Floodplains cover just 5% of the land area in England, yet their contribution to our natural capital value is many times higher than that. They are well mapped and should be regarded as a distinct land type in planning, agriculture, biodiversity schemes, and the wider environment. But in too many cases, floodplains are treated the same as land in general. As a result, they are widely under-valued and mis-managed, and the benefits they provide for nature and people not fully recognised.
There are numerous threats facing our floodplains. The ecosystem services they supply are vulnerable to climate change, and recent weather patterns are already affecting the communities, agricultural industry and biodiversity which depend on them. Additionally, the majority of UK floodplains do not currently function as they should. Extensively altered by river engineering and land drainage, at least 42% of all floodplains in England have been separated from their river and are no longer able to store, clean and distribute water across the landscape. Indeed surveys suggest that 90% of UK floodplains are no longer fit for purpose. There has been a substantial loss of species-rich habitats, such as floodplain meadows, through past land-use change. Nearly 70% of floodplain land is intensively managed whereas semi-natural habitats, such as flower-rich meadows and wet woodland, occupy a mere 11%. Loss of these protective floodplain habitats makes the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan pledge for 75% of waters to be close to their natural state extremely difficult to achieve.
The struggles facing our floodplains are not only problematic for nature, but are also a notable challenge for land-use planning in the UK. The risks associated with flooding, drought and poor water-quality are only going to increase with time; farmers are already struggling to manage what was once seen as productive agricultural land, due to an increase in high impact weather events.
These problems could all be tackled with an active political push to establish high nature-value floodplains, which support resilient habitats, such as species-rich meadows. There is a growing recognition of the contribution habitats such as floodplain meadows make to both the climate and biodiversity crises, and increasing evidence for the many benefits they provide. The 2018 report “Natural Capital of Floodplains” concluded that the overall benefits provided by seasonally inundated floodplain meadows are greater than those provided by land in intensive agriculture. Traditional hay making is perhaps the only sustainable land management technique that effectively exports nutrients from river systems, allowing them to recover from half a century of eutrophication.
We need to see our floodplains as a resource, enabling dynamic natural processes, and providing benefits to both landowners and local communities. A shift away from arable crops and improved grasslands to species-rich meadows and other diverse habitats such as wet woodland and fen would provide a much more pragmatic and self-sustaining system with significant co-benefits including nature recovery, carbon sequestration, water-quality enhancement, aquifer recharge and support for summer low flows. Some modest redeployment of existing resources – for example, investments in agricultural support, flood-risk management and Water Company plans- would go a long way towards encouraging such an approach. Plans need to be informed by co-ordinated advice to ensure the right measures are used at the optimum scales in the best locations.
The Floodplain Meadows Partnership are working with Blueprint for Water to emphasise the need for floodplains to be future-proofed, through a substantial increase of functioning floodplain habitats with a modest investment. The call from Wildlife and Countryside Link for a Nature Recovery clause within the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill should also open the door to consideration of the case for an overall Floodplain Strategy, to align policies and financing to enable floodplains to deliver the public goods they are capable of.
Such a strategy should include the following:
1. Greater investment in Natural Flood Management (NFM) measures including the reconnection of rivers to their floodplains.
NFM measures can slow, store and filter the flow of water from the land but the Environment Agency currently spends just 1% of its annual £1bn flood-defence budget on this approach. NFM should be prioritised in River Basin Management Plans and Catchment Management Plans.
2. Floodplains should be included as a specific land-category within the Environmental Land Management (ELM) Scheme, where land-use change is often needed to maximise environmental benefits and public goods.
3. The introduction of spatial targets for the restoration of functional floodplain habitats.
Defra, the Environment Agency and Natural England should ensure that the ELM scheme - alongside other relevant strategic plans such as the Local Nature Recovery Scheme, Nature Recovery Network and Biodiversity Net Gain - contains spatial targets to restore functional floodplains. For example:
Restoring our floodplains will not only deliver for nature, but will help tackle some of the most difficult challenges facing land planning and management in the UK. This is a levelling-up opportunity that should not be missed.
Olivia Nelson is Advocacy Officer at the Floodplain Meadows Partnership.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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