Nature. Who will conquer it?

Friday 14th February 2014

So concludes the BBC Winter Olympic trailer in tones hinting of a Victorian attitude that nature is a force to be mastered and defeated by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of man.

One by one Owen Patterson, Eric Pickles and David Cameron have stepped into the ring to fight against flooding.  Each has called on their greatest power – resolute self-belief, clever shifting of responsibility and (near) limitless financial clout.  All have proved ineffectual, Owen Patterson was stretchered out of the ring with a detached retina, Eric Pickles had the towel thrown in by his own corner after he accused them of losing the fight, and David Cameron’s declaration of limitless resources was followed by an even greater deluge of rain and questions.

Scientists, men and women, have made great progress in understanding nature and the environment over the last 50 years. We may not have all the answers but we now know vastly more about how our environment works and how we can influence it than ever before.

In terms of managing flooding we know that the most important factor is the capacity of the landscape to absorb water and slowly release it into the rivers. This is all about working with wildlife and nature, putting in woods that intercept rain, nurturing healthy un-compacted soils full of earthworm burrows, and preserving seasonally inundated flood plains and wetlands without building on them (sustainable management of flooding is accurately detailed in this article by George Monbiot).

In my view the most disheartening aspect of coverage of the current floods is the juxtaposition of people against wildlife. Shrill media reporting has claimed that the need to look after wildlife has trumped the need to look after people.

First we were told by the BBC that the Environment Agency had spent millions on creating a bird reserve and had not spent anything on dredging rivers in Somerset. This premise ignores the very obvious synergy between creating a flooding wetland and protecting people and property from the very same water. In the mid-1600s Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden constructed the Ouse Washes to hold flood water, the Fens were drained and the Ouse Washes has become one of the UK’s premier bird reserves. Indeed the new coastal saltmarsh created at Steart point will absorb energy and water and protect Steart village from flooding.

Then we were told by the Daily Mail that the Environment Agency had decided not to dredge the Thames because of the presence of the Depressed river mussel. The Depressed river mussel is a palm sized animal that sits in the sediments at the bottom of the river filtering the water.  It is internationally threatened and the UK has an important part of the global population, so it is to the Environment Agency’s credit that they take care to look after it when dredging. Indeed since 1999, when one dredging event wiped out 20% of the internationally important population in the River Brue on the Somerset Levels, measures have been introduced to protect the species during dredging, including holding breeding age mussels in tanks during the operation and returning them to their river bed once work is complete.

Therefore the Depressed river mussel would not stop the dredging of the Thames. The Environment Agency has indeed stated that the Thames was not dredged because natural river scouring was more effective at removing silt than dredging. Indeed dredging rivers is at best only a partial solution, it can remove flood water more quickly, but it can also create faster more dangerous flooding in more sensitive areas – increasing the risk to human life.

Again the contrived conflict between humans and wildlife dissipates under rational examination.

So how should Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson react?

Last October it was revealed that Owen Paterson, a climate change sceptic, had only ever received two short briefings relating to climate change and had not been briefed on the issue by his Chief Scientist.

Now that climate change has risen up on his watch and given him a black eye (or similar) will he now take it seriously and ask for a briefing about how his department could help the country to adapt to increasingly extreme weather conditions?

Secondly, we should restructure how we remunerate land owners who help to reduce the scale and levels of damage caused by flooding; for reducing soil erosion, slowing the rush of water into the rivers and allowing water to flood the fields. Every year each and every household pays an average of £400 to boost the incomes of farmers and landowners. Most of this is just handed out, but some of the funds go into what are called ‘pillar 2’ payments which pay the farmer for undertaking environmentally or socially beneficial work. Owen Paterson recently had the chance to increase the amount of money going into ‘pillar 2’ to 15% but despite telling the cabinet that this was his intention he eventually capitulated to the NFU, who wanted farmers to be handed the money and not have to provide any social or environmental benefits to justify receiving it, and he reduced the figure to 12%. Hence it may appear that Defra does not have any resources to increase the flood resilience of the countryside.

However, Martin Harper at the RSPB thinks that there is a way around this and has proposed that under current rules it is possible to redirect 8% of the funding that is normally just handed to farmers and land owners (pillar 1) to “sectors or to those regions …where specific types of farming or specific agricultural sectors… are particularly important for economic, social and/or environmental reasons”.

This would be a potential way to fund more flood mitigation work.

Thirdly, it is shocking that 13% of new developments are on floodplains, this must stop. In December 2012 I asked Owen Paterson when would we stop hearing news of another “new development” being flooded? He replied that floodplains were there to take excess rain and that building on them was “moronically stupid“.

Yet the building continues and local authorities and national guidance have proven inadequate. New measures must be considered including penalising floodplain building and giving NGOs the right to object to development approvals on floodplains.

So in summary, let’s take off the gloves, stop trying to defeat nature, and work out how we can fund and create a countryside that reduces risk to life and the economy from forthcoming weather patterns.

Oh, and let’s re double our efforts to prevent dangerous climate change.