What happens if you live in a flood risk zone but can’t afford protection, insurance or replacement of your possessions? For thousands in the UK, this is a growing reality.
On June 26 2007, the residents of Bentley, South Yorkshire, looked out of their windows to a horrifying sight: the devastating floods sweeping their way through Britain had finally arrived at their doorstep.
Already, tens of thousands of homes across the country had been submerged following the wettest summer since records began in 1766. Now, locals in the Doncaster suburb were forced out too, saving only what they could carry.
Hundreds watched in disbelief as water rushed down Bentley high street, crept under doors, and swelled up through floorboards. Dozens of local businesses were destroyed and family homes rendered uninhabitable.
In the coming days, freshly-elected prime minister Gordon Brown would promise a shell-shocked nation that “lessons would be learned” from institutional failures to prepare for flooding.
More than a decade and three prime ministers later, Bentley was underwater once again when floods hit in 2019.
With storms once again battering the British isles, many in Bentley are eyeing the skies ruefully. Too many have been promised support that came just in part, too late or not at all. Like many towns in 21st century Britain, talk of “levelling up” has been just that: talk alone.
Flooding is the UK’s most urgent climate problem. Without targeted action, it threatens to exacerbate the UK’s most pressing social problem: poverty.
‘Some landlords don’t want to engage with protections‘
The floods of November 2019 attracted more attention than they might have ordinarily.
At the time, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn were vying for votes in the general election, and the flooding response was considered by many to be a litmus test for the next prime minister’s competence.
Though ultimately making no dent in his subsequent landslide victory, Johnson was famously castigated in flood-hit areas of Doncaster for his delay in addressing the issue and providing assistance.
For a second time, residents were assured by a prime minister that large sums of money would save them. Old defences would be bolstered, new ones would be built, and they’d be spared from flooding in the decades to come.
In January 2022, there are scant signs of these protections in Bentley when The Big Issue pays a visit.
Down Hunt Lane, one of the suburb’s most flood-prone streets, the houses are largely identical in build: two-storey, mid-terraced homes fronted by small concrete yards.
Yet walking along the street with local councillor Jane Nightingale, I notice one key difference – some are fitted with steel flood doors, while others have none at all.
When I point this out, Nightingale explains that the tenure in Bentley is very mixed, with some homes privately rented, some socially rented and others privately owned.
“In the case of privately-rented homes, we have a lot of landlords who we would class as absent,” Nightingale explains.
“Some landlords don’t want to engage with property protections, and if they don’t sign up for it [the council] can’t do anything,” she says, sounding exasperated.
Soon, it becomes clear that private tenants aren’t the only ones missing out.
As we pass back down Hunt Lane an hour later, a man – an owner-occupier – emerges to quiz Nightingale about funding for a flood door on the back of his property. Apologetically, she tells him the money isn’t available.
In the wake of the November 2019 floods, she explains as we walk away, the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) awarded grants of £5,000 per property for flood resilience measures.
The problem is, the funding didn’t cover the full costs of protection for all households.
“Some got a flood door on the front, but not on the back – which isn’t much use if the water comes in through the back door,” she admits.
There are countless stories like this in Bentley – of flood funding falling short, of pleas gone unheard and people losing everything with no compensation. More than two years on from the last major flood, the physical and emotional impacts of the event are far from fading.
Recovery from flooding is a challenge for any community. But in a community like Bentley, with high levels of deprivation and precarity, people here have few resources to prepare for floods, and even fewer to recover from them.
Natural disasters have long been thought of as great levellers, but as extreme weather and intense flooding increases in the UK, we’re beginning to see what happens when the climate crisis collides with Britain’s deeply-entrenched inequality.
For already deprived flood-prone areas, the years of wetter weather ahead could prove disastrous. Those who can afford to move will move away, and those who can’t will be stuck in communities with declining house prices, desirability and prospects.
‘We could be creating flood risk ghettos‘
Around 5.2 million properties across the UK are at risk of flooding and, every year, flood events cost the government an estimated £1.3bn.
It’s a sobering reality set to worsen in the coming years, yet a combination of housing pressures and limited scrutiny over development means thousands of homes continue to be built on flood plains. Should trends continue, the number of properties at risk will double in the next 50 years.
If you live in a deprived area of the country, you may already be at a disadvantage.
According to research published by the Grantham Institute in 2021, a disproportionate number of homes built in disadvantaged areas over the last decade will end up being “high risk” for flooding as climate change takes hold.
Research from the Environment Agency (EA) backs this up: in January 2021, the body published a report which admitted that “people from areas classed as more deprived disproportionately face more flood risk than those living in less deprived areas” even when taking flood defences into account.
According to Swenja Surminski, head of adaptation research at the Grantham Institute, this is likely to be driven by simple economics: it’s cheaper to build in areas more exposed to risk.
“What we see with some social housing is that cost is obviously important. And it might be cheaper to put them in areas where you wouldn’t usually build because it’s exposed to [flood risk]” she says.
This pattern is played out in Bentley, where a residential caravan park adjacent to the River Don, Willow Bank, was the first hit when the waterway burst its banks in November 2019.
In the early hours of November 8, Julie Smith was in her static home at Willow Bank when a loud banging on the door alerted her to the danger.
With just minutes to spare and no upstairs to move her possessions to, she fled her caravan and stood by on the streets as water gushed straight through her home.
“It was awful, it got into everything. The water was about a foot [high] on the inside so everything was just swimming. We couldn’t even get on site for a while,” she says.
Though Smith didn’t have insurance at the time of the flood, she considers herself one of the luckier ones.
For a month she stayed with friends in Bentley who helped her strip out the caravan and start again, collecting furniture via a flood fund set up by a local church. Others weren’t so fortunate.
“There’s some people on the site who didn’t really get any support. Some ended up having to sleep in a bus in the car park,” Smith recalls.
At one time, floods like the one Bentley experienced in 2019 were considered once-in-a-generation events. But as these incidents become increasingly common, the long-term consequences could be sinister, says Surminski.
“This is a harsh term, but we could be creating flood-risk ghettos in poorer areas.
“Flooding becomes a compounding factor where if there’s already a degree of deprivation in an area after flooding it becomes even less attractive as a place to live,” she says.
It’s an impact we’re only just beginning to see in the UK, says Phiala Mehring of the National Flood Forum charity, citing an example of an elderly man she met who was unable to move away to find better care for his ill wife.
“He’s stuck in a property nobody wants to buy”, she says. “It’s just heartbreaking”.
‘A choice between insurance or putting a meal on the table‘
Over time, successive governments have poured billions of pounds into flood solutions, with Flood Re the flagship of them all.
Established in 2013, Flood Re is an insurance scheme designed to offer cheaper cover to people whose properties are at high risk of flooding. In many areas it’s succeeded in this aim – but only where people are insured to begin with.
“In Bentley there are quite a few people who are very deprived and not financially able to pay for insurance,” Nightingale says.
“The choice is between putting a meal on the table or paying insurance – it’s obvious what you’d choose.”
According to an independent review of 2019 flooding in Doncaster, 37 percent of surveyed households in Bentley had no contents insurance when they were flooded.
If replicated across the country, the report noted, hundreds of thousands of vulnerable households are currently “unprotected against flooding”.
The report put Bentley’s low insurance take-up down to its high proportion of private tenants on low incomes, who are especially vulnerable in the wake of a flood: private landlords have no obligation to provide alternative accommodation and are not prevented from charging rent for the period in which a property is uninhabitable.
At one flood conference attended by Mehring several years ago, the horrifying ramifications of this situation were revealed by a renter who spoke before the audience.
“They told us they had no money, and no insurance, and the landlord hadn’t sorted out the flood water downstairs from two years prior. They were forced to live upstairs and continue paying rent,” she says.
Heather Shepherd, flood recovery expert at the National Flood Forum, says the government has heralded Flood Re as a resounding success for making insurance more affordable for millions without ever stopping to consider what “affordable” really means.
“The government’s idea of affordable insurance is insurance that costs just a few hundred pounds instead of thousands.
“They need to wake up and smell the coffee because there’s people who are struggling to put food on the table and hundreds is still out of reach for so many people,” she says.
Even for those who are insured, the picture isn’t so rosy: Surminski points out that Flood Re only covers homes built before 2009, meaning any built after that point are ineligible for cheaper insurance.
“The idea was to discourage development in flood prone areas, but in reality that hasn’t happened,” she says.
Others discover their policy doesn’t cover flooding, or end up in battles with insurance companies over what they will or won’t fix.
“My insurance is two or three times more expensive than other people I know, but [the company] wouldn’t pay for things like repainting whole rooms – just one wall – and I still have damp problems to this day,” Bentley resident Lisa Milsom tells me.
“The voices of lower-income communities aren’t heard”
While there’s a whole body of available research into the economic consequences of flooding, studies examining the long-term human impacts are far more limited.
What is out there paints a grim picture. Research by the EA and Public Health England (PHE) found the odds of suffering from depression, anxiety or PTSD was six times higher for those affected by flooding than those unaffected in the year after the event. Untreated, the effects could last for up to three years.
In the course of her work with the NFF, Mehring has seen all kinds of conditions manifest as a result of flooding, from panic attacks during heavy rain to families too afraid to go on holiday for fear of a flood while they’re away.
In the eyes of both Shepherd and Mehring, the mental health implications of flooding are a vastly under-appreciated consequence of flood events, with support all but evaporating “once the blue lights have disappeared”.
“You might think, for instance, that it takes poorer households longer to be put back into their homes but it’s often the opposite: they’re shunted back into homes which haven’t even dried out yet, or are totally unsuitable for living in,” Shepherd says.
“One lady I visited had a house so full of mud she couldn’t even put her three-month old baby on the ground – she had to just keep him in the pram,” she adds.
What’s more, any disruption to household finances can tip the scales for those on low incomes. Living in temporary accommodation might mean forking out for takeaways or laundrette services, forcing people to spend money they don’t have.
“Adding to all this is my worry – that the voices of lower-income communities aren’t heard,” says Shepherd.
“People in poverty [who get flooded] just get nowhere,” says Shepherd.”
‘We’ve been battered by the government‘
Anger is a commonplace emotion following flooding – and much of this fury is directed first at local authorities. It’s something Nightingale knows first-hand.
“When I went down to help in 2019 residents were rightfully emotional and angry – and a lot of that got directed at me,” she recalls.
While sympathetic to the anger and frustration, Nightingale can’t help but feel exasperated at the precarious situation councils now find themselves in thanks to years of underfunding.
“We’re doing our best but we’ve been battered financially by the government. It’s difficult to get that across to people,” she says.
According to Defra, deprived areas are weighted more heavily in flood funding allocations – but in 2021, the Public Accounts Committee discovered that the proportion of funding going to these areas has declined since 2014.
In a recent report from think tank Bright Blue, the author noted with concern that this decline presents an “obvious concern” for the government’s much-vaunted levelling up agenda.
In Bentley, there’s been some progress: the caravans at Willow Bank have been raised several feet, (one stubborn resident exempting) and there’s been some take-up of property resilience – though Nightingale notes that only around 260 homes applied for the funding.
The suburb remains waiting on larger-scale funding for flood defences, delayed by various levels of bureaucracy.
If the floods came again tomorrow, says Nightingale, “they’d happen in exactly the same way”.
In spite of the anger and frustration, everyone I speak to in Bentley recalls the last floods as a time when the community was brought together in a spirit that endures to this day.
The residents that shouted Nightingale down in the street on November 8, she tells me, are now “some of her closest friends”.
Community spirit can only go so far, of course, and Nightingale’s mission is to give her ward a voice in the decisions that will determine its future. She concedes it’s not been the easiest task.
“The more affluent communities get more, have a louder voice,” she says.
For deprived communities without pillars like Jane, the future looks more uncertain, says Mehring.
“They’re not the vocal people, and they often don’t engage well with flood authorities. Mr. Angry from Kent is far more likely to be listened to,” she says.
Empowering these communities, providing targeted funding and post-flood support will be the only way to protect these areas as climate change accelerates, Mehring adds.
The risk of not doing so is enormous, Surminski says.
“Climate change reinforces existing inequality, and it’s a threat to the efforts being made to tackle poverty not just in developing countries but in the UK too.”
For now, Nightingale continues to fight Bentley’s corner with a watchful eye on the River Don’s levels.
“I always say if this was Downing Street or Westminster, if this was the Thames, they would do something about it.
“My message to the authorities is always this: be mindful that these are people’s homes, their entire lives. Without action, they’ll continue in this constant state of anxiety and distress.”
A Defra spokesperson told the Big Issue:
“More than 500 properties in Bentley and the surrounding area are better protected from flooding as a result of £5,000 grants which were made available following the terrible flooding in November 2019, and we’re also working with industry and Flood Re to ensure flood insurance is affordable to all.
“Alongside this, we’re investing a record £5.2 billion in new flood and coastal defences across England, with the most deprived areas qualifying for this investment at more than twice the rate of less deprived areas and more than £110 million is already being invested in South Yorkshire.”