Tenant Farmers’ Association column: Are we more resilient to severe weather events?

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tanant Farmers Association

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tanant Farmers Association - Credit: Archant

It is almost exactly a year since we experienced the first of a prolonged wave of forceful Atlantic fronts bringing with them strong winds, heavy rain and high tides, writes George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers’ Association.

Little did we know then that last winter would be a record breaker, being the wettest since 1766 - the year that Bonnie Prince Charlie may have had renewed aspirations to ascend to the British throne following the death of his father James III of Scotland and despite his previous defeat at the Battle of Culloden, causing a further decline in Anglo-Scottish relations. Clearly it is not just the weather that has remained the same!

The increasingly volatile weather patterns of the past few years, within which we have leapt from drought to flood have caused policymakers rightly to consider the extent to which, as a country, we have the necessary resilience to deal with extreme weather patterns in the future. The question is to what extent has this focus led to a greater degree of clarity as to what needs to be done to assure our future resilience to extreme weather. Having been involved in many of those discussions, my assessment is that we have made inadequate progress and much more needs to be done.

The challenge is quite simple – how to cope with considerable quantities of water landing on our soils through the winter, whilst ensuring we have sufficient water availability for domestic, agricultural, industrial and environmental uses through the drier periods of the year. The answers of course are much more complex made more so by the lack of a coherent institutional framework around which decisions can be made.

We need to start with a fundamental review of the governance of flood risk management, drainage control and the licensing of water use. This review needs to build our strategy from the bottom up, river catchment by river catchment and putting in place, right across the country, a network of Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) modelled on those which already, successfully operate here in the East of England. To be successful these IDBs need two things; practical, skilled individuals with a deep knowledge of drainage control and water management and adequate resources to manage and maintain the water infrastructure in their catchments. This latter requirement needs to be shared more equally amongst all of us who benefit from the management of the drainage network including householders, urban and suburban businesses and farmers. Those seeking to create further development within a catchment should be required to contribute significantly more than the average to this necessary pot as well as putting in place their own sustainable drainage schemes.

For the major rivers and wider water infrastructure we need the Government to ensure that the Environment Agency has the necessary resources to ensure these are in good condition. Some, but not all, rivers have silted up and need to be dredged, attenuation ponds need to be functioning properly, pumping stations need overhauling to ensure that they are able to deal with the significantly increased water volumes experienced of recent times. This capital spend must be funded from central Government resources and thereafter the ongoing maintenance and management should be funded by the widest possible base of contributions.

Landowners are also in a position of offering schemes for the temporary storage of water at critical times. Simple and unobtrusive bunds on land within the floodplain are able to hold back significant volumes of water from cascading into towns and villages which can later be released in a controlled way into the drainage system once water levels subside. These schemes are expensive to install but there is scope here for the Government to broker arrangements with the insurance industry who may be willing to at least part fund some of these schemes if they could be convinced that it would significantly reduce their liability to potential insurance claims from their clients. Community investment amongst those homes and businesses who would be protected by such schemes may also be a possibility.

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Arable farmers could be incentivised to increase the winter storage of water significantly for use through the summer months through carefully targeted taxation reliefs which would have benefits both for flood risk management and the wider demands on water through the drier months of the year.

So far there is been much talk but little action. We need to learn the lessons from the past and not be fooled into thinking that dredging is the silver bullet that will be the answer to all our needs. Nature doesn’t often respond to one-size-fits-all solutions; we need to raise our game across all the skills that we require to adapt to the challenges our climate provides.