Should farmers be paid to allow their land to flood?

There was an interesting piece on the BBC website yesterday where Roger Harrabin was reporting on potential Government plans to pay farmers to let their land flood, therefore slowing up the flow and hopefully then protecting towns and cities downstream from flooding – see here. Allowing land to flood to prevent catastrophe in urban areas is an essential part of the multi-faceted approach that is need to combat the storms.

The question that needs to be carefully thought through is where should the taxpayer fund farmers to do this?

Flooding is of course an entirely natural process and over the millennia the land has adapted to accommodate this – an obvious example being the flood plain. An area where the river spills onto during periods of heavy rain. In the case of the River Clyst near my home this happens around 6 times a year and the water can lie on the land for days, even weeks.

Clyst 4
The River Clyst’s flood plain

Surely the Government isn’t thinking of funding farmers to allow this to happen? It is a natural process and the flooding is happening already whether we like it or not.

In other places the flood plain has been ‘protected’ from the river because a bund / built up bank has been built to stop the water flooding onto the land (of course in big floods the banks do eventually overtop and flood the land). This type of land has then been sub-surface drained which has allowed the growing of arable crops or re-seeded grasslands at the expense of the wet marshy grassland that was there before. In places like this the removal of the banks would re-create the flood plain again and provide protection downstream via the creation of  large but temporary ‘reservoirs’.


The creation of these bunds and raised banks  occurred decades ago and were usually the work of the old Flood Defence Committees and were largely funded by the tax payer. It allowed farming to become more productive. I suspect that these are the types of places where the Government is thinking of paying farmers to allow their fields to flood.

There is of course a big irony here – tax payers funded the original raised bank schemes which facilitated a more productive agriculture which will now have to be compensated for if the land is allowed to flood in the future.

In other places the rivers have been deepened and straightened  which has meant that water rarely floods onto the land except in extreme circumstances – these areas could be ‘restored’ to re-create functioning flood plains. Again the funding mechanisms for the original works came from the public purse and led to agricultural improvements.

Jeremy Pursglove in his book Taming the Flood – rehearsed all these arguments back in 1986 and gave many examples of how to undo these situations to aid flood defence.

Finally, in order to protect vulnerable communities schemes can be designed to hold water back – even divert it away from the river in times of high flows – the so called ‘upstream solutions’ such as the National Trust’s work on the Holnicote Estate in Somerset (see here)  and the Pickering scheme so beautifully described here. In cases such as these it is entirely legitimate to fund farmers to allow their land to flood.

Flood plains make up a tiny part of most our river catchments but where and when to carry out these interventions will need thought. I suspect that the Environment Agency have a very good idea where they would like to see this happen and I suspect that is what David Rooke was alluding to when he spoke to the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee a couple of days ago.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 11.38.23
I will be interested to see this debate as it unfolds.



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