North East farmers needed as first line of defence to tackle floods

8th January 2016

Our Armed Forces and generous volunteers have undoubtedly played an invaluable role in helping those devastated by the floods, but when it comes to providing our first-line of defence, RICS says the North East’s ready-made army of farmers are key.

RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) says Britain’s flood defence plans are all too narrowly focussed on protecting residential areas. There has been much talk of a North/South divide but RICS argues that the rural/urban divide is every bit as damaging when it comes to prioritising flood protection.

It’s worth remembering that the ongoing floods have not only ripped-apart residential communities, but have (according to NFU Mutual) inflicted more than £20m worth of damage – and counting – to farms and rural businesses across the UK. Resulting flood water and landslides have damaged bridges, walls and buildings, as well as causing suffering to local livestock, with reports of entire animal herds and crops being wiped out.

Claire Bainbridge MRICS FAAV, Senior Rural Surveyor at George F White said: “If we want to secure the future of UK food production – and ensure that food prices can be kept as affordable as possible, then rural flood protection must be part of the flood protection picture. However, if residential flood protection is taken to be the priority, we can stop flood water reaching our market towns and villages, by adopting more effective rural land management approaches.”

During the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor announced that he would be investing an additional £2.3bn in flood defences, and RICS has urged that the protection of our countryside is given equal weighting.

Claire adds: “A strategy as basic as planting more trees in upland areas can act as a buffer, slowing the downward flow of water which and could have a significant impact on the likelihood of flooding occurring further downstream.

“Imagine what might have happened in some of the most badly affected areas in the North East if water had been diverted and captured, before it reached people’s homes. How many families might have experienced a very different Christmas?”

Land takes time to heal, and it may take many years for current crop-levels to be matched. So higher food prices and damage to farmer’s incomes look set to continue – and that is before we consider the risk and damage that may be caused by future floods. With this in mind, RICS called on Government this week to incentivise and encourage farmers to help keep our country safe from flooding.

Claire commented: “Some floods can be caused by the saturation of upland soil. Rather than acting as a sponge, the wet soil accelerates the flow of water down to the towns and villages. By planting bog mosses in those upland areas, the ground may become more absorbent, reducing and slowing the volume of water that could potentially reach homes.”

Such an approach to flood defence is known as Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) and RICS has asked the Environment Agency to work with farmers to adopt it, and ensure that our valuable countryside is working for us in the future.

The ICM approach works in three ways – by managing the storage of flood water through the creation of ponds and ditches; by increasing soil infiltration (an example of this is the planting of spongy bog moss); and by slowing the flow of water, potentially by channelling it by planting buffer strips of trees.

Claire adds: “Currently the most expensive rural land will be that which can grow the widest variety of crops, and the least will be those hilly wildernesses sparsely populated by sheep. Recently steps have been taken to ensure that land which plays home to rare species of wildlife is recognised in our valuation systems, but still no consideration has been given to place a higher value on land that serves a wider public good – whether that might mean soaking up flood water, or diverting its flow from towns and villages.

“If farmers and estate owners knew that they could add real monetary value to their land by introducing a raft of flood management measures, it may well serve as an incentive to improve flood defences within the UK.

“North East farmers have the potential to offer their country a modern day arc that will protect people, properties and livestock from oncoming floods for many years to come. But they can only do this if Government commits the right level of funding and support in all areas, both urban and rural.”

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