I was out shopping a few days ago when I came across Jeremy Purseglove’s book – Taming the Flood. It is a new edition of the 1986 classic with a brand new chapter covering floods and the politics around them up to the beginning of 2015. This book was my inspiration in the 1980s and 1990s when I worked for the Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust and campaigned for better river management on the Nene, Ise and Welland rivers. All were being brutally engineered to facilitate more intensive agriculture. Meandering rivers were being straightened and deepened and any vestiges of wildlife habitats were removed. Jeremy’s book gave a historical perspective on these actions, argued why they were a bad idea for wildlife and flood protection and gave practical examples of how it could be done differently. Gradually the National Rivers Authority (now the Environment Agency) changed their practices and began putting back some of the key features including meanders. But by the time this took hold much damage had already taken place.
I also remember back in the 1980s drinking in my local pub, the Shuckburgh Arms in Southwick near Oundle. During this period the village flooded very badly a few times in short succession when it had never done so before. Nobody could understand why. When I suggested the reason was that the permanent pastures adjacent to the brook had been converted in arable cultivation and that as a result the water was flying off the land into the brook much quicker than it had done when it was grassland, I was treated with contempt (even by staff in the National Rivers Authority) – where was the evidence etc etc?
Times have changed and finally we are beginning to see a discussion emerging around the management of flood plains, catchments and land use. Planting trees in the uplands is now a frequent clarion call even by Government Ministers.
The irony here of course is that all of this was discussed in Jeremy’s book back in 1986. I was fortunate to work with Jeremy when I was at Wicken Fen – he was on the local management committee. When we were devising the Wicken Fen Vision – the plan to recreate thousands of acres of wetland around the core of the historic fen one of the objectives was to create a huge water storage area which could protect Cambridge in the event of high rainfall and flooding and another was to hold water in the created wetlands rather than to immediately shed it into the lodes and rivers.
Jeremy recently wrote in Countryfile Magazine about wetlands, flooding, flood management and upstream flood prevention measures and quoted the National Trust example of this on the Holnicote Estate in Somerset – see here.
So why is this whole issue proving so difficult to resolve when the evidence and the solutions are so compelling? Even back in early December the Committee on Climate Change were telling the press that the Government had rejected their advice on reducing flooding risk. For example the CCC recommended that the government should “develop a strategy to address the increasing number of homes in areas of high flood risk”. But in October the government replied: “We believe that a strategy to address future residual risk would not be appropriate at this time.” Remarkable.
It boils down to a clash of philosophies. On one hand the desire to improve agricultural production and therefore feed the nation. On the other hand the wish to see integrated and sustainable land management for the benefit of wildlife, landscapes and local communities. At the current time the former philosophy is winning. Unfortunately this is often at the expense of people living in towns and cities downstream.
The public debate is now finally beginning and my hope is that in the future much more account will be taken of the way our catchments, rivers and wetlands are managed. Flood plains are supposed to flood, currently some critically located ones are drained and managed so that they shed any rainfall into the river as quickly as possible. In other places the land use further speeds the water off the land – see here. And amazingly in some places further housing is proposed on land that floods – see here for example.
Today the Deputy Chief Executive of the Environment Agency David Rooke has called for a ‘complete rethink’ on our approach to flooding – see here. He appears to be focusing on future proofing homes – this would mean “when properties do flood, that they have solid floors, waterproof plaster, more electrics up the wall – so that people can get back into their houses and businesses more quickly”.
Lord Deben, (the former Conservative Environment Minister John Gummer), and now Chair of the Committee on Climate Change fortunately does understand all this – here is his favourable review of Jeremy Purseglove’s Taming the Flood.
I can thoroughly recommend this book to you and I would also suggest that Liz Truss, Rory Stewart and David Cameron read it too.