Shakespeare's father was mayor and alderman of Stratford-upon-Avon. He was also a butcher and a skinner, making leather goods as a by-product of his butchery. A by-product of skinning was a rather unpleasant substance that had to be disposed of. On at least two occasions Shakespeare senior was prosecuted for depositing this noxious material into a tributary of the River Avon and for other related land management misdemeanours. So serious was the transgression that the punishment involved loss of mayoral office and imprisonment.
The accompanying fines were so heavy that he was almost bankrupted. In 16th century England abuse and mis-management of the land, rivers and streams was a serious affair and dealt with harshly. Good husbandry was essential to the wellbeing – even survival – of local communities and polluters certainly paid with devastating consequences.
Fast forward to 2004 and attitudes have changed as pressures on the land to meet different needs have, not so much increased, but rather acquired a much broader focus. An essentially urbanised population of people probably has less obvious concern for, or understanding of, land and water issues and we are less draconian in the way we deal with polluters – or maybe we just take it all for granted. Hence the need for the Water Framework Directive (WFD) as a tool for dealing with climate change, flooding and drought and re-fixing our attention on the real and intrinsic value of land and water.
It is not just climate change and human-induced global warming that are causing severe flooding, water scarcity and the threat of drought. It is also the way we manage the land. If we change our thinking, now, about the way the landscape is managed we might just make a difference and meet EU targets on sustainable water management.
Consider this – the rural catchments of rivers have lost much of their ability to absorb water; the ‘super sponges’ in upland peat bogs have been drained to provide improved grazing for sheep or to accommodate the planting of Sitka Spruce and other coniferous trees; intensive farming on the lowlands has wiped out wetlands, hedgerows and woodland trees. No wonder we now have an impervious landscape that is shedding water at a rate of knots and causing so much angst. As a result we have extreme rise and fall in streams and rivers, floods in towns and cities and then, bizarrely, a need to irrigate when the land dries out.
Roads, roofs and other hard areas in the urban landscape are designed to drain as rapidly as possible. As changing weather patterns bring more short, sharp rain-storms, overloaded sewers back up to bursting point; homes and high streets flood again; and wildlife suffers in polluted streams and rivers. There is an urgent need to manage surface water differently and more sustainably – I think most of us now subscribe to this and we expect the European WFD will be the catalyst and the inspiration for change.
We need integrated land and surface water management throughout whole river catchments – the directive requires this by 2015 – with a more holistic and ecological approach to managing the quantity and quality of water. And although the penalties for non-compliance will be high, only time will tell whether they are tough enough.
In the uplands of rural Britain we need more intentionally blocked drains and a landscape that has more broad-leaved woodland trees and fewer conifers, and whole farm plans that make substantial provision for wetlands. In our towns and cities sustainable urban drainage schemes (SUDS), which reduce the risk of flooding and clean up rainwater run-off, should be deployed on a much larger scale. The SUDS principle is now well established and it is time to end our pre-occupation with piping water out of sight and therefore out of mind. Also, planners must give more thought to applications from home-owners who want to convert their garden frontages into hard areas for off-road parking. These exacerbate the problem and are often unsightly.
There are innovative examples of absorbent landscapes and the managers of our great public parks are realising the importance of urban green space in the drive to minimise flooding of towns and cities. Conservation charities have taken a lead in rural areas, and in Scotland the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has established some of the best urban models. We have little more than ten years to meet the EU deadline for delivering sustainable water management.
The pressure is really on and with an estimated cost of £15B that should be sufficient to establish landscapes that are multi-functional, diverse, full of wildlife and popular with people and their communities. The government’s flagship Sustainable Communities Plan will mean many thousands of new homes and urban communities in the south-east of England.
This will also mean more hard surfaces and the need to ensure they can cope with our changing weather patterns. Like or loathe the plan, here is a chance for all those involved in its delivery to show the land – that will give rise to and support the new communities – will be managed sustainably and that there will be enough water for all. If this is not possible, the plan should be scrapped