Common Good Green Manifesto; Rivers and their catchments.
Diverse sources of public money (Common Agricultural Policy payments, flood defence budgets, grants for conservation projects, environmental levies on water customers) should be pooled and made available to local catchment management partnerships.
Decision making and resources for managing our rivers and catchments are generally in the hands of centralised bureaucracies that can be unresponsive to local need, or (more often) simply unable to take advantage of the synergies between flood risk management, water quality and quantify improvements and nature conservation, due to siloed funding criteria, structures and cultures.
As a result, common good solutions that can reconcile estranged interests at the local level (farmers, flood engineers and conservationists) are often neglected in favour of approaches that exacerbate national tensions between sectoral interest groups competing for centralised sources of funding. The national conflict around flood risk management, highly visible during this winter’s floods, is now becoming an acute problem as climate change increases the numbers of businesses, properties and farms at risk of flooding.
But initiatives that bring together locally affected interests can often tackle such problems more sustainably and at a similar or lower cost to more conventional arrangements. They can ensure that farmers are rewarded for restoring soil quality, limiting chemical run-off and storing flood water. They can also incorporate the knowledge of local scientists in understanding the impacts of climate change, planning for improved resilience, and making the case for reduced pollution.
In my experience, there is no lack of proposals of this kind and no lack of research to demonstrate their usefulness.
But instead of embracing such opportunities, the regulators and payment agencies involved in making decisions about river management in England have often preferred the status quo. The Environment Agency has resisted any meaningful devolution of power to the catchment level, and any active integration of its water quality, flood risk management and water abstraction functions at that scale. The regulator governing public levies on water companies has historically resisted these being spent on land management programmes rather than more expensive chemical treatment facilities. And it has been a continuing struggle to ensure that CAP payments reward the most catchment-friendly forms of farming.
We could change this by making catchment partnerships the norm, not the exception. But this would require a determination to release funding and decision-making powers into the hands of such partnerships, once they meet basic criteria. This in turn would require significant changes to the organisation and culture of the Environment Agency, Natural England, water company regulators and CAP administrators. It would also require farming unions and conservation organisations to commit more time and resources to developing shared solutions locally, and to reflecting the importance of these approaches in their national advocacy.
Two examples to provide possible inspiration….
Bowland Catchment Management Project:
A partnership project between RSPB, local farmers, Natural England and United Utilities: With significant investment from UU, and with agri-environment scheme funding from Natural England, SCaMP (Sustainable Catchment Management) in Bowland had delivered 7,000 ha of improved moorland and blanket bog management, new areas of upland native woodland, and wetland management. Thirty miles (50 km) of upland ditches have been blocked. Tenant farmers, who have been supportive and involved in the decision making, are benefitting from investment in farm buildings and new fences.
More detail here.
Somerset Levels Vision.
A vision for the future management of the levels agreed by a task force including Somerset County Council, Somerset District Councils, NFU, Somerset Wildlife Trust, Somerset Consortium of Drainage Boards, FWAG and RSPB. The task force was established by Environment Minister Richard Benyon after the 2012/2013 floods.
Acting Chairman of the Task Force, Anthony Gibson, said ‘We all want the Levels’ landscape to remain the green grid-iron of withies, rhynes, meadows and droves that we know and love; we all want it to continue to be farmed productively, but in ways that enhance the nature conservation interest; we all want the water to be managed, so that the flood risk is reduced; we all want an even richer mix of wildlife than we’ve got already; and we all want a thriving local economy, built around the Levels’ special qualities.’
More detail here.