The Government responds to the EFRA Committee’s Flood Report

In November 2016, I wrote a blog about the EFRA Committee’s Report on Future Flood Prevention. On balance, the report was a useful contribution to the national debate about how we best prepare for floods. We have now seen the Government’s response to the report and it tells us little we didn’t already know.

There is a reassuring commitment to a catchment-based approach and recognition that tackling flood risk should not be considered in isolation from other environmental challenges such as improving water quality, recovering wildlife and sequestering carbon. This does not take away from the importance of natural flood management; rather it enables us to build the case for investment by factoring in a full range of benefits. The end result is that schemes to slow the flow and make space for water would be rolled out much more widely, benefitting communities where investment for the flood risk reduction alone may not have stacked up.

There is very little in the response describing how that might happen. Agri-environment schemes like Countryside Stewardship, as critical as they are to wildlife conservation, can only be a small part of a flood risk management solution. New approaches to reduce pollution and prevent soil loss can also deliver a flood risk benefit and need not cost the taxpayer. Furthermore, a market should exist for measures to reduce flood risk. This opens up the opportunity for the Government to support Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) approaches. It is critical that the 25 Year Plan for the Environment and the associated Pioneer projects explore new ideas and do not simply repackage current ways of working.

Whilst the Government highlights again that the 2011 Partnership Funding policy recognises natural flood risk management benefits in the same way as other interventions, there are still relatively few cases where it has funded them. One practical way the Government could begin tackling this would be to require the Environment Agency to explicitly look at what natural flood management measures, throughout a catchment, would increase the effectiveness or longevity of new hard engineered defences whenever such a scheme is designed.

The Government’s response to the Committee’s recommendations on progressing Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) is a little vague and confusing. It reiterates the commitment made, after the Housing and Planning Bill passed through Parliament last year, to review current planning policies but suggests that the purpose of the review is to inform the Adaptation Sub-Committee on Climate Change when they compile their 2017 progress update on the National Adaptation Plan. There is broad consensus that the Government’s approach to SuDS is inadequate and an upcoming report by CIWEM and WWT is likely to support that view. The Government needs to use the review to directly influence its own policy, not pass the issue from one advisory committee to another.

There is a similar consensus that dredging can, in very limited circumstances, help to alleviate local flood risk but that it can also increase flood risk downstream, and it can and often does harm wildlife. The Government acknowledges this, but also states that steps have been taken to streamline the permitting system and make it easier for farmers and landowners to undertake ‘low-risk’ dredging activity without formal consent from the Environment Agency. At the same time, the Environment Agency is under pressure to offload responsibility for maintaining some rivers to Internal Drainage Boards and local authorities. The Agency’s own dredging pilots showed that current permitting arrangements are not a barrier to effective maintenance and we know that dredging in the wrong place can increase flood risk, so the driver behind the push to deregulate is not clear.

Not everything in the Committee’s report is in Defra’s gift to influence. The response refers to work across departments to deliver the recommendations of the National Flood Resilience Review as well as to the establishment of an inter-ministerial group overseeing the development of flood policy. This is critical but if that cooperation is limited to delivery within the very narrow scope of the National Flood Resilience Review, it will fall a long way short of the broad approach required to help those at risk cope with future flooding.

Simon Wightman
Senior Policy Officer, RSPB