Public spending on flood risk in England is skewed towards dealing with the after effects of floods, rather than on preventing them, and the misery and damage they cause. Failure to account for the impacts of different forms of land management on flood risk is resulting in millions of pounds in agricultural subsidy being spent in ways that may actually increase vulnerability to flooding.
New research 
from think tank Green Alliance
has revealed that, in England:
• nearly four times as much money (£1.5 billion) is spent on land management that ignores or even increases flood risk, than on land management that helps to prevent flooding (£419 million); and
• twice as much money (£613 million) is spent on dealing with the after effects of a flood than on hard flood defences (£269 million).
As well as the devastation caused to local communities, flooding in northern England in 2015 cost the economy £5 billion. If floods continue to be managed in the same way, associated damages could increase by as much as 150 per cent by the 2080s. And, in the worst case scenario, the number of people living in properties exposed to flooding could rise by as much as 98%.
A major failing of the current system is its lack of support for natural flood management methods (NFM), which have been proven to reduce flood risk when used alongside traditional flood defences. In the North Yorkshire town of Pickering, methods like creating woody debris barriers in rivers have reduced peak river flows by as much as 7.5%, which allowed it to escape the floods in 2012.
The report has three chief conclusions:
1. The UK farming support scheme that replaces the Common Agricultural Policy should reward land management that helps to prevent flooding.
2. A dedicated fund for natural flood management projects should be established. This would allow enough evidence to be gathered at larger, catchment scale to demonstrate where NFM is best applied as part of flood risk management programmes.
3. Regional Catchment Management Boards are needed across England, to consolidate decision making powers related to flood risk in a single local body.
Welcoming the report, Patrick Begg, rural enterprises director at National Trust, said:
“Post-Brexit we have an opportunity to create a system that rewards and incentivises farmers and land managers to implement natural solutions to slow the flow of flood waters. Farmers are perfectly positioned to make these small interventions in how they manage land that can have a big impact in reducing flooding, saving us all millions of pounds in the long term. Public money is needed to support farmers in delivering these public benefits. But our own work with Green Alliance
suggests that it should also be possible to set up a market for services from farming that today go unrewarded, reducing flood risks, improving water quality and boosting biodiversity.
Natural flood management is effective. On the National Trust’s Holnicote estate we have worked with our tenant farmers to plant trees, create bunds to hold back floods, reinstate functioning water meadows and put back river meanders. During last week’s storms the villages of Allerford and Bossington, which previously would have suffered after heavy rain, avoided flooding largely thanks to these measures.”
Daniel Johns, head of adaptation for the Committe on Climate Change, said:
“For too long we have ignored the impact of intensive farming on downstream flood risk. We need to manage catchments more intelligently, for food production but also to hold back and store floodwater where it will do least damage. This isn’t an alternative to continuing to invest in hard flood engineering, but a compliment, by slowing and managing flood flows so that downstream defences can do their job. Leaving the EU means we now have the opportunity to completely rethink our approach to agriculture and land management in the context of climate change, and develop policies that value natural features like healthy peatlands, woodlands and functional floodplains for the range of benefits they deliver.”
Angela Francis, senior economist at Green Alliance, said:
“This analysis reveals how we are spending hundreds of millions of pounds of public money in ways that are perverse. Just by allocating current funding more rationally the government could reduce the burden on the public purse, save vulnerable communities from the misery of flooding, and increase the health of our natural environment.
We welcome the government’s announcement of £15 million of additional funding for natural flood management, and urge that it be used as an innovation fund to support catchment scale trials of these approaches. This is the only way we can understand how cost effective it could be in preventing and managing floods.”
Angela Francis, senior economist, Green Alliance (available for interview)
020 7630 4526
 Smarter flood risk management in England: investing in resilient catchments
is published today by Green Alliance.
The report will be launched with a debate ‘Farming land for water: does better catchment management hold the key to managing flood risk?
’, from 10.30am – 12pm on Monday 28 November, with a panel of flood risk and climate adaptation experts, including the Environment Agency.
To attend, contact Elena Perez, firstname.lastname@example.org
020 7630 4520
 Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. Since 1979, it has been working with a growing network of influential leaders in business, NGOs and politics to stimulate new thinking and dialogue on environmental policy, and increase political action and support for environmental solutions in the UK.