Flooding: co-operation across Government – a missed opportunity?

The Houses of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has published its report on Flooding: co-operation across Government. You can download it here. Here is the reporting of this story by the BBC.

I have to admit that I am rather disappointed with the report. I don’t disagree with what it contains, it is what it omits that is disappointing.

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This is how the NFU responded to the report this morning and this reflects the sentiment of the publication

I had higher hopes …. Readers may remember that the Committee called George Monbiot to gives evidence – I blogged on that at the time see here. I said the following about George’s evidence.

“He covered a lot of ground – natural flood plain management, catchment level action, slowing the flow, re-wilding, dam building, beavers, maize cultivation, land use in the uplands etc etc.

He spent quite a bit of time talking about the Basic Payment Scheme’s ‘ineligible features’ scandal and I got the feeling the Committee were very interested in what he said.”

The report does contain a 3 page section on Natural Flood Management (pages 36-38) but this merely reflects back to the reader what the witnesses at the Enquiry actually said. Their conclusion is as follows:-

“The majority of the witnesses we heard from during this inquiry supported natural flood risk management. Some of the pilots demonstrating this approach, including in Pickering, have been successful. We look forward to seeing the results of the pilots in Cumbria at the end of this year and hope that decisions on further roll out will follow soon afterwards. The Government should make sure that funds are available to fund more pilots to continue to make the case for this approach and to protect those places like Pickering which might benefit from a cheaper natural flood management project. However, to roll this out nationally will take time and people want their homes protected today. It is only right then that current flood risk management approaches should continue to be the focus.”

I have written a lot about Natural Flood Management (at Holnicote here for example and here about Taming the Flood) but for it to work it must also include changes in land use. I have written extensively about the flooding problems that maize causes (see here) but this topic is simply not covered in the EAC’s report. The report was supposed to be about co-operation across Government but in reality has only really focussed on the work of the Environment Agency and whether the Treasury / DEFRA give them enough money.

The report hasn’t tackled DEFRA on land use when we know that many of the flooding problems in the Somerset Levels were caused by land use higher up the catchments.

I also recently tweeted about the concerns that the Highways Agency have surrounding maize cultivation in Devon and the impact this has on flooding of the road network and the apparent failure of DEFRA to use their cross compliance rules to halt bad practice and therefore reduce flooding. Co-operation across Government needs to include the Highways Agency!

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So going back to the NFU’s tweet of the day (above), they have interpreted the EAC report as a green light to continue spending flood defence money on protecting farmland by dredging and bund maintenance rather than allowing flood plains to flood.

It is undoubtedly a complex and political topic but I am afraid the EAC have missed some of the major points. All is not lost, there are good things in the report and we still await the Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Flooding which I hope will pick up on some of these issues.

From source to sea – Holnicote natural flood management

Yesterday I went to the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate near Porlock on Exmoor in north Somerset and was shown the widely acclaimed natural flood management project there by the Project Manager Nigel Hester.

In light of the recent floods natural flood management is widely discussed as an option for solving flooding problems in the future . Yet the Holnicote project was started in 2009. The project have been funded by DEFRA, the Environment Agency and the National Trust. It has been run as a demonstration project so it involves a great deal of modelling and monitoring to show what has worked and the effects have been.

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A report has been published by the National Trust which gives a detailed account of what has been done and what the results have been – you can download the report here.

The project is a catchment wide approach to ‘slowing the flow’ of the local rivers using low key and natural interventions in an attempt to reduce / stop flooding in the local villages downstream.

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Allerford – one of the local villages at risk from flooding

Perhaps the most obvious feature of the project has been the subtle re-engineering of the flood plain on the Estate which enables the river to flood onto the land – slowing the flow and greatly increasing the flood water storage capacity. The Trust has worked with its tenant farmers who have all bought into and supported the project.

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A number of non intrusive bunds have been produced to create water storage areas

Holnicote 2A simple woody dam has been installed which in periods of high flow diverts the flood water from the river into the storage areas on the flood plain

Holnicote 3In the streams higher up in the catchment a number of simple woody dams have been created to provide ‘hydraulic roughness’ and slow the flow

Holnicote 4Up on the high moor ancient features such as this track have tended to funnel water and increase its flow down to the villages below – here small dams and pools have been created to slow the flow

Holnicote 6In this lovely coombe scrub is beginning to form which again increases the hydraulic roughness

As well as playing a major part in reducing flooding these small measures also provide new and interesting habitats for wildlife  – given a bit of time the coombe above might become attractive to breeding ring ouzels (which are now extinct on Exmoor) and maybe, could even be suitable habitat if a black grouse re-introduction project was ever considered. The little scrubby trees will certainly be useful to cuckoos who need such features so they scan perch and survey the landscape for food and meadow pipit nests.

It is early days for the project but to date despite some heavy rain episodes the villages down stream have not flooded since the natural flood management features were created.

This is a very brief summary of a multi-objective project – read the full report to gain a fuller picture. Really pleased to have seen it for myself – thanks Nigel for showing me around.

The National Trust should be very proud of this pioneering work – very important now to ensure that the House of Commons Select Committees working on solutions to the recent floods see and hear about this project.

This is not complicated or expensive  and the approach can be adapted and used across the country to play an important role in reducing flooding.

More on natural flood management

I found this video yesterday about natural flood management in the catchment around Stroud in Gloucestershire. It is a detailed video which shows specific measures that have been taken to slow the flow by a range of individuals and organisations. It is well worth a watch.

Another blog ‘Tree planting and reducing flooding – will it work?‘ was also brought to my attention by a reader of my blog. It is by Miles Marshall of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. He was the lead researcher who carried out the work at Pontbren in mid Wales. In the study trees were planted on previously grazed pasture and they measured the subsequent effects on soil hydraulic properties and runoff processes. They found that soil infiltration rates were 67x times faster and surface runoff volumes were reduced by 78% under trees compared with grassland.

Marshall rightly cautions the reader saying that more research is required to determine which species of tree work best, what age of tree is best, can the ideas be scaled up to make a real difference etc.

He also says that tree planting to reduce flooding is only one of the options that needs to be considered. He argues that catchment wide initiatives such as the one described above for the Stroud Valleys are needed as well. As I have argued many times before land use is also a key issue e.g. maize on steep slopes near to streams and roads.


Natural Flood Management on Countryfile

Countryfile on Sunday did a couple of films on how to manage the problems associated with the recent floods. The two pieces featured examples from the south west.

You can watch Sunday’s Countryfile by pressing here and viewing on the BBC’s  iPlayer. The first piece is about natural flood management schemes also known as ‘upstream measures’. This section is 7 minutes 32 seconds into the programme.

Nigel Hester - Countryfile
It features the work carried out by the National Trust on its Holnicote Estate in Somerset. This is a picture of Nigel Hester, the NT’s project manager with Tom Heap from Countryfile. It is a widely acclaimed scheme and I am visiting Holnicote next week to meet Nigel and be shown around – I will report back.

The National Trust have also recently published the report on the Holnicote project “From Source to Sea – Natural Flood Management” and you can download it here. The project was funded by DEFRA, the Environment Agency and the NT and involved the University of Exeter, JBA Consulting and Penny Anderson Associates Ltd. It is well worth a read as I am sure it will be a major  building block for much that we will see happen in the future to ‘slow the flow’.

The second part of the Countryfile piece on flooding tackled dredging and focused on the Somerset Levels. That part starts 26 minutes 58 seconds in. Again a very balanced piece and is well worth watching.

Part of the challenge with dealing with floods is to separate fact from fiction, hyperbole and prejudice. There are lots of competing interests when it comes to this topic and I thought Countryfile did a good job in setting this out.



Maize in the news again

I found this article on FG Insights – a farming website – called ‘Is it possible to crow maize responsibly?‘ You can read if here. It is a very fair summary of the issues involved – what was surprising to me was the implied acceptance that most maize wasn’t being grown responsibly.

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This was my response on Twitter to the article

Toby Willison Exec Dir Ops EAThis is a tweet from Toby Willison – he is the Environment Agency’s Executive Director of Operations – good to see the EA taking a stand but I would like to see them getting more proactively involved locally and publicly.

I also came across this piece on the BBC website about a farmer in Somerset “Powered by poo: Somerset farmer enjoys biogas boom” – see here. This is very encouraging – there is a huge growth currently of biogas or anaerobic digestion (AD) plants at the moment – the Government is actively and financially supporting this process under the banner of ‘Energy from Waste’. However most of the new AD plants in my part of the world rely on the contract growing of maize to fuel the plants as there doesn’t appear to be enough waste available. This Somerset farmer shows it can be done and he specifically states that he isn’t going to use maize in his plant as he has enough waste via his dairy herd. Good for him – solving the problem of the disposal of animal waste by producing green power.

The other AD plant I know that runs on waste only is the Langage plant near Plymouth. They recently submitted a planning application to expand the site so I emailed them asking if this meant there would be an expansion to maize growing in the area to supply the enlarged plant. They came back to me immediately and told me they didn’t use maize in their system and only used waste. Good for them too.

The Soil Association have also just published a new report entitled “Seven Ways to Save our Soils” which you can download here. This report isn’t just about maize, it is about soil management generally but is of course very relevant to maize cultivation. Here are the 7 ways:-

  1. Increase the amount of plant and animal matter going back onto fields
  2. Improve soil health monitoring across the UK
  3. Encourage soil organisms – both those that build up soil and those that release nutrients
  4. Cover up bare soil with continuous plant cover
  5. Bring more trees onto farmland
  6. Reduce soil compaction from machinery and livestock
  7. Design crop rotations to improve soil health

If you have published a report like this 40 years ago farmers would have looked at you as if you were mad – it was what they all did routinely – how times have changed.

Maize field mudFinally as a result of the winter storms and their impact on my village – Exton in East Devon I wrote to my local MP Hugo Swire about flooding and the issue of the increased cultivation of maize. My letter to him is below.

27th Jan 16

Dear Mr Swire MP,

I  live in the village of Exton which is in your constituency where I have been a resident for around 3 years. Over that period of time I have been alarmed at the flooding in the village from the Exton brook.
I write a blog and have written a number of pieces where I make the link between the flooding and the proliferation of maize growing in the catchment.
I have also been contacted by some local residents in the Village who have been flooded in Station Road and by a local District Council (Geoff Jung) who had seen my work and was trying to sort out problems for some of his electorate who had recently been flooded for the first time ever in Woodbury Salterton/Raleigh.
I also saw a piece about the flooding of the School in Tipton St John where you were asking for answers. 
I am convinced that the flooding that has taken place recently in East Devon has been in a large part caused by the increase in maize growing  which is tied in with the opening of the 2 Anaerobic Digester biofuel plants on the Sidmouth Road near to the Show Ground.
This is the link to the blog I wrote today regarding the growth of maize growing in Devon
along with a couple of other links to earlier posts.
I think  a consensus is forming now that to tackle flooding we need to work at a catchment level which must include carefully scrutinising land use and land management practices. Maize fields are heavily compacted and are harvested late in the year so they are left bare and vulnerable to runoff in periods of wet weather during the winter.
Maize cultivation in your Constituency is a part of the problem and needs to be carefully looked into to determine whether the location and scale of the activity are compatible with a flood-free existence for the people who live in the villages downstream.
Much of the research into the damaging effects of maize were conducted by the Environment Agency see here https://adriancolston.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/palmer-smith-sw-soils.pdf
I am wondering whether the Environment Agency discussed this with you when you met them regarding the flooding in Tipton St John  as the photograph I saw showed the bright brown flood water which is so characteristic of the problem?
I find it rather a sobering thought that the flooding problems experienced in East Devon occurred as a result of ‘Yellow Warnings of Rain’, let’s hope we don’t get Amber or Red Rain Warnings.
Yours sincerely,
 Adrian Colston
When he replies I will let you know what he says.
If you are worried about the possibility of flooding where you live as a result of maize you could write to your MP too.

George Monbiot at the Commons Environmental Audit Committee

George Monbiot was called to appear yesterday to the Commons Environmental Audit Committee to give evidence on his views regarding land use and policy re. the recent floods.

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You can watch his full appearance here – it lasts around 40 minutes.

I thought George gave a good performance – it was tailored to the audience as was his attire! He covered a lot of ground – natural flood plain management, catchment level action, slowing the flow, re-wilding, dam building, beavers, maize cultivation, land use in the uplands etc etc.

He spent quite a bit of time talking about the Basic Payment Scheme’s ‘ineligible features’ scandal and I got the feeling the Committee were very interested in what he said.

You can get another take on yesterday at the EAC by reading Miles King’s piece here – where he also covers the story that the EAC barred Richard North from giving evidence after initially asking him to speak.

Upon reflection it has struck me as rather interesting that the Committee called George Monbiot to give evidence on this topic and not a Chief Executive or Director General of one of our conservation charities. Perhaps they are giving evidence next ……

Wassoks and the green blob -dredging arguments continue

First – this speech was made by Owen Paterson MP at the Oxford Farming Conference which included the following:-
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A few hours later this appeared on Twitter


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I’m wondering if the two events are connected?

In case you’ve forgotten Owen Paterson used to be the the Secretary of State at DEFRA and Richard Benyon was his Under Secretary ……. and Floods Minister ……