A high-volume water pump worked hard as flood defences neared collapse in Ironbridge, on the River Severn. Photo: PETER MANNING/LNP/SHUTTERSTOCK

Flood defences: don’t forget natural solutions

Building ever-higher barriers is not the only answer
March 31, 2020

In the winter of 2015-6, there was heavy flooding in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. In my capacity as the then shadow environment secretary, I visited those areas to talk to the people affected and saw the devastation wreaked on their homes and businesses. Many of them had also been hit by floods a few years earlier. They were told then it was a “once in a century” event. Even though defences had been improved, they were still not good enough to protect those communities when the predictions proved wrong.

And now, once again, we have seen flooding devastating large stretches of the UK. This year was the wettest February in the UK since records began in 1862, with more than three times the average rainfall and three successive storms. From south Wales to the midlands to Yorkshire, people saw their local areas destroyed by the rapidly rising water as rivers burst their banks. The elderly, the vulnerable, those living in poorer quality accommodation, and those unable to afford rising insurance premiums are often disproportionately affected, although, as I saw in 2015, local communities do a brilliant job in rallying round and supporting each other.

It’s clear that our climate is changing, with increased occurrences of extreme weather events and more rainfall. But building ever-higher flood barriers or doling out more sandbags is not the only answer. It’s clear we need to look at different approaches to mitigating flood risk, including using nature to reduce the risk of flooding and minimise its effects, planting trees, and investing in the restoration of salt marshes, mudflats and wetlands, all of which act as flood plains.

We can also improve environmental management, avoiding unnecessary dredging, which can actually end up causing more danger to life as water flows more quickly through river systems. It’s better that farmers should allow their land to flood, and be rewarded for doing so through the new “public money for public goods” approach to agricultural subsidies, than for populated areas downstream to bear the brunt.

These natural measures won’t only help manage flood risk—they will also play a role in tackling the climate emergency, by increasing the capacity of land to sequester carbon. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds estimates that if we properly invest in nature-based solutions such as tree planting and the restoration of peatland, salt marshes and wetlands, we could provide 30 per cent of the global climate change mitigation that is needed to keep temperature rises to 1.5°C by 2050—the equivalent to 15bn tonnes of carbon. But instead, we are releasing carbon into the atmosphere by allowing the burning of vegetation on these lands, which makes no sense at all. A ban on burning would also improve air quality for local residents, reducing respiratory illness: something we are all worried about at the moment.

The new chancellor has promised to double spending for flood defences in England. For those communities affected by so-called “once in a lifetime” flooding three times in the past decade, it will be too little, too late. If this government is finally serious about mitigating flood risk, and preventing more of the terrible scenes that have filled the news, there can be no more of ministers burying their heads in the sandbags. To tackle the climate emergency, and mitigate the havoc it causes, they must invest in natural flood defences— the sooner the better.