Natural measures must be key to UK flood protection, UK MPs urge

Report also criticises government’s plans and funding and calls for Environment Agency to be stripped of responsibility for flooding
Damian Carrington The Guardian 2 Nov 16;

Natural ways of stopping floods, such as tree planting and putting logs in rivers to slow water flow must be a key part of protecting the nation as climate change intensifies rain storms, according to a report from MPs.

The cross-party committee criticised the government for its limited plans and insufficient funding, and called for the Environment Agency to be stripped of its responsibility for flooding and replaced by a dedicated floods authority and a national flood commissioner, as is the case in the Netherlands.

Other measures proposed include paying farmers to store water in fields and forcing housebuilders to make new homes resilient to flooding.

More than 5 million people in England are at risk of flooding and recent winters have seen devastating deluges, with storm Desmond alone causing £5bn in damages in the northern UK. The coalition government cut flood defence spending sharply, and increases in finds only followed the recent floods.

The government’s National Flood Resilience Review (NFRR), published in September, increased the projections for extreme rainfall and moved to protect critical infrastructure, but it was criticised for lacking a long-term strategy and ignoring flash flooding, which alone threatens 3m homes.

“We propose a radical alternative to the NFFR’s limited solutions to the current fragmented, inefficient and ineffective flood risk management arrangements,” said Neil Parish, the Conservative MP who chairs the environment, food and rural affairs (Efra) select committee.

“Our proposals will deliver a far more holistic approach to flooding and water supply management, looking at catchments as a whole.”

The dominant approach to previous flood management was to get the water from hills to the sea as quickly as possible, via drainage and straightened rivers. But this means the flows in rivers can peak dramatically, threatening villages, towns and cities. Poor farming practices, the loss of woods and urban development have all further accelerated the runoff of water. “The likelihood of flooding is now at an all-time high and will continue to increase,” the MPs said.

Pilot schemes at Pickering in Yorkshire, Holnicote in Somerset and elsewhere have shown that flood risk can be lowered by slowing the flow of water off the land by planting trees, managing soils better, putting logs in streams to form leaky dams and by using fields to temporarily store water. A large-scale trial across a whole catchment is urgently needed, the MPs said.

“If you can hold back the water, even for 12 hours, you can hold back the peak,” said Parish. He opposed Brexit, but said it would give the opportunity to implement new subsidies for farmers who help prevent floods.

The Environment Agency’s responsibilities include national flood risk management and defence-building, as well as pollution and waste control. Parish said it has done a good job on the large-scale issues but was seen as too remote by communities affected by flooding. An overhaul of all the various local, regional and national bodies involved would streamline roles and pool expertise, he said.

The committee said it was impossible to prevent all future floods and so the resilience of people’s homes and businesses had to be improved, such as by protecting doorways and placing electrical sockets at higher levels.

“The trouble with developers is they don’t want to put these resilience measures into a house because as soon as anyone walks in, they say ‘oh, is this area prone to flooding’?” said Parish. The MPs said new building regulations should be imposed if the industry failed to agree a voluntary code by the end of 2016.

The committee also said insurance companies should do much better in incentivising people who have been flooded to improve the protection of their homes during the repairs, rather than just replace what was damaged.

Daniel Johns, head of adaptation at the government’s official advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, welcomed the report: “Climate change is likely to increase the risk of flooding for many communities in England [but] there is no long-term strategy in place from the government to address it. Like the Efra committee, we’ve also called repeatedly for the government to take further steps to ensure new development isn’t adding to the long-term problem.”

The landowners’ association, the CLA, welcomed the suggestion that a post-Brexit farm subsidy regime could include payments for flood prevention, but said it would be a “backward step” to remove flood responsibilities from the Environment Agency.

“It would risk a confused and disjointed approach at a time when people and businesses affected by flooding desperately need more investment,” said Ross Murray, CLA president.

Guy Shrubsole, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, also criticised the idea: “It would waste vital expertise and could cause more delays in planning better ways to avoid flooding. But the government should heed the MPs’ welcome proposals to tackle flooding at root – working with nature across entire river catchments and dealing with climate change.”

A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We take a long-term, strategic approach to protecting the nation from floods. We are spending £2.5bn on building flood defence schemes across the country to better protect an additional 300,000 homes by 2021.

“We are already implementing many of the suggestions this report makes, such as managing watercourses across entire catchment areas, but see no need for structural changes.”