Uplands and Lowlands

Tuesday 25th of February 2020
River close to flooding

There have been many times over the last few weeks when I have thought about writing about flooding. We are now in the last week in February and figures I have seen in the last few days suggest that some parts of the UK have already received double their average rainfall for this month with a number of days to go (and it is still raining!). A range of parts of the country has experienced some flooding.
When watching local TV news this morning, there was a mention of an estate near where we live which has been bought by the Woodland Trust. The report concerned was linked with coverage of floods, because it gave details of some information about a project being undertaken on the moors above Bolton.
Although some of the Smithills Estate is woodland, there is also moorland, bog, wooded cloughs (steep-sided valleys characteristic of this part of the country) and grassland or farmland. Work has just been started to look at how changes in land use on this type of upland might lessen the risk of flooding down in the valleys. This is a partnership which involves not just the Woodland Trust but also Liverpool University, the Environment Agency and The Mersey Forest.
Various types of initiative are being trialled, such as “leaky dams”, scrapes (hollows where water can gather) and creating new wetlands. The aim is to slow the flow of water down from the tops into the valleys. Although its catchment is not the moors just mentioned, we are very conscious of a river which flows very close to where we live which is affected by a similar landscape. Over the past few weeks its flow has been substantially increased and it has overtopped its banks on at least one occasion. The width of the river has also increased and someone from the active “Friends” group for the park through which the river flows posted a photo this morning. It shows that a tree which used to grow a significant distance from the bank has now disappeared.
I suggested in what I wrote recently about Iain McGilchrist’s book (see blog posted on 3rd February entitled The Biggest Block?) that we need to expand our ways of thinking in order to combat climate change. One example of this is that we need to take more of a “whole systems” approach in order to understand more fully the way that what happens in an upland environment could be crucially important in how it affects what happens below. In order to do this we may need to change some of how we look at something or the attention we give to it. Land management has generally been left to individual land owners, with perhaps relatively few exceptions where government or environmental charities play a role. Because upland areas don’t generally make a lot of money for those who own them, there has been relatively little attention paid to changes that can be made. The Woodland Trust make the point that the Smithills Estate has been neglected from the Second World War onwards (when we began, initially out of necessity, to put a lot more emphasis on land having to be productive).
Given the cost of flooding (or indeed the cost of building potential flood defences) further downstream, if any of the initiatives being undertaken at Smithills (or elsewhere in the Natural Course scheme of which this is part) prove to be successful, it is likely that there could be a significant saving even if some expenditure is involved. I find it difficult to think about this without entering into areas of economics. That is partly because there will inevitably be questions as to where money to fund changes in land use comes from e.g. landowners, central government (such as through the Environment Agency), charities, utility companies, local communities or possibly even the insurance industry? As the insurance industry will no doubt want to pass on any costs it incurs directly through flooding to its customers through higher premiums (especially to those who are most at risk) is there an argument for some sort of insurance industry climate change levy? Having said that, I am well aware that energy industry levies designed to promote green energy generation have not been very popular in recent years and there is obviously a case for saying that any such levies disadvantage those with the lowest incomes (although they may not always be part of the insurance market). Taking money from general taxation would avoid this issue, but is still likely to be problematic. If money comes from local communities, this would happen either through local taxation, which creates similar challenges to general taxation, or some sort of fundraising. The alternatives would seem to be expecting commercial companies or those who own the land to make a contribution or being dependent on charities, which in turn depend on those who support them financially.
None of these possibilities on their own offers a solution, so this suggests that we either need something far more radical which will enable us to work in a multi-disciplinary way or we need to involve multiple partners who absorb some of the cost. This again suggests to me how much we need what Iain McGilchrist would point to as the contribution of the right-hemisphere. What I can’t help feeling is that we need to start becoming aware of how much the natural world impinges on what we humans do. Ideally, we would start to realise far more how we can work in harmony with nature, but I think we may need to start by focusing on financial aspects of our relationship, as this dominates so much of human activity.
I want to make one suggestion of an example of “Joined-up thinking” which might help address issues like this. It is the water coming off the hills in Lancashire, Yorkshire and parts of the Midlands which powered a large part of the Industrial Revolution. I’m aware how many “mill lodges” or similar there are in the area where we live. I wonder if re-instating or repairing many of these could both help with the flow of water and create small-scale “hydro” projects which would generate power.
There is a need to cross boundaries in how we approach many of the issues related to climate change. Smithills estate was affected in 2018 by moorland fires. It seems strange to realise that flood and fire can both be part of the effects of climate change, although they look to be at opposite ends of a spectrum. Only by making sure that we are able to make such leaps can we expand our thinking sufficiently to meet the challenges that we face.