A new contract for land to prevent flooding

Yesterday, the National Trust’s Director-General Helen Ghosh set out our views on the future of farming policy at the first event in the National Trust theatre at Countryfile Live.

Today, Patrick Begg, our Rural Enterprise Director, took part in a debate on farming and flooding with Tony Juniper, Alison Baptiste from the Environment Agency and ex-NFU President Sir Peter Kendall. Here, he sets our his ideas on the challenge on dealing with increased flood risk as our climate changes.

 

The pace of change in the UK – in society, in our natural assets and in the climate – is accelerating.  The consequences for how land is performing and what we require of it are profound.  Yet for over 50 years our public ‘contract’ with farmers and land managers, as articulated in the Agriculture Act of 1947 and subsequently reinforced with our entry to the EU and participation in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been unbending: in return for direct funding, you are required to produce more and more, cheaper food.

It’s been a largely single outcome deal, and as we reflect today the consequences seem clear: wildlife in decline, soil health and water quality at serious risk, and the relationships between town and country fractured to be replaced by misunderstanding and at times mistrust.

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One of the clearest areas where all these risks play out is in terms of flooding. In recent years what have been classed as 1 in a 1000 year flooding events have become, if not commonplace, then frighteningly frequent.

From Somerset to Oxford to Kendall, villages, towns and cities have felt the full force of big and fast water overwhelming manufactured defences and costing communities and the nation dear.

We could invest billions, and lay down more concrete. There’s no certainty that will work long term and significant concerns about what it would mean for already damaged natural processes.

Or we could take the unexpected opportunity of being freed from the constraints of CAP to re-contract with our land managers to deliver radically different but more mutual benefits underpinned by a new approach to water catchment management.

The most intensive farming methods denude land of their natural functions and make our downstream communities much more vulnerable to flooding – ploughed slopes, hillsides and valleys cleared of woodlands, rivers straightened, uplands scoured of vegetation from overgrazing or drained and desiccated.

But skilled farmers, who understand complex stock management, landform and the careful management of vegetation could be society’s repurposed agents for delivering slower, cleaner water. This could be at the heart of society’s new contract for land and at the core of many sustainable farm businesses.

We’d need to lighten our touch and accept that the primary – although not exclusive – purpose of some land is for water services, not food production. There’s big financial value in succeeding in reducing flood intensity. The management techniques needed, coincidentally and happily, also deliver cleaner water and a range of other ‘stackable benefits’ from wildlife to recreation and public health.

So, if we can get the structures right, there’s money to be made for farmers and a clear link to their skills and motivations: producing a service the country needs and a legacy to pass on to future generations. We’re working with the Green Alliance on ideas to make this reality – we’ll be saying more on this next month.

Other countries have recognised the power of this new deal: New York State, for example, is now in service of New York City as a naturally functioning, wildlife and habitat-rich catchment producing significantly better value for the City taxpayer.  On the National Trust estate we’re also in the foothills of exploring the benefits of managing our land differently with our farm tenants.

At Holnicote on Exmoor, for example, we’ve worked with farmers and the Environment Agency to change land management: re-wilding rivers, reverting arable to pasture and creating natural bunds to hold back floods. The people of Bossinton and Allerton at the bottom of the catchment – martyrs to regular and devastating floods – are already noticing significant changes in the resilience of the area to modern deluges.

Let’s be bold and write that new contract with our land managers: food please and the best you can manage; but not at any cost.

Patrick Begg

Rural Enterprise Director

 

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