The Cnut Conundrum

A fading memory now, but family Xmas last year was in Cumbria – at Crosby Garrett, scene of the Roman helmet find of 2010. Little chance we would make any such exciting discovery: the three days were consumed by virtually continuous rainfall.

Crosby Garrett is high enough that it avoided the terrible flooding affecting communities lower down the valley, and we were at least able to walk up onto the fell – twice getting sodden, once in glorious sunshine. And though we saw no flooding in the rural areas, on the trip back home we certainly did – in central Leeds, where we had to take a circuitous route around the city centre to reach the train station. In the 5th most populated city of England.

I’ve written on this before, but I do wonder how far down the long queue of demands from new metro authorities might be the issue of real powers to re-connect cities with their surrounding rural areas – or that give cities the powers of responsibility for those. Historically this would have been the case – cities shaped their surrounding countryside.

So far the devo debate has made the case for powers over strategic planning, transport, business rates and other tax raising authority. The first of those could work to better connect the urban with the rural, but there’s litlte else on the need for a devolving of powers over countryside and agriculture. Yet there has to be a case given the consequences that national policies have had in severing that connection, brought home by climate and weather events on the scale of the Xmas floods.

Experts in this area, so far as I can tell, seem widely agreed that solutions are around better upland management and flood protection in the right places. Tree planting and restoration of peat bogs may not be the entire solution everywhere, but it’s uncontested they are part of the answer – if alongside other measures to slow water passage such as preventing soil erosion, creating pasture on river margins; protecting heather moorlands, and avoiding over-grazing.  If all this is understood but not happening, what is the explanation?

A paper by Dieter Helm discusses the issues using the wonky language of ‘ecosystem services’ – a term that sounds as far removed from people’s lived daily experience as you could find. And yet that couldn’t be further from the truth – the ‘services’ nature provides have a direct bearing on all our lives. Helm argues the problem is that we’re not using an economic approach in making decisions about flood policy – by which he means that decisions aren’t made using an asset-flow approach and don’t involve thinking about costs and benefit trade-offs. ‘Optimal level of flood defence’ is an economic concept, that compares the costs of protecting with the benefits of doing so. What we have instead is a project based approach with an emphasis on property most at risk. And a set of agricultural subsidies for activities that create flood risk.

That last point is also made by on a Green Alliance blog – where Miles King has pointed out the irreconcilable demands of protecting both agricultural land and down-river communities. Farming on the upper reaches of river catchments is especially important in determining flood risk – but is typically the most highly subsidised.

This isn’t so much a failure of cost-benefit thinking as a mis-application of it. So there must have been institutional problems too – lobbying powers, no doubt, but also real questions about who pays for flood protection and how.  The options here are tax, charge or insure. Helm favours a return to water catchment based flood boards with costs for flood abating raised through water bills, though he acknowledges the alternative of adding to the local authority council charge could work too. This might be characterised as a choice between economic or environmental catchments. I can see why environmentalists like the idea of an approach based on natural systems, but I wonder if the former hasn’t got more chance of success, being aligned with more powerful political and economic forces.

I’m also beginning to see these issues in  work we’ve been doing with environmental consultancy 3Keel on how best to fund landscapes. We started that work by recognising that much landscape funding is failing to address the biggest threats and trends, such as the impact of insensitive development on cultural heritage, or modern farming practices on biodiversity. 3keel describe this as the Cnut Conundrum – that we fight a noble but losing battle in which the scale of operation fails to measure up to the issues that need addressing.

Solutions will not be easy to come by,  but I’d say our work is suggesting two things. Firstly, switching from a negative focus on the risks faced in a landscape to a more positive emphasis on the benefits provided by it.  And secondly, to a recognition about who needs to be involved. While local authorities and owners are important players in the landscape, so too are infrastructure companies and regulators, developers, locally based manufacturers, distributors and retailers. And so too are the people in urban centres who both benefit from and bear the costs of how a landscape is managed. We need to see these people as having both a vested interest in its long-term future and some responsibility for it. As with so much else, that looks more feasible, to me, on a more localised city region level. It also depends, crucially, on city dwellers feeling connected to the wider landscape that surrounds them, not just the nature of their local park or wildlife reserve.

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