How to prevent future flooding: it’s not a case of nature v people

Several storms have resulted in widespread flooding across the UK over the past couple of months, with Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Yorkshire and parts of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland among the worst affected. Cities such as Leeds and York were forced to a standstill. We certainly can’t control the weather and climate change is bringing with it far more volatile barometric lows. This we will have to live with. However, policy can at least influence where the water goes once it reaches the ground. This post questions why we continue to follow the same policy of dredge, dredge, dredge when time after time it hasn’t been working? Dredging not only costs huge amounts of money and needs to be repeated time after time following each flood, it is fundamentally a risky strategy, as will be explained in this post.

In an appearance to the House of Commons Liaison Committee David Cameron recently said:

You’ve seen quite an attitudinal change in the Environment Agency that in years gone past, I think, were trying to balance up the effects on nature on the one hand and protecting property on the other hand. We’ve said to them: ‘The time for that is over. This is about protecting human lives. This is about protecting our homes.’

Cameron was suggesting that people need to be put before the natural world in managing flooding risk. However, he completely sidelined the answer that is staring us in the face: by using nature we can help mitigate the effects of flooding. We need a cultural shift in attitude that encompasses a wholehearted change in thinking behind upland management, using the environment to slow water movement, not a continuation of further quickening of water through the catchment and a greater amount of dredging.

So, why is dredging not the answer? Why is it such a risky strategy?

A presentation from the Environment Agency entitled ‘To Dredge or not to dredge?’ (sadly not still available online but taken this quote from an article written in 2014 by George Monbiot who referred to the presentation) spelt the situation out clearly in terms that are easy to understand:

The river channel is not large enough to contain extreme floods, even after dredging. Dredging of river channels does not prevent flooding during extreme river flows … The concept of dredging to prevent extreme flooding is equivalent to trying to squeeze the volume of water held by a floodplain within the volume of water held in the river channel. Since the floodplain volume is usually many times larger than the channel volume, the concept becomes a major engineering project and a major environmental change.

This all seems fairly obvious stuff. In times of heavy rainfall the amount of water we expect the river channel to hold increases even more and even from my very basic understanding of hydrology it is clear that the river is going to burst its banks somewhere along the line. Dredging is a risk because it does not provide a guarantee that communities will not flood and in speeding up the flow the potential problem is made worse (come to think of it any flood management strategy is not guaranteed to work but at least the problem can be mitigated by using other measures).

Even former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said when the Somerset Levels were last flooded:

Dredging is often not the best long-term or economic solution and increased dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels would not have prevented the recent widespread flooding.

From a wildlife point of view dredging causes further issues. Removing gravel from the beds of rivers leads to the loss of spawning grounds for fish – this is something I was made more aware of by the Rivers Trust at the Oxford Real Farming Conference last week. Dredging can also disturb the habitat of otters and water voles. This particular point is one that David Cameron would probably turn his nose up at having said what he did to the Commons Liaison Committee.

Instead of dredging we should be:

  • Planting more trees in the uplands and protecting bogs.
  • Allowing rivers to flood into their natural floodplains away from homes and relieving pressure downstream. Farmers should be paid through Countryside Stewardship to provide these options to mitigate the risks of flooding elsewhere
  • Rivers should be allowed to create more natural meanders and oxbow lakes to slow the flow. This can be done by de-canalising steep banks.
  • Understanding the effects of winter cropping on flood risk
  • Improving the state of our soils to allow for improved water percolation and water holding capacity
  • Creating a landscape scale strategy that encompasses the entire water catchment from source to discharge
  • Mitigating flood risk by allocating ‘mitigation areas’ that are flooded in a controlled manner.


Above: The Thames floodplain at Shiplake.

Now, clearly the upper catchment cannot hold all of the water back in times of heavy rainfall and areas of floodplain must be expected to flood. However, this could be redirected to fields rather than homes. Now, I realise this means I am advocating flooding farmers’ fields and with farming in my DNA this makes me slightly uncomfortable. However, farmers are part of a wider community in this country and we need to think logically over the potential cost of the overall picture. I agree with Monbiot that we have to make a choice between flooding fields and flooding homes and buildings. The eventual cost is much greater in the latter situation. Farmers should be compensated but I really believe that a policy which acts to prevent flooding urban areas as much as possible is the best option available to us.

Environment Secretary Liz Truss recently announced that farmers will be able to dredge all watercourses without regulation to prevent their own land from flooding. This might be brilliant for farmers but what about everybody else? It is creating a situation that in the long run will simply lead to more problems downstream.

The NFU, farmers and Countryside Alliance may call me a traitor by saying this but it goes back to my overall philosophical point of view that it shouldn’t be about ‘them’ and ‘us’. We are all part of a wider community and need to act to support each other. In return for having some of their land flooded, farmers must be compensated. However, the land set aside to flood will be managed in a different way. It will be set aside for the very purpose of mitigating flood risk and holding water if the rivers flood.


Above: Alkborough Flats managed realignment scheme, North Lincolnshire

Managed realignment schemes are a case in point of protecting against flooding – in this case on the coast. On our own farm in Essex we realigned the sea wall five years ago, resulting in a new habitat which floods twice a day. Previously it was a rather poor grazing marsh that made very little money and did little for wildlife. The project has been a great success both in terms of relieving pressure on the rest of the sea wall as well as improving biodiversity on the farm and boosting farm income.

It is a similar idea I am advocating for inland water courses. Schemes should be created which encourage farmers to mitigate flood risk. If flooding and flood management is worked in to land use management strategy then we will not be caught out unawares and the resultant problems will not be as drastic.

George Monbiot has written a wealth of articles on flooding and I recommend you read them if you want further information on the type of approach I am advocating:


10 thoughts on “How to prevent future flooding: it’s not a case of nature v people

  1. Thanks Ben.Excellent.
    I can’t add much to that. Well done for speaking out; it’s not easy in your position. Here’s a recent letter I wrote to the local paper re Petworth in Sussex raising money for Cockermouth (the two towns are linked by Lord Egremont having huge land holdings in and around both of them. I’ve tried to be diplomatic towards the hill farmers.)
    By the way the nature route may well have been vindicated by the highly vulnerable Yorkshire town of Pickering which has recently completed its ‘slow the flow’ project on the moors above it. It remained dry after Storm Desmond.

    ‘Praise to the people of Petworth who are fund raising for the flood victims of Cockermouth. And it is good to think that those various Lords of the Manor, whose estates benefit and depend on towns like this, may match such generous schemes pound for pound. Moreover, since we are all in this together, they may even use their power and influence to reform agricultural subsidies.
    One necessity is to stop the inequity of subsidised grouse rearing on the drained and regularly burnt moorlands which overlook vulnerable northern towns. Far better to use this money to support and induce hill farmers to greatly reduce their sheep flocks and pay them to restore all the barren catchments to wood pastures and active peat bogs.
    Result: greater absorption of rainfall, slower runoff and less chance of urban flood defences failing or, at the very least, not being overtopped so badly. Every little counts’.

  2. A couple of useful articles here:

    The first is a detailed appraisal of the issues, largely reflecting my thoughts above from conservationist Simon Phelps:

    The second shows an example of what can happen when councils come up against the farming community in cases of flooding. In this example I can see it was absolutely right for the farmer to be compensated but in future I would propose the land is set aside in the first place as a potential ‘flooding mitigation area’ which would be paid for through countryside stewardship measures.

    Thank you to Simon Phelps for raising my awareness of both the above.

  3. Thanks Ben for an interesting piece.

    I think the whole issue of compensation needs to be looked at carefully. It is natural to assume the costs associated with”planned” flooding should be passed on to the taxpayer but it’s worth considering this further.

    As I wrote yesterday, the Carrot compensation paid out at Burton Fleming is an extreme case.

    Consider a Somerset Levels farmer who had decided not to convert their permanent pasture full of plants which are adapted to winter inundation (we could call it inundation pasture), into perennial rye grass or even Maize. The result winter flooding (even extreme flooding such as happened in 2013/14) would be no change. When the waters recede, the grassland dries to a point where it can be grazed or mown. No compensation is paid because there has been no loss.

    The neighbouring farmer has converted their inundation grassland into a PRG ley. Winter inundation (which would to some extent be considered deliberate, given how the Levels are managed) leads to this being destroyed; the farmer claims compensation. Does the neighbour who hadn’t converted their grassland, in order to increase productivity and therefore profit, feel entitled to complain that natural justice is not being handed down?

    Take the idea of a compensation scheme for inland rivers; when the maps showing where the flood areas were to be located were published, couldn’t the landowners simply convert them into the most expensive crops they could dream up (carrots, say) in order to then claim the highest possible amount of compensation?

    I would prefer to approach it from a different angle. Landowners, including farmers, can provide society with a range of public goods or benefits, one of which is flood attenuation. I don’t think many would argue that some landowners provide far more public benefits than others. Society provides a range of benefits to landowners, including things like CAP subsidies and tax reliefs of various kinds.

    At the moment there is very little connection between the two; farmers believe they have a right to receive subsidies and tax breaks, without necessarily considering what it is that they are being paid for. Indeed many believe that growing food is in itself a public benefit (which it is not, at least not at the individual farm level).

    So I would suggest that society and landowners needs to reshape the relationship they have with each other, to better understands each others’ needs. And this includes things like “slowing the flow” in the catchment, and managing (or not managing!) floodplains such that they can store floodwater and reduce the risk and extent of urban flooding.

    1. Thank you very much for this comment Miles. I completely agree that, perhaps as part of the next lot of CAP negotiations (or in the case of a Brexit scenario – in the initial negotiations of an English/devolved institutions equivalent) a debate must take place reevaluating the relationship between landowners/farmers and society and large. Your Somerset Levels example speaks volumes and whilst the Burton Fleming example may be an extreme case it could set a legal precedent. I would like to think that landowners would not ‘play the game’ as it were but it certainly couldn’t be ruled out.

      Different farms can offer different public goods. Some will be more suitable to providing flooding mitigation whilst others may be able to provide specialist habitat. Others still will be able to focus on greater public access. We need to move towards a system without pillar 1 support that gives taxpayers true cost benefit and is no longer a handout for simply owning land. Will this happen within the next renegotiation – possibly not – but from a taxpayer perspective it is certainly the way we need to go.

      1. thanks Ben. Yes that’s certainly the way I would like to see things develop.

        And, to be honest, there may be places where there are minimal public benefits but high food production. In those circumstances, there should be no financial support, but there should be a regulatory baseline to prevent especially damaging activities.

        I have also mooted the idea that growers should pay extra, to compensate for public costs, associated with some crops eg maize – akin to the polluter pays principle.. I sketched out some ideas in comments here – you’ll have to scroll down to comments from 2nd november to see them, if you’re interested. Perhaps I should tidy them up and put them on my blog!

  4. Ben. There is plenty of good stuff in here from your own thoughts and culled from others.
    However, this is where deeper nuance of who carries the message (why don’t they listen to me when I call them money grabbing landowners?) alongside closer examination of the ‘behavioural ecology’ of farmers – sent via twitter as well

    Historical contact is required before we move farmers on into ‘public goods’. The taxpayer is champing to see how their money is being spent while farmers are still primarily food producers in the hangover of the post-war fear of food self-sufficiency years. Food security issues will not go away – either via global volatility or enviro concerns this

    It’s become very hard to discuss a single landscape ‘picture’, however topical, without acknowledging other priorities framed in the same gallery.

    Good to chat at Oxford – ping me an email

    1. Thanks Rob.

      I have finally been able to sit down and read the Chris Stoate article (I assume this is the Chris Stoate of GWCT?). There is much that is of interest in this piece – from cultural views of aesthetics to social responsibility and community pressures. Critically I think it highlights the point that you have raised above that we need to understand the people involved in the process before we can achieve progress in whatever it is we are trying to achieve, whether that is building biodiversity on farms or preventing flooding. Farmers and conservationists all have their own peculiar influences and neither are monoliths. Within each broad group there are individuals with varied views and there are a few whose interests lie in both camps (you and I for one). To steal your words above we need to be more nuanced in the way we approach ‘single’ or ‘topical’ issues and not lose the bigger picture. It’s about building bridges and working together to achieve positive results.

      FWAG South West have pioneered an integrated approach to land management – Farming and Integrated Environment Local Delivery (FIELD). This puts cultural and social awareness at the centre of the approach and is careful to involve all stakeholders no matter how small their connection to a problem or an area. Have you come across it?

  5. We are all agreed that flooded homes are a disaster but unlike most disasters it is a natural one caused by rainfall that not even god could prevent for Noah (I’m sure Noah he wrote hundreds of articles (called prayers in those days!) but even god could only suggest an ark as a way of mitigating the damage.

    I will now remove my tongue from my cheek.

    Unfortunately although there are a variety of ways to mitigate circumstances that are unwanted in this case the perpetrator is mother nature and she cannot ultimately be controlled. That has to be accepted.

    Rainfall events do happen outside the 1:100 year design criteria accepted by those who make a living in design and engineering. We could design to 1:500 but that would be more expensive.It is an option.

    We could dredge more often. That would certainly help in terms of maths as well as being reassuring to those whose lives and property have been damaged. It is an option.

    We could ask insurance companies to put their profit motive(for shareholders) to the back of the queue and double loss adjusters and reduce premiums. That is an option.

    We could ask property developers not to build without any considerations for the environment but merely for profit in areas that are the cheapest to purchase. It is an option.

    Like the dutch we could redesign our houses with tanked walls and alternative ground floor uses. That is an option.

    We could increase road gulley and drain maintenance work and revisit road water surface run off treatment and we could demand (via planning laws) that new properties harvest water for brown use and have permeable driveways. That is an option.

    We can consider asking fishing clubs to put back the hundreds of barriers (weirs and log jams) that they have removed in the latest fashion for opening up migration for salmon. That is an option.

    We could also look at alternative upland land management through unsustainable grant aid but forget the fact that in a temperate climate all soils are saturated in the winter and little transpiration (if any) takes place during these months. That might help.

    We could look at wacky alternatives such as pine forests and wild boar introduction BUT ……………the one thing we do at our peril is allow any single organisation with their own money seeking agenda to convince us through the media that theirs is the one true and only answer to prevent flooding!

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