Sink or swim time for South West firms as floods take hold

Law firms across the South West have shared in the devastation caused by the heaviest rainfall since records began. Coming just weeks after the floods that wreaked similar havoc in South Yorkshire and Humberside, where there are few corporate law firms, the water has ruined homes, brought cities to a standstill and is predicted to cause a £6bn headache for the region’s insurers.

“It’s a bit Third World out there, but in here it’s pretty normal,” says Cheltenham-based John Bannister, CEO at media firm Wiggin. “We had a few interesting times last Friday [20 July] when it flooded and the water got into the cupboards that hold our electrics, but since then it’s been basically okay.”

Although the homes of several staff have been affected and roughly half the office’s fee-earners are now working from the firm’s London office, the Cheltenham base remains essentially unaffected, Bannister says. He adds that the firm is still running off mains power, although its diesel-powered generator is on standby.

The nearest thing to a crisis that Wiggin has yet faced was in sourcing six portable toilets to address the lack of running water.

Banninster explains that the country, and in particular the region, is facing a Portaloo crisis due to the flooding’s coincidence with the summer festival season. The firm was required to source its Portaloos from as far afield as Manchester and Sheffield (an eighth mobile toilet is to be delivered next week).

Bannister estimates that the cost of bottled water and porta-privies will amount to around £12,000 for last week. This is not a huge cost, he adds, but “it’s money we wouldn’t be spending otherwise”.

John Workman, managing partner at Cheltenham-headquartered BPE Solicitors, says the firm has “the poshest Portaloos in Cheltenham”. Demonstrating exactly the speed and ingenuity that clients would expect, Workman spent the Sunday after the floods (22 July) sourcing porta-privies in time for Monday morning, bagging six of the best from the upper-crust, but cancelled, Cheltenham Cricket Festival.

However, as with Wiggin, Workman explains that it is in people’s homes that the impact of the floods has been most keenly felt. With some staff busy bailing out their houses and others trapped on the island created between the flooded Severn and Avon rivers, just 40 per cent of staff and partners arrived at the office on Monday. By Tuesday most had returned, however, and staff had a fairly normal week.

Yet Workman explains that, while his own firm has been largely unaffected, “half our business comes from Cheltenham and the affected areas, and that half will be pushed back by a couple of weeks”. He adds that overall profitability will be unaffected and “it’s just a question of timing”.

“Am I any more worried or elated than I was last Friday?” he asks. “No. I’m just slightly smellier.”

In Oxford, where flooding occured later than in Cheltenham and Gloucester, a similar spirit prevails. Peter Elliot, managing partner of Charles Russell‘s Oxford office, says the firm is “basically just getting on with work on the telephone and the computer. The only problem is with access and egress to the office.”

Travel in Oxford is problematic at the moment, he explains, with Abingdon Road to the east of the city, Botley Road to the west and Kennington Road to the south all closed. However, the most serious flooding is in the west of Oxford and the firm’s location to the east means it has so far escaped the rising tide.

Julia Iball, managing partner of nearby Henmans, says her firm has also been largely unaffected. “Some of our staff have been allowed to go home and watch the weather,” she says, “but we have the resources that allow people to work at home. It’s definitely business as usual.”

In the legal world at least, the spirit of the Blitz lives on.