Christine Seib says many of the government's cheap houses will be built on flood plains
This week we were mostly talking about affordable housing. Well, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was talking about affordable housing, and how his grand Five Year Plan will help 80,000 people into home ownership by 2010, with 1.1 million new houses to be built in the South East by 2016, costing a mere £60,000.
The rest of us were wondering if all this lovely affordable housing would be swiftly rendered unaffordable through government bungling. And, of course, how much risk insurers would end up carrying.
The Prescott identified four "growth areas" that he is particularly keen on developing: the Thames Gateway, Ashford, the M11 corridor and the South Midlands. They are in the
South East, where everyone is supposed to want to live.
The problem is, they are also smack bang in the middle of some stonking great flood plains.
The ABI got out some maps and did the calculations. Using a sample of 200,000 houses, just a small proportion of the number of houses actually proposed, it spread them out evenly over the areas for development identified by local authorities in Prescott's "growth areas".
If evenly spaced, 10,000 of the 200,000 houses will end up at significant risk of flooding - that, in technical terms, is one hugely damaging deluge every 75 years.
Ten thousand at risk is bad enough, even with sensible placement. The trouble is, no one has much faith that all of the local authorities responsible for deciding the exact placement of the developments can be trusted to be sensible. There is a danger that more than 10,000 houses will be at significant risk of flooding.
The ABI, which has to maintain a polite negotiating position, says, relatively mildly, that it hopes to work with the government on the issue. But insurers are not afraid to be blunt. They are not afraid to say the word 'uninsurable'. Nor should they be.
If the government ignores the insurers' warnings, it can hardly complain when insurers, which are, although many people like to forget, commercial enterprises, decline to cover these affordable houses.
Unfortunately, and admittedly with some help from the media, insurers often end up taking the blame for these kind of hiccups.
I put a call into the Deputy PM's press office, where they blithely assured me that local authorities were expected to abide by Planning Policy Guidance Note 25 (PPG25), which guides their decisions on planning permission for developments in flood plains.
But PPG25 is not a statutory requirement and the ABI says that it is frequently ignored. On top of that, only 40% of planning applications are sent to the Environment Agency for advice on flood risk, and even when they are told not to give planning permission, local authorities ignore the agency's advice in 25% of cases.
But hey, it may be too soon to panic. In 1997 Prescott, then Secretary of State for Transport, was widely quoted as saying: "I will have failed in this if in five years there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car."
Five years later, road traffic had increased by 7% and the Deputy PM has denying ever uttering the fateful words, despite the fact that they appeared in Hansard.
There is always a chance that, like the traffic reduction, the affordable houses will never materialise. As Metallica, one of my favourite philosophers, once said - sad but true. IT