Holding back the tide on flooding

The imminent arrival of winter means a renewed deluge of political interest in flooding. For the few days or weeks when these extreme weather events occur, they inevitably dominate the national media. But, as the waters recede, so does the political interest in the subject. As a result, it can be difficult for policy-makers to sustain the momentum required to introduce policies to tackle the problem.

The risks and potential harm from flooding are significant. As well as damaging businesses, homes and infrastructure, it can endanger human life. Take the example of last year’s floods: The Association of British Insurers estimated their members would pay out around £1.3 billion in flood-related claims. The Local Government Association estimated councils faced £250 million of damage to local infrastructure. Storm Desmond, the weather system that caused the flooding, also claimed three lives.

Nor was this a one-off: academics have found that this kind of flooding event is being made 40% more likely by climate change. A warmer climate enables the air to hold more moisture, which increases the likelihood of flooding. Flooding is already a major environmental challenge, and is going to get worse as average temperatures continue to rise.

Forecasts of the future impact of flooding are stark. In its last Climate Change Risk Assessment in 2012, the Government forecast that the average annual cost of coastal and flooding damage will rise from around £1.3 billion now to as much as £6.8 billion by 2050. In its report this summer, the Committee on Climate Change modelled a scenario where average temperatures rise by 4°C. In that case, they predict that the number of at-risk households would rise from 860,000 today to 1.9 million by the 2050s.

Land management

One strategy to reduce flooding damage is to slow water flow from the uplands where rivers form to lowlands where population centres are. These upland floodplains can in effect store excessive rain water.

There is academic evidence to suggest planting more trees further up a river’s catchment area can help to slow flow rates of water. Rewilding Britain recently called for tree planting in areas where overgrazing has denuded landscapes of natural forest cover in order to assist flood management.

Dredging of rivers is similarly important to upland catchment management. In 2013, the Environment Agency published a review of the academic literature on dredging, which found no clear evidence that lower water levels from dredging led to reduced flood risk. On the other hand, they did find good evidence that dredging increased water flow rates, increasing flood risk downstream. This evidence was disputed by some commentators in the aftermath of the Somerset floods in 2014.

The Government’s National Flood Resilience Review, launched after last winter’s flooding, tested how well the UK’s infrastructure would cope with a 20-30% uplift in extreme floods across the UK, relative to last winter. As well as ordering key assets to be reinforced, the report highlighted the importance of the 25-year plan for the environment, due next year, in the context of flood risk management. The plan will enable a ‘whole river catchment’ approach to be adopted.

Other policy responses

In the aftermath of flooding events, debate often centres around levels of public spending for flood defences. Last year, there was a disagreement between the Government and the Opposition over whether there had been cuts or not. Comparing the spending envelope for the whole 2005 parliament and the 2010 parliament, there was a real-terms increase from £3.1 billion to £3.4 billion. However, the spending wasn’t evenly distributed over the parliament, with some years seeing a spending reduction relative to previous years.

The Environmental Audit Committee’s recent report criticised these big fluctuations in spending within a parliament and the often reactionary nature of those decisions. Dieter Helm has called for funding to come from a flood levy on water bills or council tax. He argues this would depoliticise the issue, facilitate a ‘whole river catchment’ approach, and create a more stable revenue stream to fund investment in flood defences.

There have also been calls to change the National Planning Policy Framework to prevent unnecessary building on flood plains. This was one of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee’s recommendations in the last parliament. Despite being in the 2010-15 Coalition Agreement, this policy was not implemented. Now, with the supply of housing so constricted, further limits on housebuilding would be politically difficult, and risk undermining one of the Government’s other key policy objectives.


Flooding has major economic and environmental costs, which policy-makers should seek to mitigate. But flood risk management also presents opportunities. There are potential actions that both strengthen flood defences and improve the natural environment.

It is likely following the EU referendum that the UK will withdraw from the Common Agricultural Policy. Former Environment Minister Richard Benyon MP has suggested using a portion of this funding to pay farmers to hold back water. This could involve planting trees on their land or using fields as flood plains. Such an approach is worth serious consideration, and could deliver benefits for flood mitigation and the environment simultaneously.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue

Rewilding in Britain

Britain is one of the most ecologically depleted nations on earth. We have lost all our large carnivores and most of our large herbivores. While the global average forest cover is 31%, and the European average is 37%, ours is just 12%.  Our ecosystems have almost ceased to function. In the words of David Attenborough “far more species are declining than increasing in the UK, including many of our most treasured. Alarmingly, a large number of them are threatened with extinction. The causes are varied, but most are ultimately due to the way we are using our land and seas and their natural resources, often with little regard for the wildlife with which we share them.” In fact, 60% of all studied species in the UK have declined in the last 50 years.

People in Britain have never before spent so little time in contact with nature and rarely gain a sense of just being part of the environment rather than in control of it. Indeed three quarters of our children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates.  This is having a huge impact on health and wellbeing, and has been connected to increased levels of stress, physical inactivity and obesity.

The damage to our natural systems also means our environment is less able to provide the goods and services upon which we depend. Across the whole of the North of England, in late January 2016, about 16,000 homes and businesses were flooded. The preliminary estimate of the cost of the flood damage is £1.3 billion, and rising. The cost in terms of human misery is unquantifiable. It is now increasingly recognised that the impacts of this extreme rainfall were exacerbated by the overgrazing, deforestation, burning and drainage of the uplands and by the canalisation and dredging of the rivers. And there are increasing calls for investment in the planting of trees and changing land management practices to encourage the restoration of natural climax vegetation communities in areas upstream of our towns and cities. 

And it’s not just water – we are losing our soils at an alarming rate and the ability of our habitats to act as carbon ‘sinks’. We now know that the highly simplified ecosystems of the kind that prevail across Britain are also much less resilient to environmental change, such as climate change and invasive species.

Rewilding offers a chance to reverse that. A chance to restore natural systems and all the benefits they provide; to work with communities to restore to parts of Britain the wonder and enchantment of wild nature; to allow magnificent lost creatures to live here once more; and to provide people with some of the rich and raw experiences of which we have been deprived.

Rewilding Britain was set up to promote the large scale restoration of ecosystems in Britain, on land and at sea.  We believe it is not enough merely to try to preserve tiny fragments of our wildlife. Meaningful conservation must involve restoring natural processes and re-establishing missing species. Rewilding does not attempt to produce fixed outcomes. It sees dynamic ecological processes as an essential, intrinsic aspect of healthy living systems. The animals we lack, such as beavers, boar, lynx, pelicans, cranes and storks, are not just ornaments of the ecosystem - they have a role as ecosystem engineers and are essential to an effectively functioning environment. 

By 2030 we would like to see at least 300,000 hectares of core land areas and three marine areas established where nature is starting to take care of itself and key species are starting to become re-established. These areas will be ecologically connected, supported by an engaged and enthusiastic public, and delivering a range of benefits for local communities and landowners.

Rewilding is about the restoration of natural processes. It benefits nature, by connecting nature with nature, creating diversity and increasing the number of niches available, and making room for species to move through landscapes as they adapt to environmental change.

Rewilding benefits the wider environment too. By allowing natural process to function rewilding improves provision of ecosystem services. For example, restoring woodland reduces the flow of water downstream, flattening out the cycle of flood and drought. And increased woodland filters out contaminants that affect water quality, and increases carbon sequestration, helping mitigate climate change. Certain keystone species can have a huge impact. Beavers clean rivers. Their ponds retain silts and trap nutrients and flatten out cycles of flooding and drought.  And predators such as lynx can regenerate forests by reducing deer numbers and allowing saplings space to grow.

But it’s not just about the environment – rewilding can bring significant economic benefits. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Rewilding can be farming’s greatest ally. It helps restore nutrients, worms and mycorrhizal fungi to the soil, provides for pollinating insects, purifies water, reduces flood risk and helps resist droughts. Perhaps rewilding will give us a few more harvests yet?

Rewilding can revitalise local communities. An RSPB report found sea eagle tourism on the Isle of Mull brings in up to £5 million a year to the island’s economy and supports 110 full-time jobs. Examples from around Europe show that new sources of income and jobs, based around wildlife and eco-tourism, offer a great potential to revitalise rural communities, supporting the recovery of the human economy as well as the natural world.

Rewilding is as much about people as it is about the planet. Time in nature improves concentration and behaviour, benefits health and wellbeing, and increases environmental awareness. Which is why rewilding is as much about rewilding ourselves as rewilding land. It’s about experiencing the enchantment of wild nature, about noticing and experiencing what's around us, about an increased connection with the living planet – “to love not man the less, but nature more”.

Rewilding is our big opportunity to leave the world in a better state than it is today. To turn our silent spring into a raucous summer. To introduce one of the rarest of all species into Britain’s ecological vision: hope.

Helen Meech is the Director of Rewilding Britain

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.