Spend a few minutes walking around Cockermouth in Cumbria and the first thing that strikes you are the many signs that adorn the sides of buildings showing the extraordinary height the flood water reached back in 2009.
But the second thing visitors will notice is how vibrant the high street is. The road is lined with smartly painted, almost entirely independently owned stores, all enjoying brisk half-term trade. Coffee shops vie for custom alongside smart delis, bakeries and an amazing number of shoe shops. And there is no shortage of people hovering in front of estate agency windows – clearly wondering if they can afford to move to such a bustling place. It’s a sharp contrast to other nearby towns – and indeed most other high streets in market towns across the UK.
What makes this scene of prosperity all the more remarkable is that just over four years ago, the main high street was between five and six feet under a torrent of water – water that flowed so fast that engineers feared many of the north-east Cumbrian town’s Grade l and ll listed buildings would not survive.
Vans lifted by the rising waters from car parks as the flood washed through the town in November 2009 were found several miles downstream in the Derwent river. Many of the shop owners in what is one of the UK’s more remote areas, feared their livelihoods were ruined.
“At the time it was dreadful, shocking, but once the water had gone we soon realised we had a choice. We could either give up and just wait for someone to help us, or we could get together and put the town back together,” says Jonty Chippendale, who runs the town’s toy shop, and is a former chair of Cockermouth’s Chamber of Trade.
Many in Cockermouth’s business community now feel that the floods of 2009, while devastating at the time, have been the making of today’s town. The community came together (residents like to talk of “Cumbrian spirit”), £4.5m has been spent on the latest flood defences, and virtually every shop on the town’s main street has received an expensive makeover.
Today it boasts almost full shop occupancy, and if the queen of shops, Mary Portas, has not been there yet for inspiration, she should.
But behind the new facades, problems remain in obtaining affordable insurance, and residents report a mixed experience of getting cover – despite the extensive flood defence improvements. Businesses in particular are angry that they are being left out of the government’s deal with insurers to guarantee flood cover remains in place – and some simply can’t afford to pay the premiums being demanded.
Unlike the recent floods seen in Somerset and the Thames valley, the Cockermouth flood water rose very quickly – over the space of a day – and receded almost as fast.
“One minute we were trying to get the stock upstairs and blocking the doorways with sandbags, the next they were being overwhelmed. When I opened the back door a huge flood ran through the shop we had to just get out. We had to link hands and wade out across the road to safety,” says Chippendale.
The water eventually rose to more than five feet high in his shop. In other parts of the high street it rose even higher, and at its worst point was travelling at 25mph down the high street and ripping into everything in its path. Around 1,000 properties were seriously flooded, including most of the shops on the high street, and around 700 homes in the surrounding streets.
Among the first to offer help was the Chamber of Trade in Morpeth on the other side of the country, who’d been through a similar experience a year before, and were keen to pass on accrued knowledge. Some even drove over to meet the Cumbrian victims.
One of their key recommendations, says Chippendale, was the need to find someone who had the necessary contacts within the local councils, and the energy to drive through a rebuilding programme. Step forward Les Tickner, a civil engineer, who had just taken early retirement and was looking for a new project. Crucially he’d already been through the experience dealing with the floods in Carlisle in 2005. In Chippendale’s words, Tickner was able to “cut through all the crap, and bang heads together”.
Most insurers paid up to a greater or lesser degree, but many shops found they were underinsured because they had not updated their policies to reflect the growth in the business. Lots of stores were carrying extra stock in the runup to Christmas, and found their policies did not cover their losses.
The businesses that had no insurance were wiped out, he says.
Chippendale, who had upgraded his policy six months earlier – purely by chance – says his insurer, NFU Mutual, was brilliant. However, and in common with previous floods, he says the experience the townspeople came down to the loss adjustor sent by the insurer. “They varied enormously even within the same insurer, and the same loss adjusting firm,” he says.
Most of the shops were forced to relocate in a bid to keep a presence in the community. Those that didn’t found in most cases that their trade had gone elsewhere by the time they were able to reopen. The toy shop was one of the first to reopen in the high street after seven months, complete with solid floors and raised electrics. The Trout Hotel, which has a terrace over the Derwent river, was also closed for seven months and repairs cost £3.5m. Staff there repeatedly describe an extraordinary community revival and a revitalised town.
Christ Church was turned into a recovery HQ where the various insurers and the other interested parties set up stalls. One pub in the town that still had electricity and, crucially, Wi-Fi became the centre of activities. “The number of deals that got done in there some evenings was amazing,” says Suzanne Elsworth, who moved to the town just before the floods hit, and was closely involved in the recovery plan.
Tickner visited most days and could be seen walking the town’s streets intervening in disputes, and doing what he could to hasten repairs. Deals were done with local paint suppliers – anything to make sure the town centre came back looking better than ever.
To prevent further devastating floods, the Environment Agency was persuaded to build new defences. Its first proposal was for a huge flood wall that would have dominated the town. But after pressure from the local flood action group, it settled on a Dutch designed wall that rises when needed, but still allows views over the river for the rest of the year. But while central government agreed to pick up most of the bill, the local community still needed to raise almost £1m to meet the cost. There was an increase to the community charge and business rates were upped 1%. Allerdale borough council found some money, and administered the many private donations that came in. One anonymous private donor gave £250,000. Only the few big chain stores, Chippendale says, declined to contribute to the improvements.
“The extensive media coverage of the town’s plight – helped by visits by Prince Charles – all helped restore the idea that Cockermouth was open for business and was bouncing back,” he says.
“You wouldn’t choose to do it, but how often do you get a chance to completely rebuild a high street. It’s been difficult and it helped that we had a lot of retired and other professional people in the town who all came together to restore the town. Seeing the flooding down south in recent weeks brought it all back, but hopefully we are proof that you can bounce back. But if you just wait for something to happen, it won’t,” Chippendale says.
‘We had to turn it into an opportunity’
Many people contributed to the impressive regeneration of Cockermouth but one man, Darren Ward, is named time after time. The architectural designer was, like many others, trapped for several hours in his home, a pretty, former weaver’s cottage not far from the river. Five feet of water filled his kitchen and downstairs in the building that also houses his architectural practice, Red Raven Design.
“Once we had got over the shock it was pretty clear that we had to turn it into an opportunity. Shop fronts had been washed away and many were in a very poor state. We realised it was a chance to revitalise the high street. We could come back much stronger.”
He says insurers were happy as long as any changes didn’t cost them any more. The fact that the work had to conform to the latest building regulations helped shopholders. He designed new fronts in keeping with the original Georgian structures, and worked (often for free) with the planners to speedily obtain permission. Stores that had to be rebuilt could now remove a cumbersome staircase or unsightly fitting that had once blighted the shop.
His home, one of eight terraced houses all jointly insured and which cost £200,000 to repair, now boasts a flood-proofed downstairs.
However, the owners have been clobbered with an insurance excess of £20,000 for flooding, and he can’t get contents cover, despite the new flood defences. “Maybe because I was an incomer, and had chosen to live in the town, I was determined that the floods wouldn’t beat us,” he says.
He is critical of how insurers deal with big flood events. “Houses tend to be ripped apart and, in many cases, it’s unnecessary. If it wasn’t contaminated by sewage, lots of furniture and the like can be saved. Houses that survived floods in the past were taken apart by insurers, and they are too eager to junk stuff, much of which can be saved.”
• This article was amended on 25 February 2014 to clarify that the recovery HQ was set up in Christ Church, not the town hall.
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