A Clash of Cultures? On Farmers versus Developers

A Clash of Cultures? On Farmers versus Developers

We haven't heard from Giles Framling for a while. Here he's wondering about the possible conflict between agricultural interests and developers, especially in light of the floods suffered in large areas of the British Isles this winter.

There's not a lot we can do about the weather and I don't think that fact is ever going to change, but how we deal with the consequences of extreme weather events is another matter. How we manage the land, plan our developments and the extent to which we cater for '100 year' events, are all down to us, or the people we elect to represent us.

The conflict between development and agriculture is in some ways a quite modern phenomenon. Before the industrial revolution, development very often went hand in hand with agricultura planning, as woodland was cleared or land 'improved' for human settlements and to grow the food and other crops those settlements depended on.

With so few people actually working on the landnow, but with so many more of us to house and feed, the two interests - housing and farming - have diverged. As urban conurbations grow, 'traditional' land use becomes less common, and even long-established towns and cities have more and more hard surfaces and fewer lawns, hedges and undeveloped pockets of 'waste ground'. This means more, and more rapid, run off.

Farmers, meanwhile, are left to manage what's left of the countryside, including its ditches, streams and riverbanks. News bulletins are full of images and reports of flooded land, cut-off villages and damaged houses, but the emphasis is nearly always on 'property', meaning buildings, and rarely on ruined crops and unusable grazing land.

By far the best way to cope with heavy precipitation is to allow it into the environment - with open land, woodland, water meadows and marshes. These act as 'sinks' - smoothing out the erratic and unpredictable heavy rains and snows, allowing the water to drain away at a steadier rate and making more of it available through the following summer. As a system, it's unregulated and somewhat random - after all, we've always had occasional droughts and floods - but could it be managed more effectively?

While open ground, in the form of agricultural land as well as parks and wilderness, is still quite plentiful in the British Isles, there's no doubt that we have a lot less woodland than in the past. Deforestation has a major impact in developing countries, leading to floods, landslides and disastrous soil erosion. Does the same apply in the UK? There's no reason to think it doesn't, albeit on a smaller scale. It was landslips that caused a lot of the delays on the railways during the recent heavy rains. Every time this happens, a little of the land's ability to store rain and lower the flood risk is lost. Rivers downstream from our former major forests have a very different character once the trees are lost. Look at the Severn, for example. 

So the question is, do we want to manage increased extremes in an industrial way - ultimately finding ever quicker ways to get the water back to the sea, or into tanks, lakes and reservoirs, or would it be better to make more use of natural or traditional ways to allow the water into the soil?

'Green drainage' is currently a topic for debate between developers and planning authorities. Arguments mainly centre around cost comparisons, but whose costs are we including? If ever there was a case for regulation (and possible subsidy), green drainage could be it. 

If we manage this really well, the UK, reflecting the situation in ever-growing parts of the developing world (growing population, increased urbanisation, increased expectations) could even become an example to the rest of the world and an exporter of the expertise essential for more sustainable development.

There's more to this than energy.

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