Building a better case for natural flood management

The Government has announced £15m to fund "natural flood management" measures, on top of a £170m package in the chancellor's Autumn Statement to increase infrastructure resilience against rising flood risk, following pressure for such a move from inside and outside Parliament.

Flooding: research shows reforesting just five per cent of upland landscape can reduce flood peaks by 29 per cent - image: S RAE
Flooding: research shows reforesting just five per cent of upland landscape can reduce flood peaks by 29 per cent - image: S RAE

Asked in the Commons on 24 November by former Defra minister Richard Benyon "is it not important that the department continues its excellent work ... in looking at how nature and land managers can be incentivised to create greater protection for households?", Defra secretary Andrea Leadsom answered: "Natural flood management - slowing the flow and looking at ways to work with the contours of our environment to improve protection - is also vital. I can announce that we have been given £15m to invest in further projects to do just that."

How that translates into practical measures remains to be seen. A Defra representative told Horticulture Week the detail of the £15m spending "will be announced in due course". But a report published at the end of October by the parliamentary Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee urged Defra to commission by July next year "a large-catchment (100-200sq km) trial of the effectiveness of natural flood-risk management approaches such as installation of leaky dams, tree planting and improved soil management alongside other measures".

It added: "Managing water flows from the top to bottom of river catchments helps to reduce flood risk, in many cases more cost-effectively than simply building flood defences in cities, towns and villages. Early results of trials are encouraging for smaller river catchments. There is sufficient evidence to roll-out 'catchment scale' approaches for a far greater number of small river basins."

The report also called for farmland to be used to store flood water "in some places ... with low impact on farm productivity and appropriate incentives to recompense farmers" as part of a post-Brexit farming support model.

By contrast, it described current flood-risk management structures as "fragmented, inefficient and ineffective" and said they "do not encourage widespread use of catchment-scale approaches". It called for "a new governance model as part of a review of how (Defra) manages England's flood risk", with "water and drainage companies" taking over land drainage responsibilities from local authorities, "fostering a more holistic approach to flooding and water-supply management".

In urban areas, it also called on Defra to "set out how the Government's review of sustainable drainage regulations will ensure that sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) are deployed to maximum effect in all new English developments", again with water and sewerage companies "tak[ing] a wider role in local drainage, including responsibility for adopting SuDS", suitably incentivised.

EFRA Committee chair Neil Parish MP said: "Our proposals will deliver a far more holistic approach to flooding and water-supply management, looking at catchments as a whole. Flood management must include much wider use of natural measures such as leaky dams, tree planting and improved soil management."

Conservation pressure group Friends of the Earth (FoE) had complained that under former floods minister Rory Stewart Defra had commissioned the Environment Agency to draw up a set of proposed natural flood management work packages totalling £20m, "but there has been no sign of this money since", adding that the Government's "catchment pioneer project" in Cumbria, which Stewart also backed, "remains unfunded".

FoE climate campaigner Guy Shrubsole said: "So far it's been all talk and no action. The Government has failed to spend a single extra penny on natural flood management." FoE and conservation charity Rewilding Britain have been campaigning for Government funding of natural flood management. The EFRA Committee's report chimes with an earlier work published by Rewilding Britain in September, which cited research showing that reforesting just five per cent of the upland landscape reduces flood peaks by around 29 per cent.

Trial projects

The report said trial projects in the Stroud Valleys of Gloucestershire and on the River Ouse in East Sussex show that leaky dams of tree trunks and branches slow flow while allowing fish to pass underneath. "Such measures are much cheaper than traditional flood defence schemes, use locally sourced natural materials, are easily replicable and can be tailored to local needs," it pointed out.

In East Sussex, volunteers also helped create floodplain woodlands across the catchment, planting 23,000 trees including 3.5km of hedgerow. "New woodlands on uplands as well as alongside rivers further downstream could be encouraged more through targeted funding programmes," including via companies' carbon emission offsetting. "Beavers in some catchments could be a cost-effective part of flood prevention," it added.

"The gathering of evidence into whether rewilding for flood risk works at a catchment scale is in its early stages," it admitted. "The devil is in the detail - types of soils, size of catchments, interactions between different landscapes and so on." But it maintained: "Even those who are saying we need more evidence of the impact of natural flood management when scaled up to whole catchments do agree that it is worth carrying out more of it."

Rewilding Britain director Helen Meech said she is "delighted" with the latest funding announcement. "There is now significant evidence to show that rewilding can substantially reduce flood risk downstream, protecting communities at a fraction of the cost of traditional flood defences while also delivering improved water quality and space for nature to thrive," she added.

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