The Budget – Time for some natural solutions to flooding

© Brian Shorter

The Chancellor's Budget doubled spending on flood defences - but do flood defences always mean concrete walls and hard solutions?

The Budget

The budget on Wednesday was the government’s first major opportunity to set out their environmental credentials after the 2019 election and they certainly weren’t afraid to splash the cash. Infrastructure spending is a massive feature of the budget, with a new pothole fund, £27 Billion on roads and £5 Billion on broadband upgrades.

Others have reacted to the budget with commentary on the need for a greater focus on public transport and reducing car dependency rather than the large sums being spent to expand roads across the country, but I was struck by the doubling of flood defence spending from £2.6 - £5.2 Billion.

This infrastructure spending might be happening because Boris Johnson seems to love the idea of building a physical legacy, perhaps hoping to model himself and his government after his classical hero Pericles – the Athenian leader who built the famous Acropolis and developed Piraeus port.1 But in the case of flooding, building more hard defences isn’t the only answer and there are powerful nature-based solutions that can be very effective as flooding becomes more common due to the climate and nature emergency.2  

Take a look at two fabulous example of how investment in our reserves has helped manage flooding in a natural way:

Fishlake Meadows

Fishlake Meadows - Lianne de Mello 

Fishlake Meadows

Fishlake Meadows in Romsey was emblematic of the traditional approach to flooding. Until the 1990s these agricultural fields, situated on a natural floodplain of the River Test, were drained to keep the river out of its former home. Once the pumps were shut off, the river gradually reclaimed this space, re-wilding the area into a beautiful flooded wetland teeming with life. From August 2017 our Trust was entrusted with this wonderful site, to support its evolution into a rich floodland habitat that supports over 150 species.

But the restoration of the natural floodplain doesn’t just benefit wildlife, the wetland acts as a giant sponge, soaking up excess water and slowing down the flow of water downstream to Romsey after intense rainfall. Best of all, as the banks of reeds and sedge grow and the vegetation thickens, the capacity of Fishlake Meadows to absorb water only grows. A natural solution that protects and restore the natural floodplain that wanted to exist. In combination with traditional defences, the restoration of the floodplain will help to protect Romsey from future flood events, such as those at the start of 2020.

Winnall Moors

Winnall Moors - Mike Read

Winnall Moors

Winnall Moors is a wonderful HIWWT reserve along the Itchen River immediately north of Winchester. In 2008 before the trust took over, the artificial ‘Winnall Main’ river had steep banks and a deep, sluggish, channel. Once the trust had taken management of the land, we naturalised the river, removing weirs and making the riverbanks less steep. Crucially, the river was partially filled in, the shallower depth now making it easier for the river to flood into the surrounding reserve. The River Itchen at Winnall now has a myriad of new habitats for wildlife, with the gravel riverbed  forming wonderful habitat for Trout and other chalk stream inhabitants.

This re-connection of the river with its natural floodplain means that water destined to cause problems in Winchester is now contained in our reserve, another example of how funding natural flood solutions can be just as effective as hard engineering at protecting people’s homes.