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It’s time to sink or swim in the battle against flooding

Early January left large swathes of Britain underwater following a succession of storms, and farms across England and Wales are suffering according to Ed Davey, who is a specialist insurance broker at Dallas Scott Davey. The firm is currently handling numerous claims on behalf of farmers and Ed has set out a list of recommendations to tackle the problem.

Dallas Scott Davey is part of TL Dallas Group and arranges insurance cover for farms against flood risks, as well as handling claims on their behalf. As well as being an agricultural insurance broker, Dallas Scott Davey director, Ed Davey, is also a farmer in North Lincolnshire. Here’s what he thinks:

With part of our farm under water again in January, and as an agricultural insurance broker, dealing with the impact of flooding for my clients, I am ever more convinced we need fundamental democratic changes to the way we do things.  I would go as far to say that our ability to feed our nation is at risk as a consequence of existing legislation, with green politics seeping into our day-to-day acceptance.  Don’t get me wrong, as well as being a farmer I am an environmentalist. I can’t bear to think of the water voles in the banks of our streams drowning, but with the existing policies in place, every time rivers flood, that is their fate, which compounds the madness!

To see prime agricultural land and the crops thereon suffering time and again is a huge frustration to the farming industry. Given our declining self-sufficiency and the alarming recent increases in our cost of production for a tonne of wheat, watching crops fail isn’t a healthy place for a farming business or our country as a whole. That these recurrent issues are compounded by recent shifts in agri-policy very much focuses the mind.  Farming is under the cosh.  The withdrawal of direct payments, the confusion around and inability of regenerative farming to feed the nation, the cost of agri-inflation and our vulnerability to world market volatility is a scary combination.  That’s without even considering the impact of recent weather events.  As a consequence, never has it been more important to safeguard our land resource. 

It is worth noting as farmers, we can’t obtain insurance cover for flooded crops out in the open. Their loss has to be stood by the farming families, it directly effects. Even so, such is the nature of farming communities, we accept that temporary storage of water on agricultural land is still a better outcome than the flooding of neighbouring homes and businesses, for which the emotional stress and financial impact can be even worse. 

As I’ve said, flooding continues to be a problem for my clients. Of course, the weather is a player in all of this.  However, my view is that much of the issue lies in the way the Government manage our watercourses. Based upon existing Environment Agency (EA) strategy, whereby they treat river catchments as storage vessels as opposed to vehicles designed to expel excess water into the sea, it is inevitable, given recent weather events, that this strategy results in more flooding.  The EA use LIDAR technology to map where flooding will extend to in any particular weather event. The insurers’ flood software correlates this information. This flood mapping is becoming ever more adept at identifying exactly where flooding will reach, down to a square metre. Consequently, many homeowners are finding it impossible to even benefit from flood insurance. Recently, specialist insurers have arrived in the market such as Flood Re or Flood Flash. However, in almost every situation where flooding is a historic issue, a significant degree of self-insurance is still required and often premiums are beyond the householder’s means.

And so, with these increasing issues and the frequency of weather events what do we do?  It seems we can’t rely upon the EA to do anything other than build flood defences higher in a few places and then let us know when a flooding warning arises.   This isn’t going to solve our problem. In my opinion, dredging is key. The Dutch engineers of the 16th to 19th century designed systems that released water as efficiently as possible into the sea to not only prevent flooding but to create land.  The EA do not agree. Their remit seems to be administering their management of watercourse based upon EU legislation. Despite Brexit we are being governed by EU law. The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 as amended (known as the Habitats Regulations) are the basis upon which the EA and Natural England determine the existing management of watercourses. 

This means a water vole, much as we love them, has more rights in respect of their homes than humans when it comes to the management of our rivers.  The irony is that despite the good intentions of the legislation, the very inaction created by it, results in the water voles demise. Whilst they like living on a riverbank, in a flood they die!  Because of this overbearing legislation, we cannot legally take any action to improve flow without intervention from the EA or Natural England.

Yet, the Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) do an amazing job. Today, there are 112 IDBs in England whose districts cover 1.2 million hectares, or 9.7% of England’s landmass. They play a key role in reducing flood risk to over 600,000 people and nearly 900,000 properties. They operate and maintain over 500 pumping stations, 22,000 km of watercourse, 175 automatic weed screen cleaners and numerous sluices and weirs. Their proactive approach achieves much.  The IDB’s has been working with the Environment Agency, and local authorities for years to encourage closer partnerships in flood and water level management across England. The aim is to achieve better and more efficient working practices that utilise local skills and expertise. However, they are limited geographically and can only manage up to where the EA will allow.  With greater coverage and autonomy, I am sure their proactive approach would make a difference.

Pre 1989 we had 10 regional river authorities employing staff that put boots on the ground. They eyeballed the catchments and helped direct the right management to enable efficient drainage into the main watercourses. In those days the river wardens, employed by the authority, were well known in the localities they were based.  They knew day to day what was happening on their stretch.  As a consequence, sluice gate doors worked and pumps worked. Dredging kept flow running and outfalls into the estuary drained to the sea, more or less as the Dutch designed them.   Then came the change and the regional river authorities were disbanded. The National Rivers Authority was formed and then eventually the EA. We lost all the experienced people – the boots on the ground – and with them, all the practical knowledge and understanding of how catchments worked.

Instead of the practical regional management of a catchment you ended up with a predominantly administrative based organisation driven by EU legislation and computer modelling.  Office based staff rather than river wardens became the model for water management, and then came the overarching governance by Natural England.   The EA can’t blink without asking Natural England what to do – so fearful are they of prosecution under environmental regulation.  

We are stuck where we are because of this. As I’ve said, water voles have more rights than humans.  Damage a water vole’s house with an excavator on a riverbank – you are prosecuted – damage a human’s house through flooding – you have to rely upon your insurer and that in itself is becoming problematic.

So, does dredging and cleaning out water courses work? Of course it does, but the entire premise is dependent upon the lowest common denominator. If the outfall into an estuary is silted up, no matter how well dredged the drainage system, the water can’t get out.  In 2008 I was part of the Humber Strategy, which in part negotiated an agreement for a flow test conducted by the EA to measure the impact of dredging.  After visiting Lord Smith, Chair of the EA in his London offices, to negotiate the proposal, it was agreed to commit some funding towards such an experiment.  Held in the Hedon haven the EA conducted the work via their engineers.  They scooped a few inches of silt off the bed of the river inside the sluice gate, measured the flow previous and post to the dredging and then declared dredging was not effective at improving flow. Never mind the scale, given the estuary side of the doors were never dredged, the silt on that side made sure flow wasn’t going to alter regardless of what you did inside the doors – it was a complete waste of time and money.

Let’s now consider the Humber estuary. It is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Area (SPA), a Ramsar Site and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The SPA and SAC together forms the Humber Estuary European Marine Site, also known as a Natura 2000 site.   One of the most important areas in the EU for wetland birds – consequently once we are beyond the sluice gate we can’t dredge to the centre of the river. It is so bad that in some cases the silt on the Humber side of the sluice gate doesn’t allow the doors to fully open on low tide. When the water does release it has to meander through salt marsh to escape to the sea, twice a day for a few hours at low tide! The rest of the time, if the doors work, they close, to stop the sea coming in and then without pumps, you can’t empty the catchment. On some occasions the doors don’t close, and the sea water comes in filling the catchment. Recently on the River Ancholme, we suffered from an old barge sinking and being stuck in the entrance so the sluice gate doors couldn’t operate at all. Water was charging into the river system on every high tide. In the 2007 flooding event in Holderness, East Yorkshire, the pumps at Hedon Haven were not routinely serviced, the fuses were blown.  Consequently, they didn’t work, so the catchment didn’t empty at high tide at all. Engineers had to come from Leeds to get the pumps working – but all too late for Burstwick and its residents. 

Comparatively speaking, given where we are with modern technology, compared to 250 years ago, I find it mesmeric that in 1774, a group of townsfolk in Hedon came together to form the Hedon Haven Commissioners. They successfully passed a bill through Parliament for recovering, improving, and maintaining, the navigation of the same Hedon Haven to which I previously refer.   This act allowed the commissioners amongst other things to scour the watercourse to prevent silting.  I find it sobering to think all those years ago that ‘where there was a will, there was a way’. 

And why do we need to dredge? Why did the Dutch engineers come across and design systems along the east coast?  Because as a country we were silted up, inundated by water in various catchments and we needed to achieve access for trade, we needed safe and secure homes, and we needed good land to produce food.  Every major drainage system along the east coast was originally dug hundreds of years ago by hand with shovels, picks and pony carts.  Given the technology we now benefit from, it would be comparatively easy, but it needs a will.  

Here in the Humber estuary our problem is silt.  Longshore drift takes the eroded silt from the east coast, from Flamborough head to Spurn Point, and on a tide brings it into the estuary and up every drainage system day after day. The Humber is the second largest river catchment in the UK. It is fed by the Ancholme, Ouse, Trent, Aire, Derwent, Don and Wharf.  It is therefore responsible for draining a huge proportion of the UK’s farmland.  However, because we don’t protect our coastline, the east coast is suffering erosion at an alarming rate and the silt is brought down the coast and on a high tide up the estuary – bunging up every watercourse in the process. Silt stops water getting out!  But the EA and NE don’t want to talk about that because they love the naturally occurring salt marsh formed in the estuary enabling the Natura 2000 designation.

So, in summary this is about:

  • Government quangos and power.
  • People not having a democratic say about how their homes are protected.
  • There not being a food security policy in the UK.
  • Over bearing green agendas.
  • EU habitat legislation governing the UK post Brexit.
  • No boots on the ground.
  • Dredging water courses.
  • Maintaining sluice gates and pumps.
  • Investing in infrastructure.
  • And finally not adopting a strategy that refers to the purpose of catchment systems as  “for storing water”.

The EA constantly go on about the “system” being at full capacity and not being able to store any more water.  They and other environmentalists also argue storing water up stream is the answer. There is nothing wrong with this in certain catchments, and I agree it has a significant role to play, but it must be done with all of the above points in mind. Furthermore, every catchment is different and without boots on the ground, you will never understand the dynamics. So much knowledge has been lost and if we continue to rely upon office-based computer modelling to manage our watercourses via the EA, we are doomed to flooding on ever greater scales.

Fundamentally we must maintain our rivers and we must use them to drain the catchments.  They have to be capable of emptying every day; they have to flow as efficiently as possible. There needs to be a shift towards practical water management and away from green agendas.  We need to respect our environment and nurture it, but we have to keep that principle in context with people’s homes and our ability to feed our nation.  And don’t even get me started on planning applications in flood plains or the pollution of our watercourses by the water companies!

Unfortunately, without political will, none of this will happen. It needs people power, and I have written to my MP to express my deep dissatisfaction with how matters presently sit. I can only suggest everyone does the same!

Dallas Scott Davey launched in Lincolnshire in 2021 and is part of national insurance broker, TL Dallas. The business offers specialist agricultural and business insurance and has now relocated to Plowright House, which is the University of Lincoln’s former agricultural campus within its Riseholme Estate. Today Plowright House is a Barclays Eagle Labs office hub with a focus on cutting-edge AgriTech research and related businesses. For further information, call Dallas Scott Davey on 01522 449711 or email