drought. More cars, roads, shopping malls, petrol stations, leisure centres. Whole cities of pale faux-brick starter homes, the rainwater deprived of an opportunity to sink down into the earth.

Migrant workers may not be rocket scientists, but it is surely a sweeping statement to say that they have low skills and have low aspirations. If a person gets off his behind to travel thousands of miles to get work and live elsewhere, that strikes me as pretty aspirational, actually. If the problem is that a lot of these people are low-paid, it is because the marginal price of the work they perform is quite low. Of course the solution to such a problem of supposedly pointless migrant labour – at least as Liddle sees it – is not to stop migrant labour, but to ensure that no welfare and other tax-funded benefits will be paid to such migrants for a period of say, at least 5 years. Immigration and welfare states do not mix: if you want one, you cannot have the other without creating a genuine sense of injustice among the existing taxpayer population. But to argue that housing shortages will no longer be a problem if we close immigration off is wrong. The days when people lived as one family, of several generations, under one roof, has gone: grannie has her flat, young singles do not want to live with their folks into their 30s, and divorce and other facts have increased the number of people living on their own. Even had the domestic population been static since WW2, we would have had an increase in the demand for homes, not to mention for things like second homes as incomes grow.

No, if the problem of the floods is that it is caused by building on flood plains, bad drainage and so forth, the problem is government. The government refuses planning permission in areas where the drainage might be good, such as the “green belt” land surrounding London, yet it encourages building in areas already at risk. It should let the market force of insurance premium increases do its job in encouraging building in places of low risk and deter it where risks are high. Bashing immigrants and imagining we can keep the UK population stable is not, frankly, sensible economics. It is about as intelligent as King Canute ordering the tide to flow out from the beach.

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24 comments to Stopping immigration will not curb flooding

  • Julian Taylor

    I really don’t agree with the “… as more homes and roads are built, rainfall has fewer places to soak into the ground” statement. The John Prescott-style of recent green belt expansion has not really happened in the West Country, not even in massive newtown areas like Reading and Swindon, to the extent of what we have seen in Kent and other areas of the South East. What appears to be the cause is simple flashflooding into rivers that have never had their banks securely reinforced for the eventualities we are seeing now and do not have the capability to ensure a rapid ‘run off’, as one might see in the USA for example. Far be it from me to ever suggest that the charming Test river be reinforced, Mississippi-style, with dykes to prevent its overflow but perhaps people who live beside such waters should be aware that there is now a danger that the river waters might well rise and flood their homes. Of course they will probably get that wakeup call when they receive their next insurance renewal.

    Solution: build fewer homes, or at least build them in places where the drainage has been sorted out.

    And what about all those homes that have already been built? Pull them down and relocate the occupants?

    he wants to limit housebuilding by direct state action

    There you have it in one line. “Something must be done but, please, Not In My Back Yard.” The best way to limit housebuilding in those areas is not ever by direct state action, but by ensuring that potential homebuyers are clearly warned that buying that house will involve massive home insurance premiums, due to the nearby flood plains.

    Even with my avowed dislikeof this government, and its lamentable ’opposition’, in its current scabulous form, I have to agree with them that the media scare on the floods crisis has been definitely blown up out of all proportion now, and by the BBC in particular. In nearly all parts of the UK the installed flood defences DID work just fine; the main exception was the Severn, where some local imbecile stored the emergency flood barriers over 1 hour away from the river and thus the trucks delivering the barriers found themselves stuck in rising flood waters. As for poor Tewkesbury, well it stands at a junction of 2 rivers in the UK well known for flooding on a regular occasion – the Avon and the Severn. I have a modicum of sympathy for the residents there, but not as much as I might have for the residents of Hull or some residents of basement flats in Central London who came home to find their carpets ruined by the flash storms last week.

    A higher crime rate occasioned by the entirely understandable sense of injustice experienced by a poorly paid immigrant labour force

    I don’t think a sense of social injustice is a sufficient reason for crime, and certainly not ‘understandable’ crime in any way. If Mr Liddle wants to take on the immigration issue then perhaps he might first take on the emigration issue. Highly qualified people are leaving this country in droves now, to the extent that I is no longer a ‘brain drain’ but more of a ‘brain flashflood’, Mr Liddle might want to explore the fact that the immigration numbers are not putting the slightest dent in the offset to the numbers of the indigenous British population leaving the UK for the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – now well over 340,000 per annum (2005 figure).

  • Johnathan Pearce

    And what about all those homes that have already been built? Pull them down and relocate the occupants?

    Julian, that is a good question, which Liddle does not think of asking or answering. It would cost billions of pounds to remove people from their homes, assuming they want to go.

    I agree about the flood defence issue – if there are core responsibilities of government, flood defence is among them – but I should have mentioned this. Liddle does not mention it at all, but then he wanted to bash immigration and use the floods as a way to do that. It is a pretty shitty argument that he makes but I wanted to be fairly polite.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    And what about all those homes that have already been built? Pull them down and relocate the occupants?

    Julian, that is a good question, which Liddle does not think of asking or answering. It would cost billions of pounds to remove people from their homes, assuming they want to go.

    I agree about the flood defence issue – if there are core responsibilities of government, flood defence is among them – but I should have mentioned this. Liddle does not mention it at all, but then he wanted to bash immigration and use the floods as a way to do that. It is a pretty shitty argument that he makes but I wanted to be fairly polite.

  • freeman too

    It’s an interesting idea about flash floods and soaking away. Obviously a lot of very heavy rain on already saturated ground (or hard, dry ground) coupled with inadequate or blocked drains leads to problems. But don’t entirely dismiss the fact that an increasing amount of urban space is being concreted or paved over. Not just roads and car parks, but gardens too. People it seems don’t want the inconvenience of lawns and flower beds when for a few hundred quid they can have extra drive space. Plenty of gardens too are being “carpeted” with plastic sheeting and gravel spread on top.

    One of my sons used to train with a football team on an artificial pitch. When it rained even moderately the volume of water pouring off the side was remarkable. Sometimes I think the general idea today is that because we have sophisticated technology and we can dispense with concern over mere rainfall. A lot of water can come down, internet or not.

    Yes, new houses are being built on flood plains though it is interesting several UK motorways where they cross low lying (and floodable) areas have been built on an embankment. Now if this thinking is applied to housing and commercial developments near potential areas of flooding – and they aren’t hard to recognise as they usually are pretty soggy anyway – we might have had some sort of embankments or dykes built at the time to reduce flood problems.

    But planning these days appears to be about one way systems for traffic flow, not land management.

    Interesting argument linking any of this with immigration. As far as I can see immigrants mostly take up the old housing stock in run down areas. New houses tend to be built for the longer established UK peoples. The same ones who think paving slabs are perfect for their gardens.

  • ian

    What appears to be the cause is simple flashflooding into rivers that have never had their banks securely reinforced for the eventualities we are seeing now and do not have the capability to ensure a rapid ‘run off’, as one might see in the USA for example.

    It is just the opposite – because the water runs off fast from hard surfaces it gets into the drainage system at a rate higher than the system can cope with and you get an upwash of rainwater and sewage. Delaying run off is the key – hence the current approach of swales, balancing ponds and porous surfaces.

  • Incentivise?
    Is that like ‘convince’ or ‘induce’?

  • nostalgic

    How about building all these new houses on stilts? – its a very old and proven tecnique.

  • Two notes:

    1. The more acreage made impervious to rain, the higher the risk of flooding. Building in flood plains is just stupid, since that’s where the flooding occurs. The problem is replacing pervious soils (which absorb rain) with impervious asphalt, roofs, etc.

    2. Levees and bank stabilization do nothing to stop the root cause of flooding. Whoever wrote this does not understand basic hydrology. Levees only prevent flooding at that spot and great increase the flooding downriver (unless you want to build enormous levees along every foot of every river).

    3. The original author is just being bigoted with the migrant stuff, obviously. But poorly planned and excessive development which greatly increases impervious acreage compared to existing conditions must cause increased flooding. This is basic hydrology.

    cheers.

  • I only make the distinction because too many people ‘crap out’ on issues of the mind, substituting mere animal psychology for the actual humanity and hoping that some sort of magic automaton will save them from argument from conviction.
    As for houses on stilts, it is an excellent idea.
    In israel, the Arabs in the West bank built almost exclusively on the first floor and parked their cars underneath.
    These were modern,CHEAP, concrete houses, not built to any regulation and enjoying the cool of their own shade.
    No floods, but if there were, they wouldn’t notice.

  • Lascaille

    70% of the UK’s land area is used for farming which contributes 2% of the GDP (CIA world factbook + DEFRA)

    Why does everyone keep saying ‘the country is full?’ Have they not seen the satellite photos? Even in the south east, the vast majority of land is used for agriculture!

    The building of houses on flood plains is not necessary, just a construct by a government that refuses to allocate land use appropriately, preferring to maintain some ridiculous notion of a ‘country self sufficient’ when all that farmland would immediately go unused if there were no oil to run the (entirely mechanised) farming machinery.

    Fantastic.

  • Pa Annoyed

    About 8% of the land is urbanised in England and Wales. Compare that to Holland 28%, Germany 27%, Italy 20%, Switzerland 17%, Japan 14%, France 14%. Do those countries have problems with flooding? Aren’t there any houses on flood plains in Holland?

    Of course, that’s still quite crowded compared to 2% for the US and about 0.25% for Canada and Australia. If the logic’s right, those countries should get fewer floods. Is that true?

  • “Why does everyone keep saying ‘the country is full?’ Have they not seen the satellite photos? Even in the south east, the vast majority of land is used for agriculture!”

    It is agricultural land that is being built on,rich fertile river plains.But who wants a housing estate for a country?

    What happens is builders strip the top soil and sell it,it matters not whether this is low lands or uplands,except stripping down to the clay means faster run off on uplands.Here where I live a hilltop was covered with an estate and also the adjoining valley,interestingly the water ran into the valley faster than the ground could cope with,the houses in the valley are sinking.
    There is a large amount of housing stock which could be renovated,but,and a very big but,VAT makes it cheaper to build new,and VAT rates cannot be altered without the permission of Brussels.

  • tranio

    Why aren’t the rivers and streams dredged and made deeper? They could then accommodate more water flow. All the old bikes, prams, shopping carts etc can be sold to scrap metal merchants. The organic matter and mud can be spread on the fields to provide humus and nutrients for the soil.
    They will probably find some old car batteries too and lead is now worth about 70p/lb.

  • And what do they build?
    Bricks!
    Bloody bricks!
    We’ve had concrete for a hundred years(not counting Roman concrete)and still they insist on ramming their fucking awful Hiacynth Bucket urban fantasies down our throats, with the proviso that these brand new slums are apartments disguised as town-house terraces.
    In the sixties the local authorities sponsored the construction of cement-rendered grey slums, now private concerns have risen to the challenge by providing us with brick rubbish.It isn’t even supporting; it is just a shell around a clapboard frame.

    Next week I will try to obtain and post up(on my modest little site) examples of good and bad land use within a hundred yards of each other; one an architect designed house in wood and concrete, built into an excavated railway embankment, and the other a slum nearing completion in an old goods yard.(The railway is still active-obviously they couldn’t (re)build a station, that would be ‘too joined up’).

  • I mean to say, if these people had two brains they’d be halfwits.
    Before we had ‘planning’, the Metropolitan Railway built entire cities around successful transport.
    Now we just get piecemeal dwarfery which can’t be bothered to get anything right.
    ‘Planning’.
    By people with no commercial interest.
    Yeah, right.

  • Sunfish

    The building of houses on flood plains is not necessary, just a construct by a government

    Flood plains are where fertile soil is to be found. That’s why the farmers live there. Where farmers are, so are people who fix tractors and buy farm products, who then need to be able to ship wheat and receive tractor parts from other places where they eat wheat and make tractor parts, who in turn need to be some place convenient to the coal and the iron ore needed for the steel from which they make tractor parts…. and so on, until you’ve built Saint Louis and Pittsburgh and so on. That’s the screwy thing about geography: none if it is truly random.

    So, should the government ban homebuilding in flood plains? Which flood plain? The 50-year? 10-year? 1000-year?

  • The lesson of the floods is that we must let the water soak in instead of letting it flood. Maybe if we applied the same lesson to immigration, we would let immigrants soak in instead of producing a human flood in just a few areas.

  • guy herbert

    It is not often noticed that the efficiency of British farming is a contributor. Agricultural land here is very well drained in order to allow heavy machinery or livestock access. The run-off and thus flooding of lower watercourses is very much more rapid than in former times.

  • It’s nonsense. The reason was an extremely large amount of rainfall. A friend of ours north of Swindon was bailing out her kitchen. In a 150 year house with fields all around. Staff at a business on the south side of town couldn’t get out because a roundabout was flooded. No development for 10 years, and in a valley miles from a river.

  • In a valley miles from a river?
    What is a valley?

  • pietr,

    According to chambers…

    “a long flat area of land, usually containing a river or stream, flanked on both sides by higher land, eg hills or mountains. 2 any trough or hollow between ridges, eg on an M-shaped roof. ”

    Note “usually”.

  • “It is about as intelligent as King Canute ordering the tide to flow out from the beach.”

    Er, actually, the story says that Canute commanded the waves knowing full well that they would ignore him, in order to rebuke flattering courtiers who had said that he was so great that even the sea would obey him.

  • Johnathan

    Pedantic, whatever.

  • How did the valley get there?