Floodplain buildings could be insurable if the industry starts talking to housebuilders and government, says Ivan Moss

What do the insurance business and planning profession have in common? Both are concerned with predicting future events, but the particular link I have in mind is flooding.

This link was made during a seminar at the Strategy 2002 conference. As a planner, I attempted to explain why development happens on the floodplain and will continue. After all, the planning system should be looking at the future outcomes of planning decisions.

Many towns, driven by market pressures, were built at crossing points of rivers with building on the floodplain. The Victorians went one step further and built in the river itself, when they extended the Embankment in London and swallowed up 37 acres of the Thames.

But, with the onset of statutory planning, shouldn't things have been different? Flood issues were taken into account, but two key factors were missed. One was climate change, which perhaps no one could have predicted. The other was changing farming practices leading to excessive water run-off from agricultural land. Even apparently innocent changes like planting winter wheat instead of ploughing and leaving land fallow has a significant impact on water run-off.

So why are we still building in the floodplain? Planning is about balancing competing demands. Central government policy is to seek sustainable development by re-using brownfield land.

The government's latest figures suggest about 920,000 homes could be built on land that has been previously developed. It is likely that a substantial percentage of these will be in the floodplain.

Two examples illustrate this. One is the area east of London known as the Thames Gateway, where the government expects about 200,000 houses to be built. The other is Nottingham Riverside, where 3,000 houses are planned to be built in a city centre location - all within the flood plain of the River Trent.

The point is that if the houses are not built in these locations it means releasing greenfield sites or possibly areas within the green belt. We are trapped between the rock of a floodplain and the hard place of greenfield sites.

So what does the insurance industry do? Wait for the houses to be built and then refuse to insure them. This saves the industry money, but causes chaos in local property markets.

From my experience at Strategy 2002, I believe there are two key areas where the insurance industry can and should get involved.

The first of these is not waiting for houses to be built, but get involved in deciding where they should be built. This means getting to know how and why land is allocated for development and being involved in the process.

There is a choice. You can start by reading the eight volumes of the Planning Encyclopaedia, or you could engage the services of experts in the field.

It is almost certain that houses will continue to be built on the floodplain. Perhaps the insurance industry should be more proactive in talking to government and the house building industry to develop a new standard for such houses.

This could examine both flood-proofing and also designs to make recovery from floods quicker.

All this activity can only help to improve the image of the industry.

Ivan Moss is senior planner at Smith Stuart Reynolds. E-mail ivan.moss@ssrplanning .