Maurice Jones’ Montgomeryshire farm in the River Severn catchment, North East of Shrewsbury, has become more regularly flooded in recent years. “Some 500 acres is affected annually – and the threat of flood is all-year-round too – including in the summer. The business can lose thousands’ in lost crops: silage and arable. But it’s not just about the lost crops,” Maurice says, “We lose valuable topsoil and in its place we’re left with large quantities of garbage. We have to clear this meticulously to prevent hazardous objects being consumed by livestock.”
“Climate change may be the force behind increased flooding, but we must adjust our plans and work together to be better prepared and improve how we tackle problem when it happens.”
Landowners in Wales and England hold the key to protecting rural communities, reducing the risk of flooding, increasing resilience to drought and improving water quality, according to a new report released by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents 28,000 landowners and farmers in Wales and England.
The Met Office predicts that the risk of floods has increased by at least 20% and up to 90%. Climate change means that winters are getting milder and wetter. Welsh rivers have experienced major flooding – few can forget Storms Christoph, Bella, Francis, Dennis, and Ciara in the last two years alone. The first few months of 2021 saw one of the driest Aprils on record, followed by one of the wettest Mays. Wales is a vital source of fresh water for both England and Wales and our major river catchments are liable to long-term inundation.
The impact on Welsh farms has been long-submerged land, loss of topsoil and crops, damage to grazing areas and loss of livestocking capacity. Some rural communities have become isolated, homes ruined, infrastructure damaged. One landowner has calculated that a period delivering 4 inches of rain in his area produces over 5 million tonnes of water, which must be managed in the nearby reservoir.
The CLA’s Water Strategy: a vision for the water environment to 2030 policy paper, explains that given the right policy-framework, landowners could play a key role in improving the wider water environment by harnessing nature-based solutions, at comparatively low cost.
Under a raft of legislation in both countries, some affecting individual assets, currently, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) England’s Environment Agency (EA), and other bodies such as Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs), and Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs), share responsibility with landowners and farmers for flood defences. However, the authorities are often too slow to respond to essential maintenance of existing flood defences, managing reservoir-levels and vital drainage routes leaving many rural communities vulnerable to serious flooding.
Many landowners are already stepping-up and protect their local communities, but are often crippled by a lack of clarity about responsibilities and decision-making processes whether they can undertake the maintenance work themselves. In Wales, key local drainage boards have been subsumed into NRW and this has lost local focus and expertise where it is needed most. In England, following the Somerset Levels flooding crisis in 2014, the resurrection of such a solution and the vital actions taken – prevented a repeat when many Welsh river-systems experienced a severe flood situation. This proves that these locally led partnerships are far better placed than the national government agencies to maintain our river-systems, so the CLA argues these organisations should be allowed to take over responsibility for Wales’ main rivers.
Some landowners are now using their land to mitigate flood risks through Natural Flood Risk Management (NFM) projects. These have proved to be highly effective. They can involve creating wetlands and saltmarshes, or planting trees to stabilise riverbanks, with the aim of slowing the flow of water, helping it to be absorbed, while also improving biodiversity, water quality, water availability and carbon storage.
To empower landowners and support them in their desire to protect local communities and mitigate flood risk, the government needs to provide adequate support through policy. To make this happen, the CLA is calling for:
- Rights and responsibilities of landowners – NRW and the EA to make the rights and responsibilities of landowners clear to allow for effective and flexible flood defence work, helping to avoid unnecessary flooding of rural properties.
- Maintaining flood defence assets – Greater government funding in both Wales and England for maintenance of existing flood defence assets, on top of the funding already earmarked for new flood defence assets, that would provide cost effective flood defences while improving the environment.
- Catchment-focused flood management – Government to allow for greater local approaches and flexibility, protocols for reservoir release prior to flood-risk periods to create much-needed water storage-capacity, and a greater ability and willingness to de-shoal rivers and water channels to prevent blockage. Flood-risk responsibilities need to be given to the best-placed bodies to carry out the task.
CLA Cymru’s Director, Nigel Hollett, says: “We want to see Natural Resources Wales and the Environment Agency uphold their responsibilities for essential maintenance, and where they are unable to adequately maintain flood defences, to transfer responsibility to the best placed organisation to do so. In some circumstances this will be to local internal drainage boards, specially established flood risk partnerships like the Somerset Rivers Authority, or, where appropriate, local land managers. Many of these land managers already play a crucial role in using their land to prevent local communities and businesses bearing the brunt of flood damage.
“Of course, this needs to come with the right government support and funding. But the solution to flood defences is sitting right on our doorstep at the fraction of the price of new infrastructure: natural flood risk management.”