Rewilding and flood risk management – the need for leadership

Rewilding Britain is calling for political leadership and policy support for rewilding to reduce flood risk and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

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This winter, yet again, we have seen severe flooding devastate communities across much of the North of England. And yet again, Government has announced another policy review – this time named the Flood Resilience Review, led by Oliver Letwin – to assess what changes to policy and funding might better protect communities at risk from floods.

It all feels a bit like groundhog day. Following the 2007 floods in England, the policy review led by Sir Michael Pitt concluded: the risk of flooding continues to escalate; making the events that shattered so many communities last year an ever increasing threat. I urge the Government to show leadership and urgently set out the process and timescale for improving resilience in the UK.

Pitt’s recommendations included a call on Defra, the Environment Agency and Natural England to work with partners to greater working with natural processes. The result was Defra funding for three trial flood management demonstration projects. All have shown good results and delivered a range of benefits, including reduced flood risk. For example at the Holnicote Estate in Exmoor, new bunded flood storage areas helped deliver a 10% reduction in flood peak during a severe storm in 2013. And five years since the scheme started there has been no flooding in villages that had regularly flooded in the past.

Whilst there’s no silver bullet solution, there is growing evidence that rewilding, or working to restore ecosystems, can play a role in preventing the worst impacts of flooding at the same time as mitigating climate change. You can read a summary of some of the evidence in our new briefing.

We think the government could and should be doing much more to deliver win-win schemes. Only a commitment and drive at a senior level will bring about change. Whilst it is good to see that the Government has appointed Rory Stewart MP as Flood Envoy for Lancashire and Cumbria, it remains to be seen whether rewilding options will be fully considered in future flood management plans here and elsewhere in the country.

Leadership is needed to ensure future flood plans and projects can deliver schemes that work with nature and communities for effective flood prevention. We’re calling for the following as part of the Flood Resilience Review:

  • Much more integration of policy and delivery of flood risk management.
  • Removal of policy barriers to natural flood risk management such as the designation of trees, scrub, ponds and wetlands as Permanent Ineligible Features” for farm payments.
  • Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to incentivise ecosystem restoration.
  • Incentives for afforestation, particularly in upland areas, through Countryside Stewardship, voluntary initiatives and novel funding approaches.
  • A strategy to ensure that we protect and secure multiple benefits from carbon-rich soils and peatlands, and end unsustainable use of peat.
  • Acceleration of licensed reintroduction of beavers as part of flood and water national objectives.
  • For flood-prone communities to be given a lead role in catchment management by developing community planning processes which enable these communities to negotiate with landowners upstream and to determine how flood management budgets should best be allocated. They should be supported by professional facilitators, expert advice, public money and official empowerment.

These changes need commitment at the highest level and proper funding to make it happen. Rewilding Britain will be pushing for that in the coming months.