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11 December 2023

UK must not bow to eco-lobbyists

By Graham Norwood

It may seem another world compared to the heat of Dubai's property industry but British developers have a problem they must tackle when the recession finally ends – how to build on large tracts of land liable to flooding.

We are not talking of worries over reclaimed land, nor even about all UK coastal locations. Instead, there are large parts of the UK – many inland as well as some that are waterside – which have high water-tables. It sounds a diversion from the big economic problems paralysing the residential industry in the UK now, but it is a hidden factor to which too few people have given appropriate attention.

Because it is just possible that this issue may prevent British developers returning to full production when the recession ends, predicted to be 2010.

This is the problem.

On the one hand, politicians in the UK are becoming increasingly rattled by environmentalists' claims that as many as 500,000 existing modern homes and a similar number of new homes scheduled to be built in the next 20 years, are to be located on areas prone to flooding, or floodplains as they are called.

On the other hand, it is becoming clear that the term "floodplain" is now being used very loosely and does not necessarily note an area that is at a realistic risk of flooding. In fact, many are on sites where the chance of flooding may be no more than once in 1,000 years – a far longer period than the houses are being built to last.

So the worry is that politicians may respond to mistaken environmental concerns, cave in on their original promises, and restrict builders' construction programmes.

This will slow the economic recovery of the residential industry and lead to a failure to meet UK housing targets – a catastrophe in a country crying out for more homes. This column has not been afraid to criticise developers in the UK and around the world that have failed to heed the long-term effects of global warming. But this time, the issue may simply be over-stated by the

Since Roman times most of the UK's towns and cities have been built alongside rivers on land now designated as flood zones, albeit ones with extremely low risks.

In recent years, residential builders have introduced basic measures to mitigate the effect of flooding in these locations – for example, by not putting bedrooms on the ground floor, and using solid masonry and wall materials that dry naturally instead of using studwork and dry-lining that may retain dampness over months and years.

More cautious builders have done still more to deter floods, such as part of a site undeveloped to absorb flood water, should it arrive.

Some have even created shallow channels and gently sloping areas where the water can drain evenly. Some construct dry lakes – large 'bowls' in the ground which form lakes when the water level rises – so as to divert flood water from other parts of a particular site.

Occasionally, developers even build homes that are elevated some 10 feet above the level of local rivers, to keep them safe should a once-in-a-millennium flood occur.

Now my reading of this combination of impressive measures is that, on this occasion at least, developers have done everything that can be reasonably expected of them to take account of the problem of potential flooding.

But for some environmental campaigner, all that is still not enough.

Their answer is to try to lobby the government to ensure there is no building at all on any floodplain in the UK, even those designated as being prone to a flood no more than once in 1,000 years.

They worry not about how that would mean failure to meet housing targets – or, in more human terms, how some households now living in overcrowded accommodation will not be able to live in decent housing.

Nor do they worry that the shortage of new homes caused by abandoning floodplains would fuel the next house price bubble, before we have even recovered from the current crisis.

Instead they feel that any risk – even if it may happen just once in every 1,000 years – is too great a risk.

Of course developers could and should do more to offset the environmental damage inherent in building homes. They should also look to regions like Scandinavia and countries like The Netherlands to limit the risk of flooding; yet these are locations where, in some cases, whole nations have that risk. Yet these countries build homes, while at the same time preserving their environmental credentials.

The UK should too – and not cave in to those with the loudest voices.

- The writer is a property correspondent with The Observer