Science & Environment

Funds for farmers who fight flooding

Winter floods Image copyright PA

Details are emerging of plans to pay farmers who manage their land in a way that helps prevent flooding in towns and cities.

The Environment Secretary Liz Truss says she will use EU farm grants to incentivise English landowners to catch water on their fields.

Farmers in areas vulnerable to flash floods might be paid to turn pastureland to woodland.

Or they may allow mini-dams to be built to hold water until rains subside.

The farmers union, NFU, supports the idea but insists that extra cash is needed additional to EU funding.

Ms Truss told BBC News she has instructed officials to study how farmers working in some river catchments in Cumbria and Yorkshire can be given grants to slow the flow from hills to towns.

It will utilise part of the EU farm fund known as Pillar 2, which allows governments discretion over spending on rural development and wildlife.

She is acting on long-standing proposals from environmental campaigners and flooding experts to treat river catchments as a whole, with schemes that benefit wildlife, slow the flow of water and improve water quality.

“We clearly need to do more in urban areas in terms of conventional flood defences,” she told BBC News. “But that can’t be enough - we have to manage water in the whole catchment.”

She pointed to the apparent success of a scheme in Pickering highlighted two years ago.

Underpinning policy

Environmentalists have welcomed the incentives for farmers, but some argue that all farmers should be obliged to catch water on their land if they want to receive EU farm funds. They complain that currently farmers are paid for little more than owning land.

They point to a study by the government-funded Centre for Ecology Hydrology into floods in Oxford in 2007. It found that the peak river flow through the city would have been reduced by several feet if levees had been removed and fields upstream had been allowed to flood.

Ms Truss said EU rules did not allow the main tranche of farm spending – Pillar 1, which swallows 88% of the budget – to be used to combat flooding.

Dr David Tickner from the green group WWF told BBC News: “This proposal is a step in the right direction but seems contradictory to the Secretary of State’s announcement two weeks ago that farmers could dredge ditches without needing permission - potentially increasing flood risk downstream.

“Solutions need to be underpinned by scientific evidence and not just instant reactions whenever floods occur.”

Losing out

The NFU has already expressed support in principle for rewarding farmers for catching rain, but views differ among individual farmers. Robert Heath from South Warwicks said: ”If we were in an area affected by flooding I would definitely be interested because at the moment farmers are losing out.

Phil Barber from near Witney has switched to spring crops because of regular winter flooding from the Thames. He said: ”I’d rather they spent money on dredging rivers.”

Ms Truss said the policy area was complex and would not be rushed. Pilot projects would be set up across rivers at greatest risk before the flood grant scheme was widened. She is working with the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Natural Capital Committee on a 25-year plan for managing England’s environment.

The government will want to ensure value for money – a recent report by the European Court of Auditors found that whilst three-quarters of the audited projects under an EU farm environment scheme contributed to landscape and biodiversity protection, costs in 75 % of cases were unreasonably high or unjustified.

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