We are clearly experiencing a growing number of extreme flooding events. And as heavy storm water surges through vulnerable towns and over low-lying flood plains, we are also seeing a trend towards a combination of more upstream ‘natural solutions’ and fewer downstream hard ‘concrete’ flood defences being used to protect property and communities.
This ‘green’ approach currently backed by some £15 million of UK Government funding  is popular with some communities but less attractive to others, as I will explain in a moment.
However, a wider question is do natural flood management (NFM) methods really work well on their own, or can they actually create even greater risks?
We are particularly concerned that while potentially solving short-term flooding problems, natural systems could be washed away by even larger future downpours unless backed up by traditional walls, levees, barriers, and other engineered defences.
What is NFM exactly?
At this point I need to explain in more detail how NFM works – or doesn’t work – and its unintended side-effects, plus rural changes the Government’s post-Brexit legislation is designed to bring.
Natural flood management (NFM) involves fairly simple steps to help restore or mimic the natural functions of rivers, floodplains and wider catchment areas, with water held back temporarily by foliage, root systems, wet ground, ‘leaky’ barriers, channel diversions, and even beaver dams!
However, without proper monitoring and assessments – and a knowledge of the wider effects of, say tree planting on soils, runoff, the ecology, and countryside socioeconomics – it can be difficult to know for sure whether NFM really does improve community flood resilience. Monitoring of the effectiveness of NFM schemes – for example long term flow monitoring is key and is in fact crucial.
Tree Leaves and data
One reason for questioning the effectiveness of natural solutions is that they often rely on tree planting to intercept and slow down heavy rainfall and runoff. Unfortunately, native UK deciduous species are leafless in winter when their canopy cover is most needed. They can also take up vital groundwater in dry periods causing low flow problems for watercourses.
However, a more important problem is a lack of data! We have very little performance information to assess how well ‘upland’ natural flood management systems work compared to conventional downstream hard concrete flood defences.
Finding the sweet spot
Is there an optimum solution? Fortunately, yes, in most cases if we create (or recreate) ‘natural’ moorland features to delay the initial rush of flood water off high ground into traditionally-protected lowland river systems and eventually the sea.
The downstream benefit of this natural/engineered combination to many urban communities is that new walls, barriers, barrages and ‘hard’ defences may then not need to be so high or robust.
Best way forward- catchment based approach
Unfortunately, there are few one-size-fits-all solutions. Instead, individually-designed NFM schemes in the wider catchment linked to traditional defences on the main watercourses are more likely to be resilient to the extreme weather and flooding conditions the future is expected to bring.
However, as I will explain in a moment, creating these advanced hybrid solutions requires the skills of multi-disciplinary consultancies like Enzgyo (https://www.enzygo.com/) where ecologists, hydrologists, engineers and other design and planning experts talk to and work with each other and with other community stakeholders on a daily basis.
Costs, perceptions and land ownership
Other factors are important too. Cost is one. Another is attitudes.
‘Natural’ is usually presumed to be ‘good’. Many ecologists and environmentalists, plus volunteers and local community groups, see NFM as an attractive solution with a lower-carbon footprint and raw material use than more energy-intensive concrete systems. However, many urban communities feel more secure when they can see public money spent on hard concrete flood defences.
Landownership – and land use – raises further practical questions. In the South Pennines uplands, large areas are owned by water utilities which need to control activities to maintain good water quality. Much of the rest is held privately. Some local authorities also own moorland and are often put under pressure to stop what are still legal sporting pursuits which arguably manage the upland landscape and vegetation well.
At the same time, the Government is also preparing to reward farmers for helping to conserve the UK’s rural environment rather than for agricultural output as in the days of UK EU membership.
Finding common ground can sometimes be difficult!
Thousands of homes built in flood zones in England
Another question often asked is why can’t we simply sidestep the whole lowland flooding problem?
The answer is that as local authorities struggled to tackle housing shortages in 2021, some 5,000 new homes were granted planning permission in areas where more than 10% already face significant flooding risks. A lack of land makes using vulnerable areas inevitable.
The view of LV= General Insurance is that while the Government’s commitment to creating new homes is welcome, there are concerns about the number of new housing developments receiving approval in flood-risk areas. It also worries about the UK’s resilience to future flood events.
Enzygo carries out flood risk and drainage assessments for new developments across the UK. None of our assessments have recommended building houses in flood zone 3, or within surface water flood extents, and the associated sustainable drainage SuDS schemes reduce rather than worsen downstream flood risk.
Flash floods have hit UK towns and cities 51 times since 2007
A new study compiled since Storm Arwen caused major damage in October 2021 also shows that flooding has caused major disruption to 68 schools, 15 hospitals, nine care homes and four retirement complexes in the last 15 years.
It adds that the UK is not ‘adequately’ prepared for increased flooding from climate change.
The research shows that since 2007 there have been at least 12 instances of flooded electricity substations and five of damage to gas pipelines when the bridges supporting them collapsed; damaged drainage and sewerage infrastructure leaks added to the flooding in some cases.
A quick word could be useful here about Enzygo’s multi-disciplinary team of specialists and systematic approach to complex problem-solving for the water environment.
Enzygo’s successful record is based on our experience in delivering many different types of development – from major infrastructure projects to residential housing schemes and renewable energy programmes.
Our approach integrates planning with hydrology & drainage, permitting & regulation, landscape, ecology, transport, geo-environmental & hydrogeology, noise & vibration, air quality and arboriculture.
More details of our flood risk assessment, drainage & modelling work, sequential & exception testing, business continuity assessments, flood warning & evacuation plans can be seen at https://www.enzygo.com/services/hydrology/.
Benefits and challenges
To answer these questions, we need to understand key assumptions often made with NFM, plus some of the unintended consequences that good design and planning can prevent.
For example, NFM often involves stopping up moorland drains or ‘grips’ to hinder run-off. This may take off initial rises but seldom reduces peak flow. Once drains are full, runoff continues as before.
There are increasing calls for upland peat bog restoration to soak up heavy rain on the assumption that the UK uplands are predominantly peat bog. Clearly, this is not the case. Heather moorland on higher and drier ground is a separate globally rare ecosystem in its own right that supports many rare species.
Imposed tree cover can also make severe ecological changes to specialised habitats that include vegetation cover and soils, plus the loss of habitats for invertebrates, larger mammals and birds.
NFM can also hinder traditional moorland management – including legitimate sporting interests like grouse shooting and its land management using controlled ‘wet burns’. Preventing controlled burning leads to increased biomass accumulation (‘leggy’ heather) creating more dry fuel for wildfires which shades out other ground vegetation and paradoxically can lead to increased runoff from affected ground. There are also moves to end sheep grazing which has a heavy impact on plant growth. Land management is key.
This isn’t the whole story however.
In addition to its ‘green’ approach to natural flood management (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/natural-flood-management-part-of-the-nations-flood-resilience), in January 2022 the Government also released the first details of a switch in central funding away from an acreage of agricultural production approach used under EU rules in favour of a rewards for environmental stewardship system.
This will move targets away from pure flood management to a wider basket of environmental benefits linked to adapting to climate change. However, once again more monitoring information will be needed to prove that this well-meaning ‘pastoral’ approach is actually successful.
England’s farmers to be paid to re-wild land
The plan is to give farmers in England public funding to re-wild their land so that 10,000 hectares in the first two-year phase can be managed to conserve species, provide wildlife habitats, rejuvenate rivers and streams and restore floodplains alongside profitable food production.
By 2042, the aim is for up to 300,000 hectares of England to be covered by ‘landscape recovery’ projects over a total area roughly the size of Lancashire. Farmers will also be paid for ‘local nature recovery’ which covers smaller-scale actions like planting trees and restoring peatlands/wetlands.
This will be an obvious fit with well-designed NFM projects and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while improving air and water quality.
Plans to ban peat compost selling in England from 2024
The Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) also wants to end the domestic use of peat products, including compost, by May 2024; professional sales will end in 2028.
Alternatives to peat moss may include wood-based materials, pine needles, composted manure, and leaf mould. Dobbies Garden Centres and the Co-op are among several retailers that have already banned peat products on a voluntary basis.
Vegetable diet plus re-wilding offers a ‘double climate dividend’
It is also estimated that one hundred billion tons of carbon dioxide could be removed from the atmosphere this century through a combination of ‘veggie’ diets and re-wilded farmland.
At present, circa a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food and agriculture; livestock accounts for most of this in rich nations where animals need huge amount of grazing and feed-growing land.
This “double climate dividend” could be achieved by linking land, food, public health, climate policy … and better flood management.
I hope the views expressed here will help to stimulate a constructive dialogue about the real challenges and successes of good flood management in the UK.
If you would like more information, or to discuss any of the points raised, please contact me directly.
Dr Paul Hardwick, Technical Director, Enzygo