Chris Blunkell

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I'm married to Claire and together, with our son Lewis, we live in Seasalter - just outside Whitstable, Kent, in the south east of England.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Individualising climate risks - an idiot responds

Owner occupation, conservatism and social unrest
Could climate change have come at worse time for UK coastal dwellers?

Many years ago my then girlfriend told me that she found it hard to respect me because I lived in ‘rented accommodation’. I remember at the time thinking what a curiously formal description it was (you can imagine Wallace using it when speaking to Grommit), and what a deadly weight it seemed to have. Looking back, two things strike me. First is my naivety in not seeing this as a signal that the relationship might struggle, and second is the place of housing tenure in considering loss of homes due to the impacts of climate change and associated government policy.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when the story about the availability of insurance for those in areas with a high risk of flooding was covered by the Guardian[1].  Predictably, the subsequent on-line discussion prompted a range of views, one of which I would suggest is broadly represented by the (verbatim) post:  “Why should I bail out…some idiot who buys a house in a flood risk area?”. Broadening the area under discussion to cover responsibility for adaptation to climate change as it applies to coastal dwellers rather than simply flooding, there is an important point to be considered here.

As things stand, those who have been told that they can expect their homes to be lost to the sea at some point can also expect to bear the full cost. Our Guardian commentator would presumably see this as proper given the individuals’ presumed choice to have bought houses is such locations. But this is to ignore an opportunity to put such questions into a wider and more interesting context with regard to the allocation of risks.

The Anglo-Saxon model

The UK pursues a distinctive approach to housing tenure that favours owner-occupation – characterised by Ronald[2] as the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model. This has not always been the case, however. He explains that “At the beginning of the 20th century most British households rented their homes from private landlords and as few as one in ten were owner-occupiers”, and that despite the promise of state support for local authorities in providing new houses for rent in the early 1920s “funds were increasingly shifted…into the provision of owner-occupied homes” (p.22). By 1938 the proportion of owner occupied housing had increased to 32 per cent.

The immediate post-war period and the Labour government’s welfare state, Ronald tells us,   “called for radical changes in housing policy which involved the mass building of rental housing” (p.23). However, this was followed by a reversal in policy which appears to have proceeded more or less uninterrupted ever since. In the 1950s the Conservatives “committed themselves to the ideal of the ‘property owning democracy’” (23) with homeownership establishing itself as the majority tenure by the 1970s. The accompanying property price-boom not only established an “enduring belief that homeownership is one of the best, if not the best, investment accessible to ordinary people” but also saw Labour governments become “more partisan to homeownership policy…”. (23)
Under the Thatcher government, housing privatisation – including the sale of council houses - became a focus of policy accompanied, Ronald observes, by deregulation of the credit market so that by the end of 1990s “the homeownership rate was above 64 per cent” (p.23). Despite an initially cautious approach, Ronald explains that “…New Labour soon began to warm-up to owner-occupation”.  In 2005 plans to “extend homeownership to 75 percent of housing” were announced, with Brown during his tenure as Prime Minister “explicit about his desire to further expand opportunities for homeownership and enhance the features of an asset-based social security system.” (p.24) Thus, we might observe that the individual’s assumption of risk through home ownership can at least in part be historically located and be identified as the product of a politically consensual policy transformation – with this style of tenure operating in lockstep with emerging orthodoxies concerning individualism, welfare and citizenship.

The General Strike 1926 - crossing London Bridge
Kemeny, Ronald tells us, conflates private ownership to the development of “a reserve of housing wealth” that, amongst other things, “offsets pension shortfalls in old age” (p.22); whilst between the world wars the expansion of working class ownership was considered “a potential antidote to both the decline in the private rental sector, on one side, and labour-union agitation, social unrest and demands for the expansion of citizenship rights on the other.” (p.22) In post-war Britain, he namechecks MacMillan, Eden and Thatcher in identifying “an assumption that homeownership would improve civic responsibility and encourage support for conservative political parties…”. (p.29) Buying a house, then, appears to offer value way beyond any individual benefits – an alternative to state welfare provision, and a means of encouraging a certain political disposition in service of a particular type of social order.

Finally, Ronald identifies the current era as “a period of ‘total homeownership policy’ whereby this type of tenure is “almost universally considered the ‘best’ or ‘natural’ way to produce and consume housing” (30). ‘Tenure imperialism’, he calls it.

Where the heart is

Writing some years previously, Gurney[3] explores the ways in which the idea of ‘home’ – being ‘where the heart is’ and ‘where charity begins’, and ‘an Englishman’s castle’, is closely associated with owner-occupation in government policy. He observes of policy documents that: “’Home’ is frequently used to differentiate between the dwellings of householders in owner occupation and in rented accommodation; and dwellings of those in owner occupation are imbued with the warmth and security ‘home’ whilst renters are accorded a more Spartan language to describe their dwelling.” (p.172) In the 1995 Housing White paper, Gurney argues, the idea of ‘home’ exists in a much more meaningful way for those in home ownership than it does for renters, and is expressed through “ideas of love, warmth, comfort, pride, independence and self-respect” (p.173). 

Policy papers also associate home ownership with the uptake and expression of certain values. A 1971 Department of the Environment and Welsh Office command paper sees the government associate home ownership with social advance, whilst in 1981 the Department of the Environment has it that home ownership “ensures the spread of wealth through society…enables parents to accrue wealth for their children and stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance that are the bedrock of a free society” This, proposes Gurney, “carries with it the expectation of home owners being good citizens, good parents and good caretakers.” (176)  Perhaps even more fundamentally, Gurney tells us, the 1971 Department of the Environment and Welsh Office command paper tells us that the desire for home ownership is a “basic and natural desire” (p.178), with the obverse presumably the case for those living under other tenancy arrangements.

I’m not sure how familiar my old girlfriend was with government housing policy papers - not very, is my guess. However, is hard not to wonder at the power of official pronouncement to shape individuals’ opinions and actions through various means.

And I would challenge the individual who responded in such glib fashion to the story in the Guardian to reconsider his (or her) position on the individualisation of risk. I would never argue that those of who own homes on the coast that are at risk from rising sea levels have not exercised choice in so doing. But it is clearly the case that the situation we find ourselves in is significantly the result of forces associated with political preference and the cultivation of certain values, and that accordingly we are threatened as much by socio-economic and political impacts as we are natural ones.

Had climate change as currently understood become an issue in the same way 100 years ago, the consequences for coastal dwellers might have looked very different.  Far fewer would have owned their homes and been exposed to the kinds of risks identified here. Had it happened before the 1970s housing boom then the amount of capital at stake for those who did own their homes would have been smaller relative to earnings, and a state welfare may have been better placed to supported losers. It is also well documented that sea defence in the UK was provided more on the basis of vulnerability in the UK until relatively recently. This is, of course, to simplify.  However…

With best wishes


[2] Ronald, R. 2008. Market-Liberal Homeowner Societies: Questions of Convergance in & around an Anglo-Saxon model? Housing Finance International, March 2008, pp. 21-34.
[3] Gurney, C.  1999. Pride and Prejudice: Discourses of Normalisation in Public and Private Accounts of Home Ownership.  Journal of Housing Studies, Vol. 14. No. 2, 163-183.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Loss of coastal homes - time we knew the big picture

Beyond definitional quagmires and patchy data
Coastal communities and authority – partnership or conflict?

There is plenty I remain unclear about when it comes to the implications of rising sea levels and related policy decisions for those English and Welsh coastal dwellers whose homes are expected to be lost over time.  

I know that government is not minded to compensate losers, but also that it has trialled payments to those facing imminent loss through recent Coastal Pathfinder projects[1]. I don’t know what this means for policy, however – Pathfinders were initiated under a different government with, arguably, a rather different take on how risks should be shared between society and the individual.

I do know that, to a significant extent, government considers the achievement of just outcomes in this context to be predicated on communities’ exertion of influence on decision-making. DEFRA-commissioned guidance states that “communities that are most at risk to coastal change (sic) must be informed, engaged, and empowered to take an active part in what happens locally.”[2] (p.7) However, I am concerned that statements such as “The risk management authorities should work in partnership with communities to understand the community perspective of flooding and coastal erosion…and encourage them to have direct involvement in decision-making and risk management actions” (2011, p.14) threaten to obscure difficulties worthy of attention. 

 Leaving aside for one moment issues over precisely what is meant by terms such as ‘community’, and what the solution of problems might look like, there is evidence – as yet not particularly well-developed - of conflict between authorities and coastal ‘losers’. A recent analysis of national adaptation strategies[3] in European countries, referring to the UK, states that “The debate about the extent to which sea defences should be strengthened or ‘managed realignment’ planned for has been very controversial in some places.” (p.266) This was subsequently echoed by The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)[4], which highlighted “friction between government policy and local communities”, observing that “In places where the perceived threat to property and community vitality is high, community action groups have formed to seek policy change or compensation for loss.” (p.4) I wonder just how much conflict such encounters can accommodate and still be considered ‘partnerships, and remain curious as the scale and nature of such encounters and related conflict give that the bigger picture with regard to the loss of property over time remains unclear. 

Loss of homes - the big picture

I do know that government estimates that “In England, in 2009, around 5.2 million, or one in six, residential and commercial properties were identified as being in areas at risk of flooding from rivers, the sea and surface water. In addition, approximately 200 properties are assessed as being vulnerable at present, and 2,000 may become vulnerable, to coastal erosion over the next 20 years.”[5] (p.5) But I don’t know the scale of the problem as it applies the projected loss of coastal homes in England and Wales over time, and it is worth noting that the statement above only covers England, when Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs) set top level policy for sea defence in both England and Wales. Second, no distinction is made between risks from river flooding and risks from sea flooding. Third, what ‘vulnerable’ means in this context is not clear to me. However, on the grounds that it is distinguished from simply being ‘at risk of flooding’, I assume a suggestion of property likely to be lost to the sea. Finally, I’m not sure whether this applies to residential property only, or covers commercial/industrial and other buildings.

Finding consistent and comprehensive information on residential coastal properties likely to be lost to the sea under government preferred policies is difficult, if not impossible. A recent Internet trawl for data relevant contained in all second generation SMPs threw up various difficulties:

·         Far from all second generation SMPs had been published on-line by the relevant Operating Authorities when I searched them in November 2011, and of those that were published some were in draft form.

·         Where SMPs contained data on properties at risk under preferred policies, this was codified inconsistently. For example, some reported in terms of the financial value of properties concerned, whereas others report in terms of the number of properties. Others still were content to report simply that there are potential effects on property, without enumerating.  

·         A similar problem applies in terms of timeframes – whereas most SMPs that reported at all did so using short-, medium- and long-term analyses, one reported only over the whole 0-100 year period.

·         Finally, some SMPs were coy on the numbers of properties likely to be lost as investment in defence by affected communities remains to be negotiated.

I do know, however, that a detailed picture of homes likely to be lost is anticipated by officials imminently, and that it is expected to cover not only predicted erosion for the coasts of England and Wales but also the number of homes lost to the sea under government’s preferred policies in both the short term (0-20 years), medium term (20-50 years) and long term (50-100 years). A comprehensive understanding of homes expected to be lost under government policies, and the people and communities who inhabit them with a view to achieving just outcomes, is overdue.

It is imperative that government propels this information into the public domain and encourages its consideration. The public needs to know the numbers, and I want to know who is to shoulder these losses, where they are, and what kinds of settlements they live in. This, I suggest, may be closely related to their ability to negotiate acceptable outcomes with authority.

[2] DEFRA 2009c. Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast, working paper, Scott Wilson/Defra 2009.

[3] Swart, R., Biesbroek, R., Binnerup, S., Carter, T., Cowan, C., Henrichs, T.,
Loquen, S., Mela, H., Morecroft, M., Reese, M. and Rey, D. 2009. Europe Adapts to Climate Change: Comparing National Adaptation Strategies. PEER Report No 1. Helsinki: Partnership for European Environmental Research.

[4] Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. 2010. Postnote Number 363.
[5] Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs & the Environment Agency. 2011. Understanding the risks, empowering communities, building resilience: the national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy for England. London: The Stationery Office.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Double Exposure?

UK government coy on new approach to flood risk insurance - industry body says 200,000 homes may become uninsurable

Does UK belong in European adaptation mainstream?

Imagine you are crossing the road. You look up as you hear the rumble of a heavy engine, and you see a lorry headed slowly towards you. The driver is hanging from his window, frantically shouting that his brakes have failed and that you should get out of the way. You try to move – to get to the safety of the pavement – but you can’t. It is a curious kind of terror – the truck is moving so slowly that it will take a while for the disaster to occur, although occur it must. You are left to contemplate your end at leisure, and in grim detail, while others look on. Welcome to the world of the British coastal climate ‘loser’ – if not yet a certainty, then a deeply worrying prospect.

Existing agreement will not be renewed

As things stand, homeowners who live in areas likely to be lost to the sea can already expect to lose everything without compensation. Now we are faced with the prospect that, in the mean time, those at the highest risk of flooding will either not be able to obtain or not be able to afford insurance for our homes. Last week UK newspaper The Guardian reported on remarks made by Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Natural Environment and Fisheries Richard Benyon to the effect that an agreement with the insurance industry – due to expire in summer 2013 – will not be renewed.[1]

The current understanding commits insurers to make insurance available to householders and small businesses as a feature of standard policies “if the flood risk is not significant” or, where there is significant flood risk, providing the Environment Agency is committed to reduce that risk below the ‘significant level’.  Whilst a new shared understanding between government and the industry is expected shortly, it is by no means clear what this will mean, and the messages from various communications are mixed. A Written Ministerial Statement in December 2011 expressed a commitment on the part of both government and the insurance industry to “making sure flood insurance remains widely available”, whilst hinting at the emergence of risk-based pricing – in other words, that those in properties most at risk can expect to pay more.[2] This represents a shift of gear from the recent orthodoxy of “a cross-subsidy…between those at low and high risk of flooding” as expressed in the final report of government working groups on this subject[3] (p.4).

Government asserts that “the primary problem in the future will be the affordability, rather than the availability’ of flood insurance premiums for households and small businesses” (p.4) – a state of affairs that it is seemingly content with, given the statement that “…premiums and excesses should reflect the risk of flood damages to the property insured”. (p.5) However, a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation[4] suggests that the Association of British Insurers sees things rather differently, estimating that “some 200,000 households may become uninsurable when the current agreement ends in June 2013” with the prospect of neighbourhoods in which house are unsaleable and uninhabitable – to say nothing of the catastrophic personal effects this state of affairs might bring (p.3).

This all depends, of course, on which way the Government elects to jump when deciding upon which option it will go with when the current agreement expires. According to the report these range from doing nothing and allowing the market to adjust; ‘Facilitation’ involving support of the market through, for example, improving education and signposting to help ensure take up; and the creation of a ‘risk pool’ to which would see the combination of a free market with subsidisation of high risk property to ensure that affordable cover remains available. Besides a recommendation that ‘Facilitation’ options are taken up regardless, the report is coy as to preferences.

European comparisons

A recent analysis of national climate change adaptation strategies in Europe by the Partnership for European Environmental research (PEER) [5] stresses that such strategies will always involve a mixture of approaches” which it classifies broadly as:
  • Living with risks/bearing losses - an approach that accepts that certain systems, behaviours and activities can no longer be sustained (the abandonment of some areas of coast, for example)
  • Preventing effects/reducing exposures - illustrated by the practice of implementing technical solutions such as sea defences, and
  • Sharing responsibility – an approach which implies sharing the responsibility for financial and social losses or exposure to risk. (p.58-59)
 Insurance falls under the third of these approaches, although the Rowntree report reinforces the point that “The UK is peculiar in having a purely market-based approach to insurance in which risk is reflected in the premiums paid and borne by individual households” (p.2) and that “…in many EU countries, as well as in the USA, the provision of insurance or relief against flood damage is provided by or is guaranteed by the government.” (p.3) Thus, UK’s idea of ‘sharing responsibility’ might already be considered the ‘lite’ version. 

Despite the broad international adherence to the mixed model approach to adaptation, the PEER report asserted that “different emphases can be noted between countries in relation to how they deal with risk and make decisions about different adaptation options.” (p.61) Through policies of allowing areas of coast to be lost to the sea (and for homeowners to bear the costs) at the time the PEER study was undertaken, the UK had already planted one foot firmly in the ‘living with risks/bearing losses’ category. Subsequent announcements of reduced investment in sea defences and an increased requirement for local contribution in such infrastructure in the future suggests a corresponding withdrawal from the ‘Preventing effects/reducing exposures’ category. To now leave flood insurance cover to the vagaries of the market would surely see the UK risk an exit the identified mainstream ‘mixed-model’ approach, and leave coastal losers looking into eyes of the driver of the climate change truck. We’re all in it together, anybody?

Best wishes


[3] Defra. 2011. Flooding and insurance: a roadmap to 2013 and beyond Final Report of the Flood Insurance Working Groups. London: Defra.
[4] O’Neill, J. & O’Neill’ M. 2012. Social justice and the future of flood insurance. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation
[5] Swart, R., Biesbroek, R., Binnerup, S., Carter, T.R.,2009., Cowan, C., Henrichs, T., Loquen, S., Mela, H., Morecfort, M., Reese, M. and Rey, D. Europe Adapts to Climate Change: Comparing National Adaptation Strategies PEER Report No. 1. Helsinki: Partnership for European Environmental Research.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Adaptation - I just don't get it

Winners and losers - natural, inevitable and evolutionary or created by processes that 
benefit some at the expense of others?

You say adaptation, I say adaptation (let’s call the whole thing off)

If we’re going to talk about adaptation in the context of climate change it is probably a good idea to be clear about what we mean. In a hugely influential paper published in 2006 (generating a whopping 686 academic citations by my recent count), Smit and Wandel suggest that there whilst there are numerous definitions of adaptation to be found in the literature on climate change, they are mostly variations on a theme: “Adaptation in the context of human dimensions of global change usually refers to a process, action or outcome (system, household, community, group, sector, region, country) in order for the system to better cope with, manage or adjust to some changing condition, hazard, risk or opportunity.” (p.282)

In talking about scale or, in simpler language, who or what is required to do the adapting, Smit and Wandel[1] observe that analyses range from consideration of an individual or household at one of the spectrum to the whole of mankind at the other. On a related point, adaptation may be required in response to one particular stress (such as sea level rise and coastal flooding/erosion) or multiple stresses. Questions of timescale can also be brought into play – is change required this moment, this year, this decade, or are we looking at centuries? A moveable feast, then.

Also helpful is Smit and Wandel’s tracing of the idea to evolutionary biology, and mapping of how its meaning has changed as it has been differently applied. Originally referring, they say, to “development of genetic or behavioural characteristics which enable organisms or systems to cope with environmental changes to survive or reproduce” (p.283), ‘adaptation’ (according to Denevan whom they cite) might be broadened in the human context to encompass response not only to the physical environment, but also a “change in internal stimuli such as demography, economics and organization.” (p.283)

Climate stress and human activity

Why is this important? Well, it occurs to me, for example, that the latter interpretation encourages us to think more deeply about how climate stresses are framed by human activities. If, for example, we take Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and apply to it a simplistic ‘environmental change’ analysis, we might argue that the Joads and their neighbours had to leave their Oklahoma homes and move on simply because drought had rendered their farms no longer viable. It requires Deneven’s broader conceptualization to understand the Joads’ plight more in terms of changing agricultural practices and their effects, the Great Depression, and the policies and practices of the banks in foreclosing on them that we have come to associate with the story. I’ve long been an admirer of Steinbeck, and it has occurred to me more than once in recent years that in his reporting on the shabby treatment of the vulnerable he is very much a writer for our times.

 Some researchers have sought to analyse policy discourse on climate change using pretty much the two distinct positions briefly outlined above. Drawing on what they describe as “cornerstone social and scientific theories” (p.91), O’Brien and Leichenko[2] propose “two basic and contrasting views of winners and losers” in terms of climate change impacts. (p.93) The first – linked with social Darwinism, environmental determinism and neo-classical economics – “suggests that winner and losers are a natural, inevitable and evolutionary outcome of either ecological outcomes or the invisible hand of the free market – processes that are regarded as working for the larger good”. (p.93) …The second view – linked to Marxian perspectives - suggests that winners and losers are deliberately created through processes that benefit some at the expense of others.” (p.93) To simplify, losses to climate are broadly justified (desirable, even) by the first analysis, but not by the second.

Are coastal dwellers adapting to climate change or, as I see it, to an understanding of projections of climate change filtered through political preferences and resulting policies? We have seen that ‘adaptation’ as a term might cover a range of ideas, processes and activities that can differ hugely. The London dweller who may never have heard of the Thames Estuary 2100 project that will protect her and her interests from sea level rise in perpetuity – she is adapting to climate change by Smit and Wandel’s definition. So too is the rural coastal dweller who is told he can expect to lose his house uncompensated and who spends his days and nights organising his neighbours, writing to officials and reading policy documents.

And yet in the time I have spent dealing with those who make and discharge policy I have picked up the strong sense that ‘adaptation’ is only really used in reference to those people and communities where the sums for state investment in effective sea defence don’t add up. Recent Environment Agency guidance[3] for those working on the coast that “A number of ‘tools’ are available to help individuals and communities to adapt and become more resilient to coastal change and sea level rise, especially where coastal defence measures are not an option (my italics)” (p.154) would appear to lend credence to this view, although of course this may be designed to reflect the interests of the intended audience (I will attempt a fuller analysis of UK government discourse at some point).

Sometimes, when I am tired and my resilience in the face of all this has deserted me, my imagination leads me to the time when my home is pulled down in the face of the sea and we must leave (although in reality I will probably be long dead by then). My family and I load our things into our jalopy and join the other losers on the dusty road to higher ground to begin our new lives. As the road climbs I look back at the estuary we are leaving behind – in the distance I can see the new flood barrier and, safe behind it, the skyscrapers owned by the global banking corporations, the cathedral spires, the faint roofline of the busy city. Much closer, the bulldozers bite into the walls of our house with disconcerting ease – soon it will be hard to tell that it, and we, were ever there. Scanning a printed flyer promising work opportunities further west, I comfort myself with the thought that – even though we must surely suffer casualties along the way – this is natural, inevitable and evolutionary, and that we are all of us now properly adapted.  



[1] Smit, B. and Wandel, J. 2006. Adaptation, adaptive capacity and vulnerability. Global Environmental Change, vol. 16, pp.282-292.

[2] O’Brien, K.L. and Leichenko, R.M. 2003. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 93(1), pp. 89-103.

[3] Environment Agency. 2010. The coastal handbook. A guide for all those working on the coast.