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The need for large-scale landscape management

Climate change is a topic on which the Campaign does not take a view. We hold to our self-imposed terms of reference, on the basis that our supporters have differing views on just about everything apart from LVT. This is as it should be. This winter’s weather, however, raises the issue of large-scale landscape management. It may turn out to be a one-off event or part of a new pattern, but what happens to water once it had fallen is certainly a matter that should be discussed now.

What happened in Southern England illustrates the nature of the problem. It starts on the highest ground. Southern England is characterised by belts of chalk downlands extending from Kent to Wiltshire: the North and South Downs, the Chilterns, and the Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire Downs. The view above, of the South Downs near Lewes, Sussex, shows the typical form of these landscapes. They are much cherished. It is less widely appreciated that they are not in their natural condition. Excavations of Neolithic burial mounds sometimes shows the remains of a forest soil underneath, which is the natural state of these landscapes. If chalk downland is left alone, that is what it reverts to. Hawthorn scrub appears quickly, then comes ash, and in a couple of hundred years, if left undisturbed, the vegetation evolves into a community of climax vegetation consisting of beech and yew woodland. Beech in particular gives rise to a heavy carpet of fallen leaves which break down after many years to produce a rich, deep brown forest soil.

Clearance for arable farming seems to have taken place by Roman times, but until the middle of the twentieth century sheep grazing was the predominant form of downland agriculture. The characteristic rounded forms of the hills were covered by thin turf, with grass kept short by the sheep. Since the 1960s, however, chalk downlands have been increasingly used for arable farming; the photograph shows a mixture of grazing and arable typical of today’s landscapes.

Naturally, the changes in vegetation affect what happens to the water when it rains. Broad-leaved forests are capable of absorbing large amounts of water because the fallen leaves, soil and extensive root systems act like a sponge. Grazed turf is less effective at holding water. It has long been the case that the dry valleys characteristic of the chalk landscapes would turn into streams after prolonged periods of rain. Such streams are known as winterbournes. They appear, typically, about once every fifty years. If you buy a house in a place with the name “Winterbourne”, you should expect floods now and again.

Winterbournes are not a new phenomenon, but the recent practice of using chalk downland for arable farming means that when rain falls onto land that has been ploughed, it runs off quickly, taking the soil with it. After a while, with the fine material washed away, the topsoil becomes consolidated and covered with flints, and when it rains, the water runs off almost immediately, the soil having lost its ability to act as a sponge; note that the field in the picture has been ploughed across the contours, thereby further aggravating problems due to fast run-off. The effect could be seen early in February. In the dry valleys of the Wiltshire uplands, raging torrents were running, causing flooding in villages on high ground near the sources of the rivers Kennet and Avon. Further downstream, in Salisbury, there was extensive flooding though buildings were not affected. In Winchester, the volume of water was so great that special action had to be taken to prevent damaging floods. The statue by Anthony Gormley in the cathedral crypt was standing in three feet of water.

Elsewhere, the River Severn behaved as usual and Tewkesbury was flooded. This is a regular occurrence which so far has always left the twelfth century Abbey high and dry on its island of higher ground. The Thames overflowed and there was flooding in the otherwise highly desirable riverside villages between Maidenhead and Windsor. The event that made the news was the flooding of villages on the Somerset levels, an area created by drainage of marshland in the seventeenth century. This is kept dry by continuous pumping into rivers running between raised dykes, ten feet above their surroundings.

Coastal areas were also flooded, due to storms and high seas, with the main line to Devon and Cornwall being washed away at Dawlish, where the track is laid on a sea wall originally constructed for the railway. The wall was breached as a result of heavy pounding by the waves, Once the sea had broken through, houses on the sea front, built on the soft red sandstone, were undermined. Trains are due to start running in April. after a disruptive two-month closure. There are now discussions about possible alternative routes.

All of this has a direct bearing on land values and how they might change in the future. Land values in Cornwall will slump if rail communication becomes increasingly unreliable. Regular flooding will make residential property uninsurable and of little value. There will have to be changes.

Ideally, the management of rivers would cover entire watersheds from their upland catchment areas to the sea. It might involve restrictions on farming practices in the uplands to slow the runoff of water, for example by establishing more forest cover and holding lakes. Further downstream, there might be restrictions on development in areas subject to flooding, with the designation of zones where flooding would be allowed to take place. Some developed areas may be better abandoned. Restrictions would be imposed in urban areas to stop people from covering their gardens with impervious materials. Close to the sea, conditions are also deteriorating. Measurements over a long period show that sea levels have been slowly rising and wave heights increasing. Decisions would need to taken as to which land should be kept for farming and which should be given up; there is a limit to how much pumping is practicable. Such land might not necessarily be lost to farming altogether if new farming practices were developed, such as fish farming.

All of these changes would give rise to winners and losers. The losers will want compensation. Without LVT it is not possible to claw back the winnings of those who stand to benefit. So nothing can happen without effectively throwing taxpayers’ money in the direction of all landowners. So nothing much will happen and the problem will go on getting worse.