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Nature has a part to play in flood defence


As flooded areas come to grips with the mess left behind, Simon Marsh insists nature can play a "vital" role in flood defence. 

Today I walked past the plaque that records the height of the devastating flood of the River Great Ouse in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, in March 1947. It reminded me that the planning system, established in the same year, has a long history of tackling flood risk.

Provisional Met Office statistics confirm that December was the wettest and warmest on record. Its chief scientist said: “It is entirely plausible that climate change has exacerbated what has been a period of very wet and stormy weather arising from natural variability.”

Such extremes are likely to become the norm, and we need to prepare for it.

Many factors contribute to flood risk, and so society’s response needs to be multi-pronged. Th e government’s promised national flood resilience review is an opportunity to assess whether, for example, we have adequate plans in place to slow the water flow upstream to reduce peak floods or to build greater resilience in floodplain land uses, especially in farming. These ideas and others featured in our joint Flooding In Focus report, published after the floods of 2013/14. But what more can planners do?

I am astonished to read of major housing schemes still being approved in flood-risk areas. Th ere may be good reasons for doing so, particularly on defended brownfield sites, but I query the wisdom of permitting development that commits the taxpayer to the future maintenance of new flood defences.

“We need to think more radically about solutions that minimise flood risk”

We need to think radically about solutions that both minimise flood risk and help communities to be more resilient to extreme events. Nor is it a case of choosing between flood defence and wildlife; nature can play a vital role in flood defence, often at a fraction of the cost of hard engineering, as has been done to protect Pickering in Yorkshire.

Sustainable urban drainage should also be the norm for all development, whether or not it’s at risk of flood. The RSPB and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust have published a guide that contains several helpful case studies.

Better river management now means that when the Great Ouse floods, the peak is less extreme and the park on the opposite bank from my home provides storage capacity. Th e meadows on either side of the river play their traditional role of flood relief and also provide a green corridor through the heart of the town. Incorporating this approach in new development, and re-engineering it into existing communities provides one approach for planners to take in an era of increasing flood risks.

Simon Marsh is head of sustainable development for the RSPB


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