Going Downhill Fast

How public money and crazy policies speed water off the land and into our homes

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 30th December 2015

These floods were not just predictable. They were predicted. There were clear and specific warnings that the management of land upstream of the towns now featuring in the news would lead to disaster.

On December 9, one of my readers told me this. “I live in the middle of Foss drainage board land above York, where flooding would not harm a single property but water is sent down as fast as possible to York”. A few days later, another reader wrote to me, warning that “upstream flood banks now protect crops, not the City of York.” On December 26th, the Foss exploded into York.

It’s a complaint I’ve heard repeatedly: internal drainage boards, that are public bodies but tend to be mostly controlled by landowners, often prioritise the protection of farmland above the safety of towns and cities downstream. By straightening, embanking and dredging rivers where they cut through fields, drainage boards accelerate the flow of water, making flooding downstream more likely. When heavy rain falls, some land must flood. We have a choice: fields or cities; and all over Britain we have chosen badly.

For several years, campaigners in Hebden Bridge have been begging the government to stop the drainage and burning of the grouse moors upstream. Eighteen months ago, I visited the town, where activists told me that, thanks to the damage inflicted on the bogs and deep vegetation of the moors, which reduces their capacity to hold water, it was only a matter of time before Hebden Bridge was wrecked again by flash floods. Their warnings were not just ignored, but – if such a thing is possible – actively disregarded.

In 2002, Walshaw Moor, a 6,500 acre grouse shooting estate upstream of Hebden Bridge, was bought by the retail tycoon Richard Bannister. Satellite images before and after show a transformation of the land: a great intensification of burning and draining. These activities raise the number of grouse, which in turns raises the amount (running into thousands per person per day) that people will pay to shoot them.

In 2011, the government body Natural England did something very rare: it launched a prosecution of the estate, citing “illegal works” on the moor. The estate was charged with 45 offences, 30 of which involved building allegedly unauthorised drainage channels. It denied all criminal activity. In 2012, as Mark Avery documents in his book Inglorious, something very odd happened. After £1m had been spent on the case, it was suddenly dropped. Instead, Natural England struck an agreement with the estate, under which the owner of Walshaw Moor would be given £2.5m of public money, in the form of a special package of enhanced farm subsidies, to carry on more or less as before, without reversing the allegedly illegal works.

Avery’s freedom of information requests, seeking to discover why this astonishing reversal took place, have been repeatedly blocked, so there is no definitive explanation. But we know that the minister responsible at the time, Richard Benyon, is himself a grouse moor owner, and was lobbied over this period by the Moorland Association, which represents other grouse moor owners. We have no way of knowing whether these facts are related, and I cannot make a direct connection between the management of Walshaw Moor and the present flooding of Hebden Bridge. But there’s little doubt that the​ ​management of grouse moors tends to increase the risk of flooding.

Though grouse moors stretch the definition of agricultural land to breaking point, they remain eligible for public money in the form of farm subsidies. In 2014, as essential public services were hacked back, the government quietly raised the money to which they are entitled by 84%. Maximising the number of grouse means treating the moors as if they were giant chicken runs, draining the land, eradicating predators and competitors and burning the heather to stimulate the young shoots on which grouse feed. If the proles downstream are flooded out their homes, really, who cares?

Similar irrationalities abound. Farm subsidies everywhere are conditional on the land being in “agricultural condition”. This does not mean that any actual farming has to take place there: only that it looks like farmland. Any land covered by “permanent ineligible features” is disqualified. What does this mean? Wildlife habitat. If farmers don’t keep the hills bare, they don’t get their money. Scrub, regenerating woodland, forested gullies, ponds and other features that harbour wildlife and hold back water must be cleared. European rules insist that we pay farmers to help flood our homes.

The British government wants to deregulate dredging and channel clearance, to allow farmers to shift water off their land more quickly. It was instrumental in destroying the proposed European Soil Framework Directive, which would have reduced flooding by preventing the erosion and compaction of the soil.

There are signs that this antediluvian thinking is beginning to shift. Rory Stewart, the minister in charge of floods, once mocked the organisations seeking to hold back water on farmland rather than letting it rush into homes. But on Saturday he told the Today programme that we need more trees in the hills and should let our rivers meander once more. It was so welcome and surprising that it felt like a parting of the waters.

Building higher walls will not, by itself, protect our towns. We need flood prevention as well as flood defence. This means woodland and functioning bogs on the hills. It means dead wood and gravel banks and other such obstructions in the upper reaches of the streams (beavers will do such work for nothing). It means pulling down embankments to reconnect rivers to their floodplains, flooding fields instead of towns. It means allowing rivers to meander and braid. It means creating buffer zones around their banks: places where trees, shrubs, reeds and long grass are allowed to grow, providing what engineers call hydraulic roughness. It means the opposite of the orgy of self-destruction that decades of government and European policy have encouraged: grazing, mowing, burning, draining, canalisation and dredging.

Natural flood management of this kind does not guarantee that urban floods will never happen. But its absence exacerbates them. Yes, Britain has been hit by massive storms and record rainfall. But it has also been hit by incompetence, ignorance and concessions to favoured interests. This, at least, we can change.