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

Britain’s forests: not seeing the wood for the trees

Forests are an essential component of our natural environment. They provide eco-systems for wildlife to flourish, beautify landscapes, and provide green spaces for recreation and leisure. Matt Browne, an associate at Bright Blue, has already written for this site about how the National Forest in the Midlands, planted under John Major’s government, is an exemplar of green conservatism in action.

Yet further action is required to improve the state of the UK’s forestry. England has one of the lowest levels of forest coverage in the Europe. Just 11% of its land surface is covered with trees, compared to an EU average of over 44%. Across the whole UK, the figure is not much higher – just 13%.

The pendulum has now started to swing the other way, as forestry’s share of UK land has started to tick up. The nadir came after the First World War, when forest coverage fell to just 5%. The Government now boasts that woodland cover is back to the levels of the fourteenth century.

Policy framework

The twin challenges for government in improving forest coverage are maintaining existing forests and planting new trees.

Ancient woodlands are defined as forests planted over 400 years ago and make up approximately a third of England’s total woodland. They are particularly important habitats for wildlife. They enjoy special protection from development, although organisations like the Woodland Trust claim that many are under threat from a loophole in the planning guidelines. In 2014, the Communities and Local Government select committee recommended strengthening the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework, adapting the clause that allows ancient trees to be cut down if the benefits of development outweigh the loss.

Forests are a sensitive and potent political issue. One of the biggest policy reversals in the last Parliament came when plans were announced to privatise the state-owned Forestry Commission, which administers the 18% of the UK’s forests that are in public ownership.

Following the u-turn, the Government set up the Independent Panel on Forestry to advise on the future of public woodlands in the UK. In response to the Panel’s report, the Government in 2013 announced its target to increase tree coverage in England from 10% to 12% by 2060.

The Government has maintained this commitment, by pledging to plant more trees in the UK in this Parliament. In the Spending Review last year, £350 million was ring-fenced for spending on public forests, with the aim of planting an additional 11 million trees over the course of the Parliament.

Yet analysis last week by the Woodland Trust found that the rate of new tree planting had slowed, and was insufficient to meet the planting rates required to meet the 2060 target. The goal requires the planting of 5000 hectares of trees annually on average, but last year just 700 hectares were added.

Benefits of woodland

The maintenance of forests falls within the Government’s natural capital policy agenda, which provides a framework for ascribing value to and enhancing natural assets. In their latest report, the Natural Capital Committee, set up by the Coalition government, called for more trees to be planted on the periphery of major cities and towns. They argued that this would bring greater recreational benefits and carbon savings than continuing to plant new forests in peatlands. They quantified the net economic benefits of this approach as being worth £550 million per year.

Planting more forests will have a number of important benefits for the UK’s natural environment. First, trees lock up carbon, allowing warming emissions to be removed from the atmosphere and helping to mitigate climate change. The Committee on Climate Change has recommended that an additional 10,000 hectares of trees are planted annually in order to cost-effectively meet the emission reductions in the Climate Change Act 2008. It’s worth noting that the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation for additional tree planting is twice the level implied by the Government’s 2060 target.

Second, trees can make catchment areas more resilient to flooding. They slow the flow of flood water, by evaporating more water, increasing water absorption by the soil, roughening up land surfaces, and decreasing soil erosion. This helps the environment adapt to the effects of climate change. In her statement to Parliament following the flooding in December 2015, the Environment Secretary Liz Truss MP identified tree planting as part of a long-term approach to flood risk management.

It is also claimed that there are economic benefits of woodland. By quantifying the monetary value of a hectare of woodland in terms of health, climate, business, recreational, and water management benefits, the Woodland Trust has estimated the total value of £270 billion of Britain’s forests.

The Government’s 25-year environmental plan is due before the end of the year. Ministers have indicated already that forests are going to be one of its focuses. It’s clear that greater afforestation offers many public benefits. The challenge is now to increase the rate of planting to match the ambition. The forests planted under this Government could rival the Major government’s National Forest as a demonstration of green conservatism in action.