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Obvious solutions

It is apparently as plain as the nose on your face that it is just as daft to build houses and commercial properties on flood plains in the United Kingdom as it is to erect holiday homes on the Gulf Coast of the United States.

The recent experience of unprecedented flooding in the United Kingdom seems once again to underline this fact, just as 2005's winds in the Gulf of Mexico did in the United States.

But most of the properties wrecked by the recent U.K. floods are in historic towns such William Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon, Worcester, Gloucester and Tewkesbury.

They can hardly be called new towns—recently constructed by profit-hungry developers who were given permission by vote-hungry local politicians desperate to provide so-called affordable housing.

These are some of the oldest market towns in England—most of them pre-Norman and some a thousand years older still—and were built by people who had a much greater choice of where to settle.

They chose these sites because of—not in spite of—the fact that they were on or close by to rivers because they were the best places to be in the age before roads, rail and air travel.

They knew that it was possible that on occasion the rain would fall harder than normal and that their wattle and daub homes would be washed away—they did not need to carry out stochastic calculations to come up with return periods.

These early Britons made a risk-reward assessment of the most basic sort that concluded that life was generally easier if you lived beside a major waterway, than if you hid away up a lonely mountain in fear of floods.

This is the reason that the current U.K. government and previous ones have been so keen to build hundreds of thousands of houses along the so-called Thames corridor, heading eastwards out from central London.

Everybody knows (or should know) that if you buy a house or a commercial property east of the Thames Flood barrier alongside the river, it is likely to wind up under water at some point.

They should also be aware that it will be more difficult to find affordable insurance than for an equivalent property north of London that sits on a hill.

But the government is determined that south east England needs lots of new houses because it needs to accommodate its fast-growing population and ensure London retains its leading global position.

The City is, however, running out of space because nobody wants to build on the countryside (to the north, west and south) anymore—so the Thames corridor is a risky but necessary option.

The key point is surely that we should not even think about building houses and commercial properties by rivers because they may flood on occasion, but rather to make sure proper, sensible risk assessments are carried out before the decision is made, adequate investment in flood defense systems is made and everyone is made aware of the dangers and how to cope once the crisis hits.

The current flood "crisis" in the United Kingdom suggests that, once again, the authorities are probably guilty of failing to plan for, and communicate, the risks sufficiently and that the public is guilty of hoping that it will never happen to them, again.

Once again—as with events in the Gulf of Mexico over the last couple of years—the main lesson to be learned is that for whatever reason the risk profile has changed, individuals, corporations and governments must act decisively now to cope.

Head in the sand really does not work during a flood.