The last couple of days has seen a huge amount of political debate about the floods. There is so much happening at the moment that I am still working through a lot of it and digesting it.
Firstly there was a Ministerial Statement by Liz Truss – a full transcript of that debate can be downloaded here. There is a lot in it and it is worth a read. I was pleased to see Liz Truss had said the following.
In the light of recent events, we have commenced a national flood resilience review to ensure that the country can deal with increasingly extreme weather events. The review will look at forecasting and modelling, resilience of key infrastructure and the way we make decisions about flood expenditure. ……. The work of the Natural Capital Committee, to which I have reappointed Dieter Helm as chair, will complement that. It will further develop the catchment-based approach we are now using for our environment planning, including slowing the flow upstream.
This is good and important as there is now a clear understanding in DEFRA that stopping flooding is a multi-faceted issue. It wasn’t that long ago that the debate was solely focusing on dredging and building flood defences.
The Secretary of State refers to the Nature Capital Committee which chaired by Dieter Helm. The NCC is the independent advisory body set up to advise the Government on the sustainable use of England’s natural capital – our forests, rivers, atmosphere, land, wildlife, oceans and other natural assets. They clearly have a role therefore to play in the flooding debate. The chairman Dieter Helm has recently published a paper setting out the issues regarding flooding as he sees them. You can download and read his paper here. Helm sets out the summary of his case as follows.
There are three steps to the required rethink, and these are set out in this brief summary paper. The first is to work out how much flood defence we need, and what it should comprise of. This requires an economic assessment of the catchment systems and their natural capital. The second step is to create a longer term, sustainable asset-based framework and the associated financial basis. At the core are: a balance sheet; an asset register; a regulated asset base; debt finance; and a corporate structure. Third, floods defence needs a proper institutional context. Flood defence needs to be put on a stand-alone basis, allowing the EA to focus on environmental protection, structurally separating out operational, project management, catchment management, regulation and catchment planning functions. The paper brings these three steps together to propose a way forward.
In case you haven’t guessed – he is an economist! I’m not going to comment on his second and third points at this stage as I am still mulling over what it means but in his paper regarding the first step he says:-
Agriculture takes up most of the UK’s landmass, and it is both a major cause of increased flood risks and a major potential means to alleviate these risks. Yet agricultural policies and the associated subsidies pay little or no attention to the flood risk dimensions. Some particular examples include: the much greater exposure to rapid run off from the planting of maize; the soil erosion of such crops; the importance of pasture and grasslands on river margins; the burning and encroachments on heather moorlands; and high stock grazing densities.
The farming practices of the upper reaches of river catchments are especially important in determining flood risk. These are also typically the most highly subsidised types of farming, with the lowest agricultural yields. Thus the costs to outputs of adapting practice are lowest, yet they have the highest benefits in reducing flood risk by holding water. They typically also have the greatest value in natural capital for recreation, leisure and biodiversity.
In the Somerset Levels case, the changing farming practices directly contributed to the silting of the two main rivers, and there were demands for dredging to deal with the consequences. Upstream farming practices have contributed to the more recent flood events too.
This is important stuff – an influential Government appointed figure talking about the importance of land use and farming practices along with the roles they play in exacerbating flooding risks. It seems like only yesterday that saying such things was sacrilegious! It gives credibility to the comments of George Monbiot – see here for example and also my blogs about maize – see here for example.
Yesterday there was an Opposition Motion on the Flooding led by Labour’s Shadow to Liz Truss Kerry McCarthy. You can download the transcript of that debate here. Again a long and interesting debate with many differing views, but importantly some members from both sides of the House clearly see solutions to the flooding problems lying beyond solely dredging and defences. This is part of what McCarthy had to say:-
Yesterday, the Environment Secretary welcomed Dieter Helm’s excellent paper, “Flood defence: time for a radical rethink”, which highlights the critical role played by land use in both causing and helping to alleviate flooding, especially the protection of natural capital in upstream areas. Pickering in North Yorkshire has attracted some attention this week, highlighting how efforts to slow the flow of water from the hills prevented the town from flooding this time. I know that that is not the only example. The Environment Secretary has said that she wants the results from Pickering to be used more widely, so how is she going to make that happen?
Dieter Helm also highlighted the thorny issue of how some agricultural policies and associated subsidies pay little or no attention to flood risk dimensions. The examples he gave included greater exposure to rapid run-off from the planting of maize; the burning of heather to improve grouse moors, as it reduces the land’s retention of water; and farming practices in the upper reaches of river catchments. Helm sets out how adaptation measures in these areas, such as the planting of trees, could have some of the greatest potential benefits for reducing flood risk.
Very interesting to hear what Richard Benyon MP (a former DEFRA floods Minister) had to say:-
One of the great knee-jerk reactions among many commentators—including, I am afraid, some Members of Parliament—is to say that the panacea for all flooding events is dredging.
If we want to improve the rivers, we must consider wider catchment issues such as land use management. We should bear in mind the extent to which farming has changed in recent years. If we look at a map of the Bristol channel two years ago, when all the excitement was going on around the Somerset Levels, we see a large proportion of Somerset being washed into the channel in a plume of silt. That was caused by farming practices higher up, not in the area where the flooding was taking place.
Undoubtedly there is a lot more in that debate that I haven’t picked up yet – here for example are Mark Avery’s views (the former Conservation Director of the RSPB) – he is particularly interested in the management of grouse moors and the fate of hen harriers.
Finally, at least in Parliamentary terms the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee met to start of review of the floods and the lessons that need to be learnt. Unfortunately the first session was dominated in media terms by why the Chairman of the Environment Agency was in Barbados and not in the north of England – see here for example. I haven’t yet seen the full transcript of this session yet but you can watch it all here on Parliamentary TV.
Liz Truss yesterday also spoken at the Oxford Farming Conference – you can watch that speech here. A lot about the importance of farming for food security and little about farmers’ responsibilities to the environment! In advance of her speech it was trailed that she wanted to give farmers the powers to dredge ditches on their land – see here. This statement has been met with disbelief from some quarters – see Miles King’s excellent blog here, here and see the second part of this BBC report here.
I spent some time a couple of days ago talking on the phone to Jeremy Pursglove (author of Taming the Floods) who I haven’t seen for about 11 years! We were comparing notes about what needed to be done to deal with flooding in a world where ‘exceptional’ has become the ‘normal’. This was my starter for 10.
- Clearly some places need more flood defences
- Upstream measures such as at Holnicote and at Pickering
- Much more attention to land use, for example in places where there are steep slopes running into streams and roads don’t plant maize here as the compacted soils will shed the water immediately
- A grounding out of the de-silting / dredging argument
- Decanalising rivers / reinstating meanders.
- Allowing flood plains to flood – removing bunds which protect farmland
- More trees in the uplands in the right place (i.e. not in historic landscapes or Special Areas of Conservation etc) but not more conifer plantations …..
- A review of upland grazing so that ecosystem services can be delivered – this doesn’t mean no grazing animals but it might well mean fewer of them
- And of course no development in flood plains
Interesting times ahead – despite all the noise in the system, the conflicting DEFRA announcements and some very entrenched and partisan views there is a real opportunity here and now.