The government must show political leadership to push forward ‘back-to-nature’ flood defence schemes that could protect flood-threatened properties at a fraction of the cost of conventional defences, experts have said.
The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) says that deliberately creating floods upstream in areas of high ground could protect lowland homes downstream, capturing the rain where it falls.
The government supports the idea in principle and has held pilots, but critics say a lack of funding is holding back progress.
Katherine Pygott, a committee member of CIWEM, told the BBC, “Flooding is getting worse with changing weather patterns, but these schemes are taking a very long time and a lot of energy.
“Projects working with nature to reduce flood risk are needed right across the country but it is complicated with many different organisations involved and it will need political leadership from the highest level to make it happen. So far we haven’t seen that leadership.”
Although such measures would have to be used in tandem with conventional defences, CIWEM estimates that their introduction could slash flood defence bills by tens of millions of pounds.
One barrier is land ownership, as implementing such defences nationwide would require thousands of farmers to put aside a part of their land for flooding.
“We have got to give incentives to farmers to persuade them to capture water on their land”, said Phil Welton, Environment Agency area flood and coastal risk manager.
“Farmers will lose a bit of land – but these areas are only wet for two to three days a year and quite often they are on bits of land that farmers don’t use – boggy areas or buffer strips.”
The Wildlife Trusts has also called for a restoration of the UK’s natural flood defences, urging the government to restore broken ecosystems and stop building on floodplains.
“It really is unacceptable to have had thousands of people in communities up and down the country devastated by these floods when we know there’s a better way to deal with flooding”, said Paul Wilkinson, head of living landscape at the organisation.
MPs and campaigners recently questioned the wisdom of government enforced Environment Agency budget cuts, following the worst spate of flooding to hit the UK for decades.
In response, the beleaguered environment secretary Owen Paterson insisted that the current government was spending more on flood defences than any before it, though these claims do not appear to be accurate.