Floods in Britain highlight insurance dispute

AP News

11/28/2012 7:51:51 AM - AP News

LONDON (AP) — Lynne Jones' cozy bed and breakfast in Britain's Lake District boasts views over the River Greta where heron come to feed, and a panoramic vista of Skiddaw mountain.

Jones says her B&B has another virtue: It's practically watertight. In an island nation where some 920 homes have flooded and at least three people have died in the past few days, that's saying something.

"It's almost an ark," she said. "Short of actually letting it float, we've done everything we can to protect it."

But the floodgates and other fixtures Jones installed haven't led to lower insurance premiums. And things may get worse, as the British government and British insurers battle over a deal that would provide state guarantees for flood coverage at a time when losses are expected to rise because of global warming.

With more storms on the way, the government and the insurance industry are engaged in mutual finger-pointing. Insurers say the government is failing to provide homeowners the type of guarantees that other European countries and the U.S. do, while the government is accusing the industry of whipping up people's fears by publicizing its negotiating position even before flood waters have receded.

If a deal isn't struck by the end of June, as many as 200,000 people in Britain could either lose their insurance or find it too expensive to pay premiums that are certain to rise without government guarantees.

All this comes as the European Environment Agency reported that global warming has caused an overall rise in sea levels globally and along most of the region's coasts. There has also been an increase in flooding along streams and rivers.

Floods and storms account for around two-thirds of the costs for natural disasters, the agency concluded. And those costs continue to rise.

"The contribution of climate change to the damage costs from natural disasters is expected to increase in the future due to the projected increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather," the report said.

Mindful of the trend, British insurers want to place a surcharge on all insurance premiums to create a new funding pot to cover flooding claims. But until that fund is built up, they want the government to back a temporary overdraft to cover any shortfalls during periods of intense flooding. So far, there's no deal, and people watching floodwaters rise across the country have become uneasy.

"Negotiations have hit an impasse," Nick Starling, the director of general insurance at the Association of British Insurers said in a statement. "Insurers know their customers are increasingly worried about flood cover and we will therefore continue talks with government to try and find a way forward."

The government says the door is still open to an agreement, but declined to get into the specifics. But it did take time to criticize the timing of the industry's announcement, coming as heavy rains swept across the country and forced the evacuations of hundreds of homes.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said raising the issue of insurance was causing alarm unnecessarily.

"I think the timing was unhelpful," he told BBC on Monday. "There are a lot of people across the country who are going to face some very bad weather over the next few days. Many people are extremely worried, and I think it is not helpful to alarm people when we are in close, detailed negotiations."

Prime Minister David Cameron raced to flooded areas Tuesday to underscore his concern. But with images of furniture floating down streets and cars lurching in torrents of mud, the argument that more needs to be done to help people recover is tough to ignore.

Governments around the world have responded to the problem of flooding in different ways. In Germany, coverage for flooding is offered as an optional add-on for household insurance with some 30 percent who need it going to private insurers — although the state has stepped in to help after big disasters. In the United States, the government partly backs flood insurance for high risk households, as does France, the insurers' group said.

In the Netherlands, home of the legendary boy who held back floodwaters by placing his finger in a dike, flood risk is normally excluded from property insurance policies due to the high potential loss. The Dutch state will pay compensation under some circumstances to those suffering losses that the market does not insure, though there are limits.

The National Flood Forum, a U.K. charity that represents people who are at risk of flooding, hopes that the latest troubles will finally persuade ministers and the industry to strike a deal. Talks on a plan have been going on for years and without an agreement people will struggle to get insurance and to deal with the consequences, said Paul Cobbing, the group's chief executive officer.

"The floods that have happened in the last few days are the perfect illustration of why insurance is so important," Cobbing said. "It saves families from ruin."

Homeowners like Jones, 59, from the town of Keswick in Cumbria, want the government and insurers to settle their differences — for the benefit of the people and their piece of mind. She urged homeowners to learn their rights — particularly in terms of what they can ask of insurance companies when they pay claims.

A lot, she says, can be wrapped up in one piece of real estate.

"It's our home. It's our business," she said. "It's our children's inheritance."

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Associated Press Writers Angela Charlton, Mike Corder and David Rising contributed to this report.