Farmers are paid nearly 40% of the entire European Union budget to help produce food and manage the land for environmental and societal benefit. This is clearly necessary as we need food and a good quality environment and landscape.
More recently agricultural practices have come under the microscope in terms of the impacts that different land management options can have on the environment and biodiversity and the way that some cropping systems can actually increase flood problems in the winter through soil erosion; maize being a particular case in point.
Recent flooding has also highlighted the cumulative problem of how tarmac and timber decking increase surface water run-off, adding to problems of flooding as our antiquated drainage systems struggle to cope. This got me thinking about how we might use the system of incentives for farmers to help build collective public flood management solutions that also deliver important environmental benefits.
This forms part of a suite of other interventions required which include replanting upland catchments with trees; rewetting bogs and peatlands to lock up carbon and act as sponges to store water; and ensuring the necessary amount of green flood management infrastructure to support new development.
It is becoming increasingly apparent as you walk through suburbia and many rural areas that we are losing our garden green spaces at an alarming rate. Clearly the 'garden grab' under John Prescott in the previous labour administration played a key part in this, but a far more insidious trend is the way that people tarmac their driveways and build timber decking in their gardens. These low maintenance and tidy solutions are now an integral part of the architecture of the modern housing estate.
However the cumulative impact of such built development actually contributes to surface water flooding as rain water run offs these spaces with nowhere to go other than our drainage systems which then struggle to cope.
My suggestion is that if people are encouraged to keep their gardens green they can deliver environmental benefits and flood management services to the local authority which could be valued, leading to a pro rata reduction in council tax. So by using a simple costing system we might be able to incentivise people to help the local authority in much the same way as agricultural payments are made for farmers to deliver environmental benefits. However, if people have decking and driveways they are equally placing an increased burden on drainage systems and this should lead to an increase in water charges thus acting as an incentive to use green space productively.
This principle equally applies to developers who might be building houses in flood risk areas. They need to build into the development sufficient flood management measures to mitigate the flood risk. It is part of the cost they need to pay and it should not be imposed on residents after they have captured all the windfall from the development. I have argued elsewhere that building regulations relating to sacrificial ground floors and stilts should come into force here to help regulate this. The Water and Flood Management Act contains provisions for such schemes but is still floundering in a policy bog of who should pay for it.
I believe it is crucial to inform people that the individual household decisions they make, even on a garden or driveway, cumulatively can have a huge impact on surface water flooding and subsequent costs to the local authority. This area is poorly understood and consequently managed in a planning policy context. Yet if we were to encourage people to keep their gardens green let's think about the multiple benefits to us all that such actions might deliver.