Patrick Begg takes a look at the NFU’s Flooding Manifesto

In this blog, our Rural Enterprise Director, Patrick Begg, takes a look at last week’s release of the NFU’s Flooding Manifesto.

Bassenthwaite Lake during flooding of Borrowdale Valley, Cumbria. National Trust Images/John Malley

Bassenthwaite Lake during flooding of Borrowdale Valley, Cumbria. National Trust Images/John Malley

There is increasing interest in the role of farmland and farmers in managing water and reducing the risk of flooding. Defra announced funding for natural flood management after the last Autumn Statement and the National Trust is also working with Green Alliance to develop and test the idea of a Natural Infrastructure Partnership for land managers to sell slowing and cleaning water on farmland.

The latest contribution is the NFU’s Flooding Manifesto, launched last Thursday (26th January). The manifesto represents real progress. There are some very welcome suggestions with clear and cogent calls for more collaboration, at a catchment scale, between land managers, farmers, agencies, local authorities and conservation bodies on planning and decision making.

Creating a new mechanism which allows those at the sharp end to discuss with policy makers and paymasters what it is we want from land would represent a real breakthrough and it’s excellent that the NFU is adding its voice to others calling for change. Once in place, of course, a collaborative analysis is bound to bring choices to the fore about what we want land and its management to do for us: sometimes that may bring up stark choices to be made between the priority for food production and water management; mostly the two will coexist beautifully well. Perhaps Defra’s Pioneer Projects will start to make real strides towards this new model that we all seem to agree is needed.

It’s also heartening to see natural flood management find its place at the heart of the NFU manifesto.  Of course farmers need to be rewarded for the work they do to slow the flow of increasingly fierce flood incidents and the post-Brexit world offers a real opportunity to recognise this through new, reformed UK support mechanisms.

But equally there may be an even greater opportunity for farmers to harness water management as a core business strength, adding to financial as well as physical resilience.  I’m not sure this is fully recognised in the manifesto: if farming is to make what I believe is a wholly appropriate pitch for delivering more public benefit beyond food production, then flood management, upstream, seems a great place to start. There are easy and evidenced links to make between on the ground change and water slowing down (and crucially, therefore, costs being avoided downstream). And these methods generally bring a huge boost to biodiversity and habitat management – a triple benefit.

Which brings me to the final observation on the manifesto and where I think the NFU and their plan have a little way still to travel. There is a very strong flavour that downstream ‘fixes’ – enabled locally by individuals or Internal Drainage Boards – should take the fore.  By this I read ‘more and easier dredging’, though I am sure colleagues in NFU and in the farming community would term it river maintenance. Of course clearing out silt and debris is a legitimate activity in some circumstances: we need to keep this as a tool in the box.  But there’s a risk it dominates thinking and the calls for more and more flexibility to allow local decisions over what is cleared from rivers, how and when may lead to unintended consequences and exacerbate the root problems.

When a tidal surge from the sea meets a fast flowing river, travelling at unnaturally quick speeds and volumes, we create a dangerous cocktail which often leads to much bigger flood events. At the very least, I worry that concentrating on clearing out the silt (which is a physical and short term solution with lots of appeal to naturally practical people), rather than stopping it getting in the river in the first place, could be a limiting and expensive distraction.

Let’s look back upstream and consider how natural flood management is more than just the employment of ‘soft engineering’ by making bunds or recreating river meanders. I prefer to see it as marking and describing a more fundamental change in overall approach and mindset, where our careful management of soils, as a non-renewable resource, and vegetation makes the biggest, long term difference to downstream flooding and the problems of choked, turbid rivers.

Patrick Begg, Rural Enterprise Director, National Trust 

You can find out more about our own views on flood prevention by taking a look at some of our previous blogs.  Find out more about our views and latest work in this area on our website.

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