16th Dec


We Must Accept that Flooding is Not a Crisis but a Consequence of Our Chronic Failure of Water Management

This is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on 29 November 2019.

We Must Accept that Flooding is Not a Crisis but a Consequence of Our Chronic Failure of Water Management


It is a feature of modern Government to respond to crisis situations by calling for a fundamental review or independent inquiry.  The reports from these exercises enjoy a brief period in the limelight before they end up gathering dust on Whitehall shelves as personalities and priorities move on.  The way Government has addressed flooding is a glorious example of this practice.

It was almost exactly three years ago that the then DEFRA Secretary of State, Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP and Paymaster General, Rt Hon Ben Gummer MP jointly penned the foreword to what was a 145-page report concluding the National Flood Resilience Review.  With many parts of the country suffering once again the effects of flooding and with more areas predicted to be affected as the winter progresses, those whose farms, businesses, homes and communities have given way to overflowing rivers and streams are rightly demanding answers from the Government.  If truth be told, the conclusion must be that we have confused words and activity with real progress.

Whilst many are calling on the Government to declare a national crisis, what we really need is to accept that we have a chronic problem in the way in which we address extreme weather events.  The increasingly volatile weather patterns of the past few years, within which we have leapt from drought to flood underlines the need for a fundamental change in our response.

We need to start with a fundamental review of the governance of flood risk management, drainage control and the licensing of water use.  This needs to build a strategy from the bottom up, river catchment by river catchment and putting in place, right across the country, a network of Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) modelled on those which already, successfully operate in the East of England.  To be successful these IDBs need two things; firstly, practical, skilled individuals with a deep knowledge of drainage control and water management and secondly adequate resources to manage and maintain the water infrastructure in their catchments.  This latter requirement needs to be shared more equally amongst all of those who benefit from the management of the drainage network including householders, urban and suburban businesses and farmers.  Those seeking to create further development within a catchment should be required to contribute significantly more than the average to this necessary pot as well as putting in place their own sustainable drainage schemes.

There is no getting away from the fact that flood risk management and land drainage work is expensive.  To date, too few have been required to shoulder the financial burden either in terms of upfront rate payments or in having to deal with the consequences of flooding.  This needs to change – everyone should be contributing to the financing of this work.  The easiest and fairest basis to do this is through a drainage rate being applied to every council tax and business rates bill.  The rates in each catchment could then be transferred to the relevant IDB to pay for works and management to be carried out.

For the major rivers and wider water infrastructure we need the Government to ensure that the Environment Agency has the necessary resources to ensure these are put into good condition.  Some, but not all, rivers have silted up and need to be dredged, attenuation ponds need to be functioning properly, pumping stations need overhauling to ensure that they are able to deal with the significantly increased water volumes experienced in recent times.  This capital spend must be funded from central Government resources and thereafter the ongoing maintenance and management should be funded by the widest possible base of contributions as set out above.

Farmers are also in a position of offering schemes for the temporary storage of water at critical times and being fairly rewarded for doing so.  Simple and unobtrusive bunds on land within the floodplain are able to hold back significant volumes of water from cascading into towns and villages which can later be released in a controlled way into the drainage system once water levels subside.  These schemes are expensive to install but there is scope here for the Government to broker arrangements with the insurance industry who may be willing to at least part-fund some of these schemes if they could be convinced that it would significantly reduce their liability to potential insurance claims from their clients.  Community investment amongst those homes and businesses who would be protected by such schemes may also be a possibility.  We must stop the uncontrolled and involuntary sequestration of farmland for the storage of flood water without adequate return to the occupier.

Arable farmers could be incentivised to increase the winter storage of water significantly for use in the summer months through carefully targeted taxation reliefs which would have benefits both for flood risk management and the wider demands on water through the drier months of the year.

A major concern of the TFA is the increasing tendency for land occupation agreements to be granted for very short periods of time resulting in little incentive for occupiers to invest in land including its drainage and flood defence infrastructure.  The most recent figures from the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers record that average lengths of term on farm tenancies are now below three years.  We need legislative and fiscal changes to encourage longer term farm occupation agreements creating a better platform for dealing with the investment required in drainage and flood defence work.

Despite the many years over which we have seen extreme weather patterns become more common place, we have seen much talk but little action.  We need to learn the lessons from the past and not be fooled into thinking that dredging is the silver bullet that will be the answer to all our needs.  Nature doesn’t often respond to one-size-fits-all solutions; we need to raise our game across all the skills that we require to adapt to the challenges our climate provides. This requires investment in all aspects of the infrastructure and then a new governance platform to ensure efficient and long-term maintenance in the context of longer-term security for operators on land.

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