Problems Ahead? 90% of England’s floodplains are found unfit for purpose

In England, around 5% of the country is covered by natural floodplains. They are essential to the prevention of flooding, acting as natural sponges or buffers that either divert or absorb excess water rather than allowing it to run into areas that may cause problems.


Worryingly, a recent study has found that only 10% of these floodplains are currently fit for purpose.


The remaining 90% are not functioning in the way that they should which puts homes and businesses in these areas at risk of flooding. In a study published on the 1st June, entitled the ‘Changing Face of Floodplains’, George Heritage, one of the co-authors, declared, ‘we have ignored our floodplains. The changes to them mean water [from heavy rainfall] can flow much faster downstream, and can flow at the same speed as the water in the rivers.’


It is believed that climate change plays a key role in the increasing likelihood of floods, and without effective floodplains the economic costs will continue to mount. The study, which has been ongoing for the past 12 months, calls for urgent action in the restoration and maintenance of floodplains.


The catastrophic after-effects of Storm Desmond in 2015 are a prime example of the devastation that can be caused by flooding. As well as damaging over 6,000 homes and racking up more than £500 million in damages, Storm Desmond caused untold distress to thousands of families, some of whom had no place to call home for months afterwards. A large part of this can be attributed to floodplains not working effectively as overflowing rivers and streams burst their banks.



Damage to our floodplains comes from man-made features, poor management of rivers, agriculture and increasing urbanization, to name a few causes.


This interference can cause natural features, which have been there for years, to deteriorate. Whilst building on floodplains is something that has long been known to be a problem, the study has found that this accounts for only around 10% of all damage to floodplains. Instead, it has highlighted intensive farming as being a key factor in the damage as it creates falsely smooth landscapes with drained wetlands and no natural features such as hedges and grasslands which can contribute to keeping floods at bay. In total, 65% of the existing floodplains in England have been modified by agriculture, making them ‘man-made’.



How do we go about changing this? George Heritage noted that ‘it would be almost impossible to return the altered areas to their original state. But it is possible to work with farmers to introduce features that would allow them to function better.’ These features could include restoring natural parts of the landscape, such as hedgerows and woodlands to provide better barriers, and encouraging natural vegetation to grow through rather than the uniformity we see at the moment. It is also important for these areas to be well maintained and kept in a state that will maximize their use as natural floodplains. Trees, for instance, that grow near rivers can make floods worse in the event that they fall into the river. By using natural methods of pollarding the trees can be encouraged to grow shorter and with their roots more firmly embedded in the riverbank, which in turn will make the riverbank stronger and less likely to buckle.


Natural Flood Measures


Flood management advisor of the National Farmers’ Union, Martin Rogers, commented, ‘Farmers are happy to play their role to reduce flood risk [in Cumbria]. However, natural flood management is not the only solution and we believe should only be used as part of a cohesive package of measures across the catchment. Where farmers provide a service in mitigating flood risk to help protect others, this must be part of a clear, planned strategy.’


Caroline Russell of the Green Party had voiced the opinion that any taxpayer payments to farmers should be fully dependent on them providing these services: ‘Farming subsidies should be used to make sure land is used to store water. We have completely messed up our floodplains, we are getting more water from climate change, and there is nowhere for the water to go. Land in the countryside has to work differently to protect the built-up areas from flooding’.