Is rural land management the problem or the solution to flooding in our towns and cities?

Paul Woodcock from the Environment Agency and Joe Morris from Cranfield University respond. Tell us what YOU think – post your comments at the bottom of the page.

Paul WoodcockPaul Woodcock, Regional Director for the Anglian Region of the Environment Agency

I once lived in a four hundred year old cottage near a tributary of the river Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire. The adjacent brook was decidedly flashy – one day, a ferocious torrent, the next a gentle steam. On Good Friday in 1998, after a day of heavy rain, the brook rose steadily to a peak level resulting in a metre deep flood through the house. The consequences were: a £60,000 bill, fortuitously covered by a very helpful insurance company, the family spending nine months in various rented properties, while the house dried out and was repaired, and a legacy of fear about the next storm.

So, what’s changed? Surely our predecessors didn’t build our cottage on land prone to flooding. More likely the character of the brook has changed. I suspect it is because increasingly efficient agriculture has removed the “sponge”. The dampening effects of a biodiverse catchment, able to hold and gradually release its burden of water, have been reduced. Efficient field drainage systems might improve agrarian productivity but at what cost, in flood damages, and to the environment? Do agricultural economic gains outweigh the cost of flood defences and the loss of species? There’s the human cost too. Flood risk and poor health appear linked. There are no easy answers but there are opportunities. What incentivisation could replace the “sponge” in rural land use? What benefits might flow from natural solutions to water management, be they economic, environmental or social? How does society gear itself to make the change? A climate change-proofed tool kit aimed at reducing flood risk through the right land uses appears to be a prize worth striving for.

We now live in a house on one of the very few hills Cambridgeshire can offer, but what hope can we extend to those still living with floods?


Joe MorrisJoe Morris, Professor of Resource Economics and Management and Head of the Natural Resources Management Centre, Cranfield University

‘Food from our Own Resources’ dominated rural policy in post war Britain. As part of this, many floodplain and coastal areas were defended against flooding and ‘reclaimed’ for agriculture, using public funds. Now, changing priorities in the countryside, concerns about climate change and recent flooding of towns have led to us re-thinking our ideas about land management and policies for floodplains.

The 2007 summer events show how flooding has serious and often long-term consequences for people, communities and livelihoods, in both town and country. It reminds us to critically review decisions to build in floodplains. It also raises questions about how we might manage land in the wider, rural catchment to alleviate flood risk. This could, for example, involve actions to control runoff and retain storm water on farm land, temporarily “disconnecting” its flow from the main river system.

The 2007 floods demonstrated how rural floodplains can provide storage for flood waters, helping to alleviate flooding in urban areas where the resultant damage is much greater. Indeed, the purposeful storage of flood water in this way offers much scope for integrating multiple objectives of flood management, farming, biodiversity, and farmers might welcome the opportunity to earn income from such schemes.

But we have to remember that exposing rural areas to more frequent flooding could also have major negative implications for rural residents and businesses. There is a danger that policies such as Defra’s ‘Making Space for Water’ regard ‘sparse’ rural areas as unworthy of protection, to be ‘sacrificed’ to help protect the built environment. This could create a Cinderella effect, whereby flood risk policies inadequately consider the needs and vulnerabilities of rural communities. They become a neglected, and indeed exploited, poor relation as a result.

To complicate matters further, recent unprecedented rises in food and energy prices remind us of the strategic issues that previously justified public investment in flood risk management for food, and now possibly for bio-energy.

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14 Responses to “Is rural land management the problem or the solution to flooding in our towns and cities?”

  1. Harry Smith Says:

    Is it really exposing rural areas ‘to more frequent flooding’ as Joe suggests or actually RESTORING the traditional level of flooding which rural areas experienced before we started investing in flood defense and land drainage? What does the science tell us about the incidence of flooding in lowland river catchments in the last 50 years? We have become used to ‘no floods’. Now climate change is making that continuing expectation untenable. I suggest we need a plan to actively restore the flooding function of thousands of rural catchments. We need to see the floodplain as an integral part of the river. Farm land use will need to change to match. There will also be opportunities to restore wildlife habitats. Allowing floodplains to receive water should minimise the need for energy and carbon-intensive investment in hard defenses. If that means buying farmers out, or paying them to allow land to be flooded, so be it. But we have to recognise that losing a few thousand hectares of crops (i.e. making food production a secondary priority on those floodplains targeted for restoration), and rewarding farmers for letting their land be used in this way, is a small price to pay for avoiding the human misery of being flooded (which Paul clearly articulates).

  2. Marcus Sangster Says:

    The answer to the question, of course, is that rural land management is part both of the cause and the solution. Traditionally we have relied on technology to solve the problem – canalising and straightening watercourses, gripping agricultural land and generally doing what we can to get water of the land and into the sea as quickly as possible. We can still do this but it’s expensive.

    But let’s not forget that urban land management and new development is a significant contributor to flooding.

    Land along lowland watercourses tends to be the best for agriculture – often fertile, flat and well drained when it isn’t flooded. So there is a strong incentive to drain it efficiently and a higher cost penalty if it floods. Also, it is often very good for building on.

    I’m with the commentators who want to reintroduce the idea that rural land can be a buffer, but we should also build buffering into new developments and have much bigger areas of water within towns.

    From a wildlife perspective, near-natural riparian habitats are particularly scarce in the UK – especially woodlands – because the land is so useful for agriculture. So if we do change land management then let’s try to rebuild our riparian ecosytems. Everyone would benefit.

    I know that food prices are rising, but I believe that the UK still has a lot of land that is marginal for agriculture and is farmed largely to benefit from subsidies. So the question is what does Society want to buy with its financial support? Less flooding must be high on the list.

  3. Frank Farquharson Says:

    I think that rural land management is both a cause of urban flooding in some cases, yet has the potential to significantly reduce flooding by floodplain storage. Lincoln sits in a gap through the Lincolnshire edge limestone escarpment through which the rivers Witham and Till drain eastwards to the Wash. During the 1950s to 1970s, MAF grant-aided farmers to improve field drainage, and used grant aid to embank the rivers to protect farmland. Lincoln had to respond by deepening the rivers through the city and by raising flood defence walls. Flooding was still a problem so MAFF funded construction of two major off-channel washlands, one on the Witham, and one on the TIll to divert flood water onto farmland. Thus MAFF was paying to put right a problem that it had directly caused!

    Farmers were compensated through a one-off grant to cover all future flooding, and did quite well out of this: the scheme was completed in 1985, but only used for the first time in 2000, and then again in June 2007, and again in January 2008. The question is shouldn’t farmers be compensated in a more sensible way for crop damage as and when the washlands are used rather than paying them a lump-sum and suggesting they put in the building society until its needed?

    It is also important to remember that about two thirds of the properties flooded during the summer of 2007 were affected primarily by ‘pluvial’ flooding, or flash flooding in urban areas, where rainfall ran off impermeable surfaces, storm drains were overwhelmed, and low lying areas inundated. Much of this flooding could not have been in any way avoided by upstream rural farming practices. I say ‘much of this flooding’, as some of the ‘two thirds of properties’ affected by pluvial flooding (source: Environment Agency and Pitt Report) were indirectly affected by fluvial flooding where urban storm drains were unable to discharge water to rivers and streams because of high flood levels from upstream rural areas.

    I think the issue is very complicated, and there is certainly no “one size fits all” answer. Modern farming practices HAVE changed runoff patterns, and Joe and colleagues have quite a bit of evidence on this issue at the field, or group of fields, scale. Heavier machinery, tendencies towards shallow tilling (harrowing rather than ploughing) and changes in crops towards maize, which leaves soils bare in winter all lead to increased rural runoff of both water and soil. However, as a hadrologist, we cannot see any real evidence of this apparent trend in gauging station records, even on small rural catchments; there are obviously many buffering effects with field side drainage channels and small streams.

    Harry Smith comments on the issue that we have become used to little flooding over the past 30-40 years, and seems to imply that recent flooding is due to such changes in farming. I do not think this is true. Since the mid 1970s, rainfall has been generally less ‘stormy’ than in the past, or than in recent years (eg Easter 1998, autumn 2000, winter 2003, and then June and July 2007. These storm events were very much greater than experienced in the preceding 30 years, BUT were no worse than former floods earlier in longer gauged records. There is no detectable firm trend.

    To conclude: still more research needs to be done – we still do not fully understand the processes. ‘Making space for water’ does make sense; if we can slow down the response of extreme rainfall events using rural floodplain storage we should be able to reduce urban, and indeed rural, flooding. However, those landowners affected must be compensated in some way, and at present there is no legislative or regulatory framework for this.

  4. John Lewis Says:

    I’d like to know what an objective assessment of ‘Making space for water’ would be at the moment. Can RELU researchers tell us?

    My impression is that we are making progress by the minutest small steps. We are still a long way from having in place a climate-change-resilient policy which would see
    (a) all river floodplains zoned (and respected by local planning authorities) as no-go areas for development
    (b) very large-scale managed retreat on estuaries and the coast to create new natural saltmarsh defences (and restore lost habitats at the same time), in place of seawalls which protect poor-quality farmland
    (c) the large-scale creation of new freshwater habitats inland to compensate for the loss to the sea of the heavily-designated freshwater marshes which lie behind sea walls.

    What is the informed view on the success of this policy and what can research tell us about how it could be redirected to meet future challnges?

  5. A O'Brien Says:

    Surely the modern trend of building on floodplains is at least part of the problem? When Tewkesbury was flooded last year the mediaeval abbey was left high and (comparatively) dry. It’s a pattern we see repeated in other ancient settlements. Perhaps people in the middle ages had more common sense than we do?

  6. Mike Potter Says:

    As other have stated, rural land management is both the problem and a major part of the solution to flooding. Rural land management must include the actions of farmers, conservationists and governments bodies such as the Forestry Commission and Environment Agency/DEFRA.
    It strikes me that most farmers and people involved with local drainage boards look mainly from an intensive farming perspective, which harks back to the 1930’s acts and the war years, when it was vital that the country produced as much of its own food as possible. Due to the spiralling cost of fuel (i.e. food miles) and grain, this is once again becoming far more important after a period of unnaturally cheap prices from globalisation. I would add these people are also invariably concerned with environmental issues too, such as global warming and wildlife, contrary to the way they appear to be perceived.
    Conversely, it appears that Government agencies increasingly appear to consider rural land as freely available for flood water storage and environmental schemes. It must be remembered that rural land includes the most productive arable land as well as marginal land and also many villages & hamlets.
    These two viewpoints could be considered as the extremes, but surely there must be some sensible mid point that can encompass all needs – it’s a matter of finding it and adjusting it if necessary. Can we really put peoples homes, livelihoods and valuable crops at risk by flooding rural land to protect urban areas in the current financial climate. Man has from necessity lived and worked close to rivers and in floodplains, which is why most centres of population are there, so it’s not currently feasible to retreat to the hills. Therefore, there must be a degree of management of rivers and floodplains in accordance with sensible priorities. However, from my observations in recent times here in N Yorks, the maintenance of rivers has been drastically reduced. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to follow a strategic plan, rather just saving money on the quiet.
    If land is required for flood storage, is it beyond the wit of man to have a sensible dialogue with land owners to identify which is less productive, marginal land and therefore suitable for that purpose, then alter flood defences accordingly and pay compensation. There is also scope for protecting wildlife & birds, but again, rather than single minded lobbyists with one specific goal, ensure that the views of all affected parties are listened to. And that doesn’t mean community spokesmen, it means the people who are directly affected.
    I think it is accepted that climate change is a reality, so hard flood defences are unlikely to be a cost effective solution. Sensible flood storage must be looked at seriously.
    I have been involved in studying the possibility of temporary flood water storage in the headwaters, using a series of low (and therefore relatively cheap) dams, which could temporarily hold back peak flows of flood water. Under normal circumstances, these would remain empty, unobtrusive and would have minimal environmental impact. Basic flood modelling has so far proved extremely encouraging. It is to be hoped that such a method could be studied as a serious option for many catchments countrywide.

  7. Keith Beven Says:

    The rather paradoxical contrast between the evidence (both anecdotal and experimental) that local runoff generation has been increased by agricultural intensification, and the lack of any strong evidence in the hydrological records for significant increases in flooding or changes in catchment dynamics at larger scale is intriguing. I can confirm that strong evidence at larger scales is very difficult to find having looked at data from a number of catchments thought to be sensitive to change in rural land use as part of a Defra funded project. There may be several reasons for this.

    (1) at least in some parts of the country, average rainfalls seem to be increasing, leading to greater numbers of peaks above the long term median regardless of any land use effects.

    (2) there is significant variability from year to year and evidence (for example from the grassland catchment at Pontbren in Wales) that drought in one year can have a significant effect on runoff generation and catchment dynamics in the following wet period.

    (3) the hydrological data are not adequate to detect subtle changes. In particular, available raingauges do not always adequately reflect the inputs to a catchment during a flood event, while flood discharge estimates are very often rather uncertain.

    (4) the complex spatial and temporal pattern of runoff generation is also important – it might not, for example, always be a good idea to slow down runoff if that runoff then contributes to the peak of the hydrograph. Similarly reducing runoff in one event will tend to increase the saturation of a catchment and increase runoff in a following event if there is not time to drain away (and we know that many significant floods are preceded by periods of wetting that increase the runoff coefficients in the flood event itself).

    None of these reasons are reasons to conclude that agricultural intensification or other land management effects are NOT contributing to increased flooding – only that the effects are very difficult to detect in the face of variability from year to year, given the hydrological data that is available.

    Our Defra project finished by suggesting that we should therefore be precautionary, and that where opportunities arose to encourage the reduction of flood runoff in farm management schemes (with the possibility of other environmental benefits as suggested by earlier commentators in this theme) they should be encouraged.

  8. James Bond Says:

    Recent flooding in cities and towns has awakened consciousness to the intricate way in which river catchments were previously planned and managed, and the recent neglect of this factor when planning expansion of towns and cities. Flooding is largely a result of inappropriately located development, inadequate planning for storm water and a cyclical period of higher than average tides. How is rural land management responsible for this?

    Land Management potentially provides part of the solution to flooding, but it is wrong in my opinion to describe it as part of the problem. Precipitated runoff is a natural phenomenon. Flooding is usually not a problem unless it affects a developed area. This is a science that has been neglected in the latter part of the twentieth century. Yes land use can provide solutions to flooding problems, but this is usually at economic cost to the normal use of the land.

  9. andrea miller Says:

    Paul Woodstock suspects that agricultural advances alone led to the flooding he experienced, yet rural land itself can be the victim of excess water. Might this not also have been a contributing factor?

    An example of land which became victim concerns a couple who were forced to sell their dairy farm in the south of England, a farm which had been in the family for several generations. This followed the construction of two large supermarkets adjacent to the farm boundary. The runoff from the large acreage of concrete involved, meant their land could no longer support the cultivation appropiate to the farm needs.

    Harry Smith talks of RESTORING traditional levels of flooding, (though it would seem doubtful if even this would be sufficient to allow for the intervening development). The phrase “farm land use will NEED to change to match” is used to develop his argument.

    Both these correspondents seem to have an ingrained bias against farmers. It is true there must be strategic planning and priorities must be established for land usage. But I would suggest that with the increasing global food shortages, we should value our proud and efficient agricultural industry.

  10. Wyndham Rogers- Coltman Says:

    Does modern life lead to short horizons and a perceived need for instant solutions? Is our modern education system producing generations of people who have little or no knowledge of the past and, therefore, can not learn from those who have gone before. I remember in my early years with the National River Authority a wise and very experienced Water Resources specialist saying to me at the height of a particularly serious drought, “You want to be worrying about the floods which will inevitably follow this drought”. He was right. The same proved true a year or two later when another drought followed some particularly serious floods. That man had spent his entire life in water resources as had those who he learnt from and , no doubt, so on ad infinitum.

  11. Neil Ward Says:

    I am involved in a RELU-funded research project which is currently examining flooding in Ryedale in North Yorkshire. The towns of Malton and Pickering have suffered a lot from flooding over recent years. Malton now has a new flood defence system but Pickering suffered serious flooding again last June. We are trying to analyse what sorts of flood risk management options might be applied around Pickering. The optimal solution is not clear. Some say build a flood defence scheme in the town. Others argue that interventions upstream in the catchment such as small dams on key tributaries might be more effective.

    The project, which is co-ordinated by Oxford, Durham and Newcastle Universities, is only part way through so it is early days to draw definitive conclusions, but I would make the following points on the basis of the research so far:

    The way we manage rural land clearly has implications for how water moves through catchments and into rivers. Rural land management may well be a contributor to increased flood risk in some places, but it will not be the whole story. Changing weather patterns and changing land cover and drainage systems in urban areas are also a part of the mix.

    Changing the ways that rural land is managed would appear to be one tool in the tool-box to intervene to change the ways water moves about in catchments, but it is not likely to be the ‘magic-bullet’ solution.

    Finally, and most importantly, scientists and public bodies involved in flood risk management have much to gain from involving local people in deliberations about flood defence measures. Local knowledge of flood events, including local historical knowledge, can hugely enrich our insights and understanding of what causes local flooding and greatly benefit deliberations over how the problem might be tackled.

  12. Paul Trawick, Cranfield University Says:

    The question raises the general issue of possible conflict between the various policies guiding the way that rural land is currently managed, on the one hand, and between the different values that underlie and shape those policies, on the other. Our ongoing research on the impact of last summer’s floods on rural communities in Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Yorkshire is revealing that “the balance is not at all right” and that rural land use policies are now slanted so heavily in favour of protecting specific kinds of wildlife habitat that they are actively prohibiting adequate maintenance of drainage systems in rural areas and preventing those systems from fulfilling the primary function for which they were intended: to allow the removal of excess rainwater in situations of high flood risk.

    The drain systems were built to protect people and property, but today their maintenance is being overseen by the EA in such a way that their main function is, supposedly, to protect certain kinds of wildlife habitat, specifically habitat for volls. As I understand it the EA took over responsibility for administering the maintenance of the primary drainage features some time ago, effectively taking it out of the hands of the local farmers who had always done it before. Farmers and other rural residents now have to ask permission to clean out their drains and must even have the process inspected, a task for which the EA lacks the necessary funding and manpower, resulting in a backlog of requests and a long time delay. Farmers and members of rural communities that were hit by last summer’s floods are increasingly taking matters into their own hands, because the resulting lack of maintenance cost them dearly last summer and resulted in huge losses to property, mainly to people’s homes.

    Although it appears highly questionable whether the standards and guidelines in place for canal cleaning are even achieving any benefit for the wildlife—at least along the major drains–their ultimate effect was to promote flooding in rural areas last summer and to increase greatly the scale, and the financial and social cost, of the disaster that occurred. The great irony of it all, in local people’s eyes, is that wildlife-centred policies for rural land management appear to have had the effect of reducing the scope and the impact of flooding further downstream in urban areas. Rural land and rural people were in effect sacrificed, as an unintended consequence of those policies, and forced to absorb more than their fair share of the flood impact. As our study has already shown in specific areas, this situation is generating a not inconsiderable amount of social unrest, and even leading to certain forms of civil disobedience, as rural people look ahead fearfully to the certainty that more flooding and more extreme events will come in the future. We are seeing some impressive examples of local collective action, but if something is not done to change the policies in place the situation has the potential to precipitate a confrontation between rural residents in formerly-flooded areas and the government, especially the EA, toward which there is increasing resentment and even outright hostility.

  13. Sucker for Sustainability Says:

    I agree that knowledge of risk management should benefit from local knowledge of flood events. However housing policy can ignore even the obvious signs. It seems disconnected both from local knowledge, scientific research and the obvious warning signs, probably because those promoting building have no incentive to consider long term costs.
    For example near the main station in Colchester Essex, water meadows, in sight of the river, are being built on. Even the pre-existing main road is at a higher level than the houses. Locals are waiting for the first flooding event but even an outsider can surely look at the houses and see what will happen.
    Building houses on stilts -or not building houses there at all – would surely be a more cost-effective long term solution that building in areas liable to be flooded and then foolishly building walls and barriers to try to stop the inevitable. Perhaps the insurance industry can help to regulate building policy on areas liable to be flooded, by refusing to insure at risk houses.

    Defending existing settlement is more problematic but I tend to agree that allowing rural land to be flooded is ultimately the most cost-effective way to go. Abandoning sea walls in the North Essex area is leading to ecological benefits – sea-marsh reclamation as well as large maintenance costs savings. However, farmers concerned should somehow be compensated for the loss of land, for an overall benefit to government/society will not help them to make a living!

  14. Catharine Ward Thompson Says:

    A major problem is encapsulated by the phrase ‘rural land management’, seen as divorced from urban land planning and management. We have a planning system that no longer deals with the regional scale but largely exacerbates an (often false) urban/rural divide. Patrick Geddes, a century ago, articulated the concept of planning for the city region in his ‘valley section’, where the countryside and town are seen as inextricably part of one system. He and others since have promoted the idea that planning and managing the land should be conceived of on the basis of physiographic regions. Ian McHarg’s ‘Design with Nature’ (perhaps more accurately it should have been called ‘Planning with Nature’) set out examples of the way that aquifers, water tables and the whole hydrological system should be managed as part of landscape planning on a regional scale that takes into account agricultural, forestry, recreational, housing and other human needs, from the most remote watershed uplands to the heart of the city, while respecting the vital importance of healthy biophysical systems.

    Such planning looks at the capacity of each part of the system to support and sustain different types of land use while maintaining a view of the system as a whole. It is sensitive to the needs and particularities of different parts of the landscape at a detailed scale but never loses sight of the whole. It recognises that urban landscapes are part of natural systems as much as rural landscapes are part of urban systems.

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