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.