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Flooding matters

By Sue Illman
The government is finally starting to take flooding seriously, but hard evidence on the efficacy of catchment management is still needed.

Having the right amount of water in the right places these days, seems to be an impossible task – as those living in the north of England and Scotland in particular will tell you; however, many parts of the country have experienced flooding in recent years. And whilst the problem of water seems currently to all be about flooding, drought is actually equally high on the agenda within the water industry even in this country. So when we talk about preventing and managing flooding, let’s also not forget the other side of the coin for water management, which is supply, and preventing drought.

These days the flooding panacea isn’t dredging as it was in Somerset, but catchment management. Which is a good thing from my point of view, as I have been promoting an integrated catchment approach to government on behalf of the Institute since 2014. The other change, in the reporting from the Cumbria disaster, has been the lack of blame towards either the Environment Agency or any other organisation. For once, raw nature was seen to be the problem, creating an interest in this broader picture of integrated catchment management that until now has been resisted by government.

Such a potential turnaround is clearly a pleasing change, providing it doesn’t become just a different systematised approach that we can apply anywhere. What we need is a careful and well-thought through understanding of how each landscape and catchment works, what it can realistically deliver in each part of the catchment within a given timescale, that is enabled by buy in from local landowners and residents – alongside better planning, agricultural stewardship, and an understanding of landscape, environmental and cultural factors as well as having funding and legislation to deliver it in practice.

To date, government has understood that effective catchment-based approaches can work; it just hasn’t been convinced by the evidence that these schemes can be up-scaled sufficiently to provide significant flood alleviation at the catchment scale. It is a concern for which I have some sympathy, and a question I have posed to a number of researchers specialising in water management over the last few months.

Trial schemes have been very successful in alleviating flood risks for individual farms and villages, but there are real problems of scale between these and what would be necessary for an entire catchment. Hence why government has so far remained unconvinced that such schemes could significantly lower flood peak downstream at scale. And, they have said they require a detailed and comprehensive evidence base to convince them, before they will effect change.

The problem has also been exacerbated by the difficulty of modelling such solutions, as the complexity of the water cycle (the natural variability of rainwater evaporating, infiltrating into the soil or running over the land surfaces) on widely variable agricultural land, has made modelling the exact effect of specific proposals on flood risk very uncertain.

Some local schemes have been monitored, but generally the focus and the monitoring have been of other benefits provided by natural flood management methods, such as a reduction in soil erosion, and improvements to biodiversity or water quality rather than impacts on flood risk and management. Flood risk has invariably been a secondary objective – as typified by the Environment Agency’s ‘Catchment Based approach’ (CaBa initiative).

These have been excellent small scale schemes that have been undertaken all around the country, bringing together a wide range of local organisations and people, to co-operate, participate in the decision-making process, and work together to deliver positive change within their catchment. However, just as very few schemes have been undertaken at a large enough scale, so few have been monitored for long enough both before and after implementation to provide sufficiently conclusive evidence of their effectiveness in reducing flood risk – but in recent times it is undoubtedly becoming seen as a potentially effective tool in the kit for providing better water management.

However, those issues also have to be seen in a political context. Last year I participated on behalf of the Landscape Institute as expert witness to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment (APPG) Inquiry into Flooding, but unfortunately, the outcomes were only delivered in the dying days of the last government, and had to be refocused for the incoming one.

The Lords Select Committee recently looked at the need for a national policy for the built environment and reported earlier this year on a range of changes that could improve the urban environment, including recommendations that were critical of government policy relating to flood risk, SuDS and resilience. Whilst both reports are thorough and worthy documents, with cross-party support, that does not guarantee them having any traction with government.

That all has the potential to change now. With the flooding at the turn of the year, government has been awash with inquiries into flood management, its application and ways in which it could be effectively or locally delivered.

We have Oliver Letwin leading the National Flood Resilience Review which is considering how resilient we are particularly around infrastructure, what would need to change, what policies would be needed, and how accurate our weather forecasting is, amongst other things.

Rory Stewart is now designated ‘flooding minister’, and, since his constituency is in Cumbria, is heading the Cumbria Flood Partnership to determine new ways of delivering better catchment management and planning through local engagement and involvement.

In this respect the LI is directly involved, being part of a group of professional Institutions and membership organisations who offered to assist by providing a professional review and guidance to the Partnership.

The EFRA Select Committee is looking at future flood prevention on a broad scale, and at the same time the Environmental Audit Committee is considering government policy and action on flooding, and whether it is ‘joined-up’ across departments. Again we continue to make direct representations to these committees, where our views are received very positively. At the same time, the work of the Adaptation Sub-committee of the Committee for Climate Change continues to review the impact of climate change, with a vision much aligned to our own around the need and potential for landscape to play an important role in adaptation.

So, the whole subject is now very high profile, and for once likely to stay high up the political agenda – which certainly didn’t happen after the floods subsided in Somerset in 2014. All I can really say is ‘watch this space’ when they report this summer, and remember to watch out for the drought at the same time!

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