Future flood prevention – our response to the Efra Committee’s report

Today the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published its report on future flood prevention. Here our water expert, Dr Stewart Clarke, takes a look at its findings in the context of our own work on water management.

Our evidence to the Future Flood Risk Inquiry was based on experiences of flooding at our places and lessons we have learned from working with, rather than against, natural processes. Our Forecast Changeable and Shifting Shores reports (2015) documented the impact that extreme weather events are having on the places within our care and called on decision makers to work with natural processes to help reduce the impact of these events upon society and the environment.

Flooding at Fell Foot, Cumbria / National Trust Images

Flooding at Fell Foot / National Trust Images

Importantly, today’s report on the future of flood prevention clearly acknowledges a growing risk from flooding and that we will need a different approach if we are to manage this risk to acceptable levels. Flooding is a naturally occurring event, often exacerbated by human activities, but there is much we can do to minimise the risks and ensure that when flooding does occur we can recover quickly.

We welcome the recommendations about improving the communication and understanding of flood risk and measures to increase resilience, such as ensuring insurance claims result in ‘building back better’; we have found we have been able to get flooded buildings back into use much more quickly when flood proof measures have been incorporated.

The report is clear that land and water management are closely linked and therefore changing the way we approach our use and management of land can have positive impacts on flood risk. We are all beginning to understand that shifting water as quickly as possible out to sea is not always the best way to manage flooding.

By slowing flows and allowing natural features to absorb and delay the peak flow of water we can both reduce the overall size of the flood and potentially buy time to prepare defences or evacuate from areas of highest risk. When combined with traditional engineered flood defences these natural flood management measures can provide an additional level of protection and may enable the protection of homes and infrastructure that would otherwise not justify an expensive engineering solution.

The Chinese Bridge during flooding at Borrowdale and Derwentwater, Cumbria. ©National Trust Images/John Malley.

The Chinese Bridge during flooding at Borrowdale and Derwentwater, Cumbria. ©National Trust Images/John Malley.

For several years, we’ve been exploring the possibilities of working with natural processes on our own land at Holnicote Estate to ‘slow the flow’ of water as it moves down through the catchment. By holding water for longer in the upper and middle parts of the catchment, we can prevent or reduce damaging floods downstream. Initiatives like tree planting, encouraging water out on to the flood plain and managing woody material within river channels can have positive results in reducing flood peaks and soil erosion, producing cleaner and slower water, and improving habitats for wildlife.

These measures need to be taken across the catchment and we welcome the Efra Committee’s acknowledgement that flood management needs to be integrated at this scale. We also agree that there is a real need to test natural flood management at a catchment scale and hope that the proposed large-catchment trial is realised.

As part of the Blueprint for Water coalition, we’ve called for more joined up management of water and as such would like reassurance that the proposed new model and creation of an English Rivers and Coastal Authority would not be a backward step. It is important that water management is seen in the round, after all floods and drought can both be better managed by careful management of soil, water storage and wetland management. Our work at Holnicote shows that managing for flood risk also has benefits for water quality.

Equally, the health of our rivers will not improve unless flood risk managers are challenged to find solutions that work for wildlife as well as reducing flood risk. We would argue that the current integrated Environment Agency model is the best way to ensure flood risk management works with, rather than against, better freshwaters.

Finally, as the UK is beginning to explore what our future agricultural support framework will look like and how the environment will be protected and enhanced in the absence of EU directives, it is important that changes to environmental governance are not made in isolation or too hastily.

Wallabarrow Woods, Duddon Valley. © National Trust Images/Paul Harris.

Wallabarrow Woods, Duddon Valley. © National Trust Images/Paul Harris.

The adoption of natural flood management means we must find ways of linking communities at risk from flooding with those who occupy and manage land upstream. The Efra Committee heard from representatives of the land management community about the need to properly compensate land managers for their role in helping prevent downstream flooding. Last month, we released our New Markets For Land And Nature joint report with think tank Green Alliance in which we outlined the idea of a ‘Natural Infrastructure Scheme’ which would see groups of farmers working together to ‘sell’ flood protection and clean water to public authorities, water and infrastructure companies.

Those who manage land should be able to benefit from these new environmental markets to make it profitable and rewarding to manage land more sustainably. We’ll be working with Green Alliance alongside leading landowners and businesses over the next 12 months to develop and test this concept.

How a Natural Infrastructure Scheme would work.

How a Natural Infrastructure Scheme would work.

Dr Stewart Clarke is the Freshwater and Estuaries National Specialist at the National Trust.

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