Despite growing awareness, our government still allows landowners to help flood the homes of people living downstream.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 12th February 2020

On Friday, campaigners in Calderdale, West Yorkshire issued an urgent warning. The peat bogs in the hills that drain into their valley were burning. The fires had been set by gamekeepers working for a grouse shooting estate. Burning peatlands, research suggests, is likely to exacerbate floods downstream. Towns in the Calder Valley, such as Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd have been flooded repeatedly, partly, local people argue, because the upper catchment is able to hold back little of the rain that falls on it. On Sunday, Storm Ciara landed in the UK. The River Calder rose higher than it had ever done before, and Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd duly flooded.

The following day, the UK’s diaphanous environment secretary, Theresa Villiers, made a statement in the House of Commons expressing her “support and sympathy to all those whose homes or businesses have been flooded over the weekend.” She assured the house that “every effort is being made to keep people safe”. But she said nothing about the land management that might have caused the flood.

Last year, a paper published in the Journal of Hydrology X reported experiments conducted in another part of the Pennines, the range in which Calderdale is located. It found that when peat bogs are restored, deep vegetation is allowed to recover and erosion gullies are blocked, water is held back for longer in the hills, and peak flows in the streams draining them are reduced. Broadly speaking, the rougher the surface, the less flooding downstream. Burning moorland for grouse shooting reduces roughness and increases erosion.

In October the government announced that, as landowners had failed to stop burning their peatlands voluntarily, it would introduce legislation to ban the practice “in due course”. Since then, there has been not a squeak. As Villiers dispensed sympathy on Monday, she failed to mention it.

There’s a long and bizarre history here. The fires recorded by the Calder Valley campaigners on Friday were burning on Walshaw Moor, a 6500-acre grouse shooting estate that belongs to the well-connected inheritor of a retail empire, Richard Bannister. After he bought it, burning and draining on the moor intensified. Burning and draining raise the abundance of red grouse, while reducing the abundance of many other species. Shooting grouse is one of the world’s most exclusive bloodsports: where their numbers are high, very rich people pay thousands of pounds a day to kill them.

In 2011, the government agency Natural England launched an almost unprecedented prosecution. It charged the Walshaw Moor estate with 45 offences relating to its intensification of management for grouse shooting (the estate denied them). Natural England spent £1 million on the case, then suddenly dropped it. Instead, it channelled £2.5 million of enhanced farm subsidies to the estate. Freedom of information requests were refused, so we have no means of understanding this decision. The burning continues, regardless of the warnings of those downstream. When I phoned Bannister’s office to ask about these issues, I was told: “We don’t wish to comment.”

Since 2014, when I first wrote about how government policies exacerbate flooding, there has been a major shift in awareness. In and out of government, there’s a growing realisation that impeding the flow of water off the land, de-synchronising flood peaks in the tributaries and slowing a river’s pace can reduce flooding downstream, saving lives, homes and infrastructure. Not every experiment in natural flood management succeeds. The evidence base is still small. More research is needed to discover exactly what works and what doesn’t. But, in some circumstances, ecological restoration can make a major difference, at a fraction of the cost of hard engineering.

One paper suggests that reforesting between 20 and 40% of a catchment can reduce the height of floods by 19%. Leaky wooden dams embedded in streams, and other low-tech measures, appear to have prevented disasters at Pickering in North Yorkshire and Bossington and Allerford in Somerset. It’s even cheaper if you use non-human labour. Where beavers are reintroduced, their dams slow the flow and trap sediments.

But in most parts of the country, the First World War mentality – sustaining the policy even when it proves disastrous – prevails. In some places, water flows are controlled by bodies called Internal Drainage Boards. Though these are official agencies, they don’t appear to be answerable to any government department. While largely funded by council tax payers, they tend to be dominated by landowners. Some members appear to have inherited their positions from their fathers and grandfathers. Many of these boards seem interested only in speeding water off farmland (including farmland belonging to their members), regardless of the impact on urban pinchpoints downstream. They dredge, straighten and embank rivers, trashing wildlife and rushing water towards cities lower in the catchment. Any government that takes flooding seriously would immediately dissolve these boards and replace them with accountable bodies.

Every year, Network Rail spends £200 million on hard engineering to protect its lines. When I suggested it might pay farmers to invest in natural flood management in the surrounding hills, it told me, “we are unable to strike deals with farmers or land owners, to pay for work to be undertaken on 3rd party property”. Shouldn’t changing this policy be an urgent priority?

Power relations in the British countryside are still almost feudal. Vast tracts of land are owned by small numbers of people, who are permitted to manage it with little regard for the lives and homes of the less elevated people downstream. The environment secretary, a scion of one of Britain’s grandest landed families, offers her thoughts and prayers. I’m sure they are appreciated. But we need action.