On 14th January 2016 the Bishop of Leeds, Rt Revd Nick Baines, led a short debate in the House of Lords on flood management. The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, also spoke in the debate.
The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I thank my right reverend colleague for today’s debate. Due to the shortage of time, straightaway I shall focus a little more on whole-catchment flood management. A renewed focus on this approach has been one of the notable outcomes of the current flood crisis, helped of course by the exemplary work of the Pickering slow-the-flow scheme, which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, described so eloquently.
The potential of whole-catchment approaches—for example, using meandering rivers, planting trees and building permeable dams to slow water in upland areas and reduce peak flow further downstream—is enormous. In the long term, it provides a cheaper, more environmentally friendly method of flood management, which works, as a number of people have already said, with natural processes rather than constantly trying to hold back the tide. Such approaches also have the benefit of being effective across a catchment, rather than simply focusing on one or two high-value areas, and so can help to lower the flood risk in rural hamlets and villages that might otherwise not qualify for flood protection.
Yet, generally, Governments and local authorities have been slow to embrace such proactive approaches, for a number of reasons. First, the whole-catchment approach will help to mitigate the risk of small and medium-sized floods but there is little evidence that they will protect homes from floods with the highest levels of water. For towns and villages to be protected from the heaviest flooding, some form of flood defence barrier is usually needed. It would generally be cheaper for the Environment Agency to build that barrier a bit higher than to invest in both a barrier and a whole-catchment approach to flood management.
If the Government are serious about a whole-catchment approach, Defra and the Treasury need to look again at how they value those projects and be willing to take into account a wider range of factors—for example, environmental benefits—when they make those valuations. Will the Minister assure the House that a review of how the Government value measures such as this will be included in the national resilience review?
Secondly, a proper whole-catchment approach to flood management will require reconsideration of how we currently approach planning and development, not just on flood plains but in upland areas, too, where increased run-off can raise flood levels further downriver. According to the CEO of the Environment Agency, 13% of housebuilding is currently being undertaken in flood plains and that percentage is increasing. Will the Minister inform the House whether the Government will consider giving the Environment Agency new powers to properly regulate developments across at-risk catchment areas?
Finally, dialogue with farmers is vital if we want to take more proactive approaches to slowing the flow of water off upstream land. Redirecting subsidies to incentivise farmers to plant more trees in key areas, to build temporary reservoirs that can hold floodwater back, and even to allow their land to flood in instances of high flood risk, are all things that I hope the Government will look at closely.