North East’s farmers need more help to keep floods at bay, Government told

Claire Bainbridge, a senior rural surveyor at George F White.
Claire Bainbridge, a senior rural surveyor at George F White.

Farmers play a crucial role in providing a first line of defence against flooding, but they need more help if they are to do so effectively, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

Britain’s flood defence plans are too narrowly focused on protecting residential areas and that rural-urban divide is damaging efforts to keep flood-water at bay, it claims.

The ongoing floods hitting Britain have not only left residential communities swamped, but, according to NFU Mutual, the National Farmers’ Union’s insurance society, they also inflicted more than £20m worth of damage on farms and rural businesses across the UK.

Claire Bainbridge, a senior rural surveyor at property firm 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.

“A strategy as basic as planting more trees in upland areas can act as a buffer, slowing the downward flow of water.”

“Thatch 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?

“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, and the institution is urging the Environment Agency to work with farmers to adopt it and ensure that our countryside is working for us in the future.

It works in three ways – by managing the storage of flood-water through the creation of ponds and ditches; by increasing soil infiltration, such as by planting spongy bog moss; and by slowing the flow of water, potentially by channelling it by planting buffer strips of trees.

Claire added: “Currently, the most expensive rural land will be that which can grow the widest variety of crops, and the least expensive 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 might 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 the Government commits the right level of funding and support in all areas, both urban and rural.”