LONDON (Reuters) - British ministers demanded insurance firms act swiftly to pay out cash to flood-hit homes and businesses on Tuesday as the government shifted focus from the day-to-day management of severe flooding to coping with the aftermath.
Parts of Britain have been under water since December after a series of unusually heavy storms inundated large swathes of the British countryside, flooding thousands of homes, damaging transport links and shutting down businesses.
After weeks of warning that more rain was on the way, forecasters now say Britain is set for improved weather, which means ministers can move from dealing with worsening floods and instead focus on efforts to rebuild once the waters recede.
Prime Minister David Cameron, whose initial response to the flooding provoked criticism, must now convince voters his government is in control of the clean-up. Critics have demanded answers to longer-term questions about Britain’s flood defences and the impact of climate change on the country’s weather.
“We want to make sure that the insurance companies are doing their bit, putting all their resources into dealing with these claims,” said the junior minister for flooding, Dan Rogerson, after meeting insurance firms representing nearly two-thirds of the market.
He said the industry’s response so far had been very reassuring. The opposition Labour party criticised Cameron for not attending the meeting, calling it a “vacuous PR stunt.”
Analysts at Deloitte estimated that the bill for repairs may end up reaching 1 billion pounds.
With consumers and businesses expressing concern at a likely rise in flood insurance costs, Rogerson pointed to a government reinsurance scheme due to come into effect next year that aims to provide affordable premiums for owners of flood-prone homes.
According to the British government, flood-hit households have already received 14 million pounds of emergency payments since December 23, while around 24 million pounds has been spent on emergency accommodation.
No such reinsurance scheme exists for businesses but Rogerson said the government was seeking views on whether commercial property insurance reform was needed.
The British Chambers of Commerce said it would be watching insurers vigilantly to ensure that they paid out to affected businesses swiftly and fairly.
While the flood impact could have an impact on Britain’s economic recovery, it is not seen as sufficient to derail the country’s long-term rebound.
Britain’s two-party coalition government has faced intense pressure over the floods, with critics saying that problems have been exacerbated by years of under-investment in river dredging and flood defences.
Cameron and other senior ministers have faced angry voters on visits to the flood-hit regions - some of which are expected to be important battleground areas in next year’s elections.
Almost three-quarters of Britons said the government does not appear to be in control of the flooding, an opinion poll for ITV and ComRes showed.
The floods have also pushed climate change up the British political agenda. The poll also showed 79 percent thought Britain was not equipped to deal with weather it is likely to face over the next five years.
Cameron has said Britain is experiencing more extreme weather events and can expect more, but has been more reluctant than other leaders to draw a direct link to climate change.
Last week Ed Davey, the government’s energy minister and a member of the junior coalition partner Liberal Democrat party, said Britain needed to do more to prevent climate change and acknowledge its role in causing the floods.
He said “partisan politics” was endangering Britain’s political consensus on cutting harmful emissions and accused climate change sceptics in Cameron’s Conservative party of scaring off investors in low-carbon energy.
On Sunday Labour leader Ed Miliband, currently frontrunner to become Prime Minister at next year’s election, said Britain risked “sleepwalking into a national security crisis” on climate change.
Editing by David Evans and Sonya Hepinstall