Comment: Hull strategy shows strategic approach can beat floods

Flooding on the River Hull at Tickton.
Flooding on the River Hull at Tickton.
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It’s more than 20 years since East Yorkshire farmers first raised concerns about the number of sunken boats impeding the flow of water in the River Hull and making the watercourse much more liable to flood.

The impact over the years has been considerable across the River Hull valley, with many productive farms submerged for much longer than necessary with obvious crop losses and damage to farm infrastructure.

So, after years of lobbying, it’s been wonderful this week to see the first two boats brought to the surface by East Riding of Yorkshire Council between Beverley and Tickton. Other submerged vessels will be removed in the coming years, fitting in with conservation policies designed to protect lampreys; a protected fish that lives in the river.

This decision to remove the boats result comes in response to detailed modelling work carried out as part of the River Hull Integrated Catchment Strategy (RHICS). This concluded that half the capacity of the river is lost in places, particularly in the area where the abandoned vessels are located. Analysis showed that removing the boats, coupled with dredging and re-profiling the riverbed and banks back to a profile last seen in the 1950s, would increase the river’s capacity by 10 per cent in flood conditions, and reduce water levels by almost one metre.

It’s an excellent example of the progress that can be made in managing the flood risk when a strategic, catchment-wide approach is adopted and this is certainly something the NFU would like to see more of. It is fundamental that the Government has appropriate policies and systems in place to protect some of the UK’s most productive agricultural land, rural infrastructure and communities. The floods of 2007 and 2013/14 cost £50m and £19m respectively and this bill has been pushed higher by the Boxing Day floods last year.

Set up on the back of those floods, the Government’s National Flood Resilience Review recently outlined steps to ensure communities and the countryside are more resilient to extreme weather. Of course there’s a need to focus on the future protection of people and property, however, we are concerned that there’s very little mention of agriculture, rural communities or food security. Food and farming generates £108bn for the economy and, put simply, the UK needs productive agricultural land to produce food for a rapidly growing population.

Focusing on what can be done to improve flood warning systems and exploring the role of temporary flood defences, the Review concluded that traditional engineered structures alone aren’t enough to protect against flooding events, and that natural flood management and river maintenance will still be required. However there’s no detail about potential funding, possible locations, or how such schemes will be implemented.

The NFU supports these schemes providing there’s suitable consultation, scientific modelling is carried out and farmers and landowners are appropriately compensated. But this isn’t a panacea solution and must only be implemented as one of a number of answers.

The success of the RHICS illustrates what can be achieved. What we need is for government to establish a long-term, strategic plan for flood and coastal risk management that’s designed to cope with extreme events, and takes a whole catchment approach to management decisions.

James Copeland is the regional environment and land use adviser for NFU North East.