As forecasts warn of a wet winter ahead, memories of last year’s flooding remain fresh in the minds of farmers and landowners across Oxfordshire. Better co-ordination, longer-term water management planning and local expertise will all be critical in helping reduce the destruction in towns and rural areas if we experience similar weather conditions in the future.

In Oxford City at the start of this year we saw flooded homes, closed schools and devastated businesses. Discussions continue over proposals for the Oxford flood relief channel.

Oxford Mail:

Andrew Ingram

The impact on homes and businesses in the Oxfordshire countryside was just as dramatic. Thousands of acres of farmland across the county were submerged for weeks on end, from Witney to Beckley to Wallingford. The waters washed away crops, damaged grazing land and stranded livestock.

Almost a year on from the worst of the flooding, some farmers in Oxfordshire are still to uncover the full impact on their business.

Beyond the immediate loss of agricultural productivity and the post flood clean-up operations, the longer term effect on land quality is a challenge still to be overcome.

Not only have the farmers affected taken a huge hit to their businesses, but the loss of food production also deals a blow to the wider economy and the nation’s food security.

Some policy influencers revealed a worrying perception during the floods that agricultural land becomes dispensable in times of inundation. Yet sacrificing agricultural land is devastating to food security, water quality improvement efforts, rural economies and the environment.

Land has a critical value for every single person in the country and flooding the countryside to save the towns is not an acceptable solution. The right measures need to be put in place – with sufficient Government funding – so that there is no need to choose between town and country. I urge the prospective parliamentary candidates for the Oxfordshire constituencies to recognise the importance of agricultural land and food security in their campaigns for next year’s General Election.

Alongside recovery from the impacts of past flooding, the focus for many farmers has turned to prevention in the future. Of course, we can’t control how heavily or where the rain falls. But Government and industry can work together to reduce the risk of land and property flooding on a similar extreme scale, or for a similar duration. The CLA represents more than 33,000 landowners, farmers and rural businesses across England and Wales. We are calling for Government to put in place specific, local water management plans which prepare for times of drought as well as deluge.

No two neighbouring fields in Oxfordshire are the same, let alone neighbouring counties, so generic national plans will not work for us. The CLA has impressed upon Government that it needs to work closely with those who know the behaviour of land and rivers the best – the county’s farmers and land managers. This is equally true of both the plan’s development and its delivery.

River maintenance is a critical part of flood alleviation and only the Environment Agency has the ability to dredge main rivers. However, this is only a part of the solution. Land managers also have a critical role to play in identifying and delivering further measures to help reduce the impact of flooding without compromising the production of food for UK tables.

One such measure is to reduce current ‘red tape’ to allow farmers and landowners to take a greater role in flood defence work. This work could include, for example, de-silting waterways and adapting land management techniques to help prevent flooding both in the locality and also further up or down river.

The role of land managers could also include plans to flood parts of a farm for the greater good when absolutely necessary. This approach must however be part of a co-ordinated plan that acknowledges the importance of agricultural land, anticipating and managing the impacts on food production and UK food security. For measures like this to be made possible, Government must provide farmers and land managers with the right support by compensating for their work and for their businesses’ lost revenue. Another priority area for discussion is the use of planning processes to help deliver on-farm reservoirs which will capture excess water in times of flood, storing the water for use on the farm in the summer months.

There is little doubt that the issue of water management will continue to feature heavily on the national and local agenda for many years to come both in Oxfordshire’s towns and rural communities. Now is the time for the development of effective and realistic water management planning and processes that will support householders, land managers, the economy and the environment.

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