Widespread flooding last week left dozens of homes uninhabitable and their residents homeless. Nick Duxbury assesses the damage and examines why extreme weather could pose a big problem for social landlords in the future
The only thing that might be more British than making polite conversation about the weather is showing a ‘blitz’ spirit in the face of too much rain. On this basis, Newburn, near Newcastle, is the most British place in Britain right now.
Rain is the favoured topic of conversation here. Sandbags are piled up by the side of the closed-off high street and on the second floor of Newburn Leisure Centre, in a make-shift emergency respite centre, evacuees are exhibiting war spirit. The room is populated by staff from Newcastle Council, its arm’s-length management organisation Your Homes Newcastle, ambulance people, police officers, and local residents who have been evacuated from their properties.
It’s not raining in the Newcastle area any more - that’s the good news. The bad news, however, is that three days of sustained downpour last week has left a new, 51-home, private apartment block facing demolition, and the residents of 18 council-owned apartments in two neighbouring blocks temporarily homeless. Heavy rain in May damaged a culvert (a drain pipe that often runs under roads), and then the new torrent last Monday washed away soil exposing the foundations of privately owned Spencer Court, sparking fears it might collapse. As a result, the two nearby council blocks, managed by 27,000-home Your Homes Newcastle, now sit empty and are guarded by police. Beneath is a car park filled with water, and the high street is blocked off completely.
Source: Nick Duxbury
The ALMO has been forced to evacuate its 31 affected tenants twice - once on Tuesday, and then again on Thursday - the day Inside Housing visits. Staff say that on the Tuesday night most households stayed with friends or in temporary accommodation and 14 private residents bedded down in the emergency room in the Leisure Centre on camp beds. At the busiest time there were around 40 residents being re-housed here, with the most vulnerable people, such as those requiring medication, being prioritised. Now only a handful remain, drinking tea and nibbling at fish and chips taken from a pile of foil-covered plates stacked in a crate, watching looping Sky News footage on the TV.
‘A policeman knocked on the door at 7.15am on Tuesday and told me that I had to leave,’ recalls one Your Homes Newcastle tenant of 20 years who did not wish to be named. ‘I had time to put my cats in a cat carrier and was allowed to pack. But some people who have been in here weren’t given time to pack anything. They [the council] probably shouldn’t have let us back in on Wednesday night. I didn’t sleep well. The worst thing now is waiting and not knowing what is going to happen.’
Later that day, the ALMO broke the news to its evacuated tenants that they were unlikely to be able to return to their properties for six months. On Friday it issued each household member with £100 to cover the cost of clothes over the weekend. Now it faces the difficult job of temporarily - and in some cases permanently - re-housing all 18 households for a long period and then claiming the costs, including rental loss of £1,233 a week, back from Northumberland Estates, a company part-owned by the Duke of Northumberland, which owns the land with the culvert on.
John Lee, chief executive of Your Homes Newcastle, has entered talks with Northumberland Estates. He says he has informed it that the ALMO intends to make a claim against it but will pick up the tab for looking after tenants in the meantime. He now has to work out whether the two blocks will also need to be demolished. ‘This week I will be pushing very hard for them to be allowed back to collect some of their possessions,’ he says.
While it might be the most high profile victim of the latest deluge of heavy rainfall across the UK, Your Homes Newcastle is by no means the only landlord in the region to be hit by flooding. As of Wednesday last week, 83 flood warnings - meaning flooding was expected - were issued across England and Wales, and also warnings across five Scottish regions. Around 400 properties were thought to have been under water - and regardless of tenure, it was down to local authorities to pick up the pieces. At the end of June neighbouring Tyneside landlord, 21,000-home Gateshead Housing Company, was badly hit by floods. Water damaged 360 of its properties, forcing the ALMO to temporarily re-house 60 households.
Similarly, in Sunderland, Gentoo Group was forced to evacuate 15 families in June when 80 of its homes were damaged by flooding. Today, the 30,000-home housing association is still cleaning up and totting up the cost of the damage. Kitchens had to be ripped out, concrete floors repaired, and electrics rewired.
Ian Porter, managing director of Gentoo, says the majority of tenants have returned to their homes, but not all. ‘Some of our homes got hit with a second deluge the other day meaning some tenants couldn’t move back in,’ he says.
‘We are working very closely with the council and the water company to identify the problem - because the other thing to consider is when you put flood defences in, you are pushing it [water] elsewhere as well. There are different problems in different parts. Some houses have been there 40 years and never had this problem before. But for others there may be a repeat because of the change in weather.’
Gentoo’s total bill looks like it will come to £250,000. Shelling out a quarter of a million pounds as the cost of a rainy few days could become an increasingly common occurrence for landlords across the UK.
According to the government’s Committee on Climate Change, four times as many homes - 610,000 properties - and businesses risk flooding in the next 20 years if the UK does not prepare for climate change. In the same report, published in June, the committee warned that local authorities allow 20 per cent of new developments to be built in flood-risk areas.
The Environment Agency estimates that funding for flood defences needs to increase by £20 million a year on top of inflation to keep pace with the rate of climate change - which, in July, the Met Office blamed for the recent extreme weather. Yet the government has cut spending on flood defences by 12 per cent after inflation. The message to landlords, in short, is to expect more droughts and flooding and fewer resources in response.
Source: Nick Duxbury
There is also concern around insuring properties in high-risk flooding areas. An agreement known as the Statement of Principles between the Association of British Insurers and the government, which ensures that widespread flood insurance will be readily available, expires in July 2013.
The British Property Federation has warned this could mean more than 200,000 homes and businesses will no longer be insurable - potentially causing huge problems with lenders who will want to know that their security is safe. The two parties have been locked in negotiations for months, with the ABI arguing the government needs to invest more in flood defences. This was supposed to have been resolved months ago, but an agreement seem a long way off.
‘The ABI discussions have overshot,’ says Ian Fletcher, director of policy at BPF. ‘People start to renew their policies a year in advance - this should have been resolved in July of this year.’
A spokesperson for ABI insists the organisation is aware of the urgency of the situation and that progress is being made. He adds that any agreement is likely to end in a pooling arrangement where insurers share the risk.
Even if such an agreement is reached, Mr Fletcher says landlords will have to do much more to protect themselves in the future.
‘The current system of universal flood insurance doesn’t give incentive for people in high-risk areas to protect their properties. The new one is much more likely to,’ he adds. ‘Landlords will need to think about installing measures and retrofitting their properties - technology has moved on since sandbags.’
Insurance is not just a potential problem for landlords. Few tenants have contents insurance, meaning flood damage can leave families without means to replace personal possessions and everyday necessities. The Northern Housing Consortium is examining ways to reduce insurance premiums for social tenants, but this will come too late to help Your Homes Newcastle tenants in Newburn.
‘Only about 40 per cent of our tenants have home contents insurance,’ says Mr Lee. ‘The dozen or so tenants we have in this case that haven’t been covered by insurance pose the problem: who pays for new furniture if they cannot get back in [to remove their belongings]?’
This is one of countless headaches that Mr Lee is likely to encounter over the coming weeks and months as he mops up the damage in Newburn. But as autumn takes grip and the weather turns, torrential rain and blitz spirit are likely to become increasingly common topics of conversation for social landlords across Britain.
John Lee, chief executive of Your Homes Newcastle, gives Inside Housing an exclusive update on the progress in re-housing tenants:
‘We have been working with each of the households to understand their immediate housing preferences, particularly whether they would prefer to remain in temporary accommodation until more information on the condition of the land and buildings becomes available, or if they would prefer to make a permanent move straight away. We are helping the tenants that want to move immediately by actively identifying properties on their behalf and making direct lets. As of Tuesday morning, we have just one more household to assist into a new home, having arranged nine permanent moves and seven long term temporary lets - the other household was already in the process of ending their tenancy.’