UK government not funding natural flood prevention methods

Natural ways of preventing flooding such as planting trees have no government funding despite ministers repeatedly backing the idea, according to a freedom of information request by Friends of the Earth.

Almost a year since devastating floods hits swathes of northern Britain, environment secretary, Andrea Leadsom, and floods minister, Thérèse Coffey, have both recently supported the approach, which aims to slow the flow of water off hills and reduce peak levels.

But the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told Friends of the Earth (FoE) that “there is no funding earmarked specifically for natural flood management”.

The response came shortly after a cross-party committee of MPs concluded earlier this month that natural ways of stopping floods must be a key part of protecting the nation as climate change intensifies rain storms.

In April the results of a £500,000 tree-planting project showed it had helped the Yorkshire town of Pickering avoid last winter’s floods, and other projects, such as at Holnicote in Somerset, have shown promise as cost effective ways of cutting flood risk. Cumbria was hard hit last winter but a plan for a “catchment pioneer project” published in June remains unfunded.

“Last winter’s floods were a powerful reminder that we need to work with nature to reduce flood risk and ministers wholeheartedly agreed,” said Guy Shrubsole at FoE.

“But so far it’s been all talk and no action. Ministers must replace warm words with hard cash and announce a pot of at least £20m for natural flood defence in the autumn statement [on Wednesday]. Anything less will be a betrayal of the communities that flooded so terribly last winter.”

Helen Meech, director of the charity Rewilding Britain, said: “With one in six properties in the UK currently at risk of flooding, it is time to rethink our approach.

“There is now significant evidence to show that rewilding can substantially reduce flood risk downstream, protecting communities at a fraction of the cost of traditional flood defences, whilst also delivering improved water quality and space for nature to thrive.”

A Defra spokesman said: “We’re committed to better protecting the country from flooding and natural flood management plays an important role in our strategy. We’re spending a record £2.5bn on flood defences to better protect 300,000 more homes by 2021 and many of these projects are already using natural flood management measures.”

The traditional approach to flood management has been to get the water from hills to the sea as quickly as possible, via drainage and straightened rivers. But this means the flows in rivers can peak dramatically, threatening villages, towns and cities. Natural measures, such as blocking drainage, managing soils better and putting logs in streams to form leaky dams, can slow run-off and cut peak flood levels.

Leadsom wrote to environmental NGOs in late October, stating: “I fully support natural defence initiatives such as planting trees, which can slow the flow of water.” In September, Coffey also wrote to green groups, saying: “We are determined that natural flood management solutions are fairly assessed and supported.”

According to FoE, Defra had commissioned the Environment Agency to propose natural flood management projects totalling £20m. But no funding has yet been allocated, despite £700m of new government funding being made available for flood defences in March.

In April, former floods minister Rory Stewart said: “What we are looking for with the additional £700m is an opportunity to do things that either are more difficult to measure, so the key example of that is natural flood alleviation, so planting of trees … or looking at things that are matters of political judgment and political priority, for example, the decision to protect particular types of critical infrastructure.”

Damian Carrington

This article first appeared in the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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