Debate on floods (updated with links and quotes)

I watched the opposition day debate on the floods with interest – every minute of it.

There were quite a lot of MPs, of both main political parties, taking the time to praise their constituents and to ask for promises of government money. Fair enough. Some of them were more subtle and convincing than others.

I’ll put the link to the report of the debate here when it is available later today.

The heroes of the debate were definitely Kerry McCarthy, Alex Cunningham, Barry Gardiner (one of the #sodden570 remember), Mary Creagh and Richard Benyon.

I was impressed that Richard Benyon spoke out against dredging being the answer to everything, and also said that we should look at how we manage the uplands*. Good for him. But interestingly, Mr Benyon could not bring himself to use the words ‘grouse moors’, and neither could Rory Stewart, and (although it hardly matters) nor could the trustless Liz Truss (who is absolutely hopeless as a minister).  My recollection is (though I will check) that in this debate no Tory could bring themselves to mention grouse moors whereas Kerry McCarthy** and Barry Gardiner*** certainly did!

It is a sign of some success when the Tory party is ashamed even to mention the words ‘grouse moor’ in parliament – progress indeed. How will the Moorland Association feel that their 860,000 acre contribution to floods, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and wildlife crime is now so high-profile that government ministers choose not to mention them, let alone praise their contributions.  This is progress.

The more people who sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting the more difficult it will be for the grouse moor mis-managers to strut their stuff in public.

Benyon also defended, convincingly, his decisions as a minister over flood defence schemes. I don’t know the details, but his words had the ring of truth about them.

His successor, Rory Stewart******, was strong on praising people for their efforts and weak on any solutions.  That’s not what we need from a government minister. As is often the case, I bet Benyon could do a better job second time around than he did first time around.  I’d be very surprised if Ms Truss could ever get it right.

Neil Parish is an uninspiring farmer who is chair of the Efra committee. He seems to think that fellow farmers  should be paid for water storage etc. I agree with that but I think we are already paying farmers for floods. What we need to do is change the contract between taxpayers all over the country and a few thousand farmers. Rather than pay lowland farmers lots of money and upland ones very little, we should redirect more money to the uplands but only, I say again, but only, for the provision of ecosystem services such as wildlife (eg Hen Harriers and Black Grouse), flood alleviation, carbon storage and clean water (see Chapter 6 in Inglorious). From what he said in the debate, and from what he said on the One Show a little later, I think Mr Parish**** wants extra money rather than a shift in the basis of payment.

See also Alex Cunningham’s***** closing remarks.

Thinking may be changing. It’s a shudder at the moment rather than a step in the right direction – but it is a shudder. There is the chance that Defra will realise that this is the last time that it can get away with saying ‘exceptional’ over and over again about lots of rain. We all now think that we will see similar things next week or next year or in a few years time – the exceptional is not exceptional anymore and any politician who doesn’t realise that had better hope he (or she) is moved or sacked before the wheel of misfortune comes round again.


* Richard Benyon said ‘Integrated catchment management schemes need to be thought through, involving agriculture, forestry, planning, water framework directive implementation, and the way in which we manage our uplands.’

** Kerry McCarthy said ‘Dieter Helm also highlighted the thorny issue of how some agricultural policies and associated subsidies pay little or no attention to flood risk dimensions. The examples he gave included greater exposure to rapid run-off from the planting of maize; the burning of heather to improve grouse moors, as it reduces the land’s retention of water; and farming practices in the upper reaches of river catchments.’

*** Barry Gardiner said ‘Grouse moors and sheep farming lead water to run straight off hills into populated valleys. Burning back heather reduces areas of peat and the ground’s ability to retain water. Climate change affects how much rain falls and how much water ends up in our towns and cities. That is our problem. We need catchment management and we absolutely need to see what the Natural Capital Committee will do and what it will advise the Government, but we must take on board the fact that land can no longer ignore the public good that it must provide. The grouse moor economy brings £100 million a year into this country, but its cost is incalculable. The Minister must take note and sort this out.’

**** Neil Parish said ‘We must also look at land management. At the moment, farmers are given compensation only when there is a loss of earnings. We need to look at that land and say, “Why don’t you farm that land in a way that allows you to have an income from it?” I am talking about planting trees or retaining water in the peat. Farmers might then view managing flood protection in a much more positive way. If we can put all these things in place, we could slow down the amount of flooding that is happening, but if we have 13 inches of rain in 36 hours, it is very difficult for any flood protection scheme to protect everybody.’

***** Alex Cunningham said ‘What thought has been given to changing the incentives for farmers and landowners in river catchment areas, particularly in the upper reaches of river catchments, which play a key role in determining flood risk?’

****** Rory Stewart said ‘We need to look at what we are doing with forestry and what we are doing with peatland restoration’



33 Replies to “Debate on floods (updated with links and quotes)”

  1. Irredeemable complacency reigns.

    These are the two mantras used by all politicians interviewed:
    Compliment the emergency services – praise the stoicism of those affected. And of course, ‘our hearts go out to them’.

    It fills up an interview so they have no time to answer the question – what will they do to mitigate the next floods.

    In PMQ yesterday you might have seen that, instead of answering Corbyn’s questions on this subject, Cameron deflected attention by laughing at the reshuffle.

    We have no hope with this inane complacent government.

  2. I just heard Owen Patterson of the radio 4 farming programme talking about the floods. His style of presenting the rubbish he talks is more like that of a stand-up comedian than a man with well thought-through solutions. Anyone who listening to him and who is neutral on the subject of how we should tackle flooding would immediately doubt the validity of what he says just by the way he says it. As for me, I’m glad defribulators were recently installed in our village, ’cause every time I hear him or his ilk on the radio I think I’m going into apoplexy!

    1. What we need is for the badgers to move Owen Paterson’s ego. Although even he talked about farmers making changes to retain flood water; albeit for more subsidy.

    2. My recollection from the flooding events in the winter of 2014/15 was that Paterson started to talk quite sensibly about flood management – in particular the fact the dredging wasn’t the panacea that many people thought it was. He was immediately, and rather publically, overruled by Diamond Dave and lost his job a short while after, presumably for venturing into the realm of evidence based policy.

      1. The problem for this Government (in just about every area, actually) is that evidence-based policy would clash directly with their cock-eyed, elite-protectionist ideology, and with the practices of their rural (English, older) caucus of voters. I really, really hope Labour continues to take this on and makes the case for reforms, loudly and often, for land use and ‘rural affairs’ more generally. So much needs to change and there is support in the countryside. It’s been a Labour blind spot, but in the rapidly changing actual and political landscape, it would be a miscalculation for Labour to ignore the environmental imperative any longer.

    3. Pedants corner I’m afraid, but a defibrillator is of no use in treating apoplexy, which is bleeding within organs, whereas A defibrillator is for treatment of life-threatening cardiac dysrhythmias and ventricular fibrillation.

    4. You should listen to O-Patz on Radio 4’s Today, about 1hr 38mins in: . He claims badgers were declining in Somerset due to a lack of oxygen in rivers due to over-silting! Thankfully, our hero, O-Patz stepped in, dredged the rivers and badger numbers have recovered. Also, the Somerset didn’t flood in December 2016 due to the dredging. This is actually more likely to be down to the fact that this part of England received either 75% of the long term average (ie drier) or average rainfall (see but mustn’t let facts get in the way of his propaganda.

      Then he went to speak to farmers on why they’d all be better off outside the EU. For example they could use neonics without any concern for bees as populations are INCREASING; contrary to peer-reviewed science. His evidence is a propaganda piece by Syngenta. See for the text of his speech.


  3. Lots of things are not mentioned. Like Managed Retreat which is very trendy in coastal areas and much loved by conservationists but not by those whose houses are in the line of fire with no compensation/insurance mentioned.

    1. Farmers holding up floodwater in their catchment would be ‘managed retreat’ on a temporary basis.

    2. Other views are available. Like if I buy a house that turns out to have subsidence problems or a dodgy roof, that’s my bad luck. But if AN Other chooses to live on an eroding coast they expect my taxes to bail out their poor investment decision. Where I live a 5 year old can dig a hole in the cliffs armed only with a rolling pin, and the cliffs have been retreating since the Mesolithic – what did you think was going to happen? The idea that we can hold back geological changes on that scale, never mind with added climate change, is sheer hubris.

      At least with river flooding people usually have a decent claim that something the state has approved or funded upstream has made matters worse.

      Incidentally if houses have ever been affected by a Managed Realignment in the UK it’s rare enough that I’ve never heard of it. Farmland yes, but not houses, unlike say the Netherlands.

      Houses are certainly lost to coastal erosion occasionally but that’s a question about how much money one wishes to spend (or in this case not spend) trying to be a pantomime King Canute, not about *active intervention* to create a sustainable coast defence that also benefits wildlife, which is what managed realignment is.

      And even on farmland I’ve never heard of an example done without either the land being bought with public or charitable money first, or with the agreement of the existing agricultural landowner which always involves some form of grant compensation eg thru the old HLS and hopefully now Stewardship.

      Sorry Andrew, your comment is unfounded and off the mark in so very many ways…

  4. Mark – did you hear the awful biased piece on Radio 4 Today programme this am about 0850? John Humphries introduced the piece by completely dismissing any form of re-naturalisation as a means of slowing water flow off the hills.

    It was followed by a bit about aspiring novel writers which of course R4 took much more seriously.

    Media bubble anyone?

    1. Roger Harrabin was on R5 at 7am – excellent piece with more-informed Nick Campbell. Worth a listen.

  5. Mark, there’s a massive shift in attitudes occuring all round, very much due I believe to the tenacity of Harrabin, Monbiot, yourself and a few others. And the appalling affects of driven grouse management are becoming clear to all.

  6. Blanket afforestation is a problem, because they usually go for commercial timber production and drain the land first. We must get trees by natural colonisation, rather than by planting with commercial thoughts in mind. We must pay for blocking drainage or lowering stocking rates (whether of sheep or red grouse).

    1. John, I’m not sure “we must pay” holds up; polluter pays principle is that (s)he who causes the pollution has to pay. Why should we pay the ultra rich to stop carrying out an exclusive and subsidised land use that’s flooding our towns? Should we not simply stop subsidising them or even make their activities a criminal offence, preferably both (eg enforce the existing law in the case of Walshaw).

      Hill sheep farmers are certainly not wealthy, but they are already heavily subsidised. We could just stop subsiding them, like we did for the miners (didn’t see NFU campaigning for them) and let the market take its course. Or, more kindly, we could subsidise them to do something else that doesn’t cause floods. In either case in tough times I don’t see any justification for even more taxpayers money going their way.

      Spot on re commercial afforestation with conifers though…

    2. I hope if ‘reafforestation’ of the uplands does come to pass it’s done with care and due regard to recent well publicised problems with mass tree planting, even if purportedly for amenity and environmental rather than commercial benefit. Not much use planting up the uplands if the planted and indigenous trees are all then wiped out by introduced tree diseases.

      Natural colonisation certainly preferable; that way you get trees best suited to their situation. Are tree roots damaged by transplanting as good at holding back water? If not possible then perhaps accept carefully sourced planting even if as a ‘nursery’ crop to give colonisation a head start?

      Hobby horse of mine I know…

      1. Natural colonisation or regeneration of trees in my area isn’t possible. You see there are large amounts of rabbits on the moors. That’s because there are no longer any predators on the moors.
        I seem to recall reading about why there are no predators left and some sort of shooting. Anyone any ideas?
        The hole in the bucket is getting larger!

      2. In Scotland once the sheep and deer have gone, just leave it to the two pioneering birch species to fly in from their embattled ravine refugia.
        ( I think that was the dominant tree in the glens before the West Highland Clearances.) Then rebeaver, repeople and recattle. Result: biodiversity up, community up and the indigenous Gallic language saved from extinction.

        Well, something like that.

  7. Monbiot today in Guardian
    I would love to spend a very short amount of time inside the head of people like Liz Truss at times like these.
    Are people like her just plain dishonest or is it acute confirmation bias, where no matter the source, information is completely ignored. Of course the problem could be that there is a confirmation bias against science as a whole, that would explain a lot. Then, indeed we are up that creek, without.

    1. ‘Under Truss, Defra – which claims to be the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but really stands for Doing Everything Farmers’ Representatives Ask – appears to be even more susceptible to lobbying and regulatory capture than it was under her predecessor, Owen Paterson.’

      Monbiot is spot-on. Liz Truss is by some distance the most incompetent Defra SoS I can recall, and that really takes some doing. She is a non-thinking, non-questioning automaton, willing to carry out the orders of her political bidders without any considered thought to the consequences so long as it keeps her snout in the Ministerial trough. Hazel Blears but without the charm, and more responsibility. Rant over..

      1. Truss seems to me to be like a school prefect who has suddenly and inexplicably been catapulted in the the Cabinet. Hopelessly out of her depth.

      2. The SoS for Pork is very busy being busy and important. Her subsidiary AHDB Pork has created some new pulled pork recipe ideas for up-coming family-focused marketing opportunities in 2016. These include Valentine’s Day Pulled Pork Pot Pies and Sweet Spiced Pulled Pork With Plum Compote for Mother’s Day as well as modern and internationally influenced Pulled Pork Vietnamese Rolls and Pulled Pork Middle Eastern Flatbreads. No doubt the campaign will include a recipe book and TV series full of knowing looks and single entendre references to pork pulling.

        1. And yet she manages to do all that while keeping one eye on the preparations for 2019 (year of the pig innit) and the other firmly off the ball. That’s a crackling effort..

  8. What I predicted is already happening – Rory Stuart, from a sheep farming constituency, made it clear last year in the context of new forestry that whilst supportive, sheep would always come first. It is quite possible many sheep farmers would be better off if they were allowed to actually reduce their farming efforts.

    On the broader front, the simple way forward is an outcome based approach: forget all the vested interests, and simply look at (1) what you want to achieve and (2) what we know about how to achieve the objective. Whilst there clearly is a lead objective – prevention of flooding – I wonder whether we can do better this time and aim for a multi-purpose approach which includes wildlife, carbon, access to the natural environment, reduction of diffuse pollution, wood for low carbon construction and energy etc.

    In that spirit, we do need to recognise this isn’t just about the uplands: whilst they may be most influential in total water balance, for the crucial containment of peak flow the middle reaches of many rivers will be crucial, where drainage to convert pasture to arable and loss of trees (generally a very long time ago) are important factors.

  9. When at English Nature about 13 years ago we joined a project with Forest Research under the umbrella of the Parrett Catchment Project to look at Opportunity Mapping for tree planting.
    Basically this involved a study of the Catchment and its land uses in relation to watercourses. We were looking for areas where trees could be planted to reduce run off without compromising existing heritage assets ie SSSIS ancient monuments etc. The Forestry Commission were happy to add a special category to its Woodland Grant Scheme to help get this moving. Unfortunately this never gained Government funding so did not progress.
    The original Report is here
    which also shows that the work was not a one off and similar works has been done in the north of England.

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