Whilst the implementation and wider catchment benefits of Natural Flood Management (NFM) measures are appreciated and supported, their ability to provide substantial flood benefits is often lower than traditional approaches. As a result, NFM solutions are not being promoted or adopted as widely as they should be. In Scotland, UK, the upcoming policy updates and new funding routes might make it possible to achieve the wider benefits associated with NFM.    

NFM is a key tool to develop resilience in the face of climate change. Growing evidence has allowed the industry to widely recognize the benefits of NFM, including flood regulation, carbon sequestration, improved soil management and water quality, as well as biodiversity gains.

In Scotland, the Flood Risk Management (FRM) Act requires responsible authorities to consider how NFM can contribute to managing flood risk. Despite this legislative driver the delivery of NFM on the ground has been limited with few projects successfully being identified for funding.

To understand the reasons behind the slow uptake of NFM, we held an open session at Scotland’s FRM Conference 2020, the country’s key annual flood risk management event, where we gathered practitioners’ views and experiences.

During the session, we sought to understand what the barriers to NFM implementation are and generate ideas to overcome them, exploring areas such as promotion and funding. With attendees evenly split between consultants and responsible authorities, it gave us a well-balanced cross section of the industry.

Five takeaways from the session:

#1 Assessment of benefits

There was a consensus that securing funding for NFM schemes under the FRM Act may not be the most appropriate route. Funding assessments under this mechanism have been shaped by traditional engineering solutions and flood economics which focus on avoiding flood damages to property and infrastructure. Under this approach traditional solutions tend to result in a better cost-benefit ratio than NFM, which typically offers a lower standard of protection than an engineered solution. Furthermore, the method does not capture the wider benefits of NFM.

There was a general view that the case for NFM should be based on its wider benefits rather than flood economics. It was also discussed that wider benefits should perhaps be given more weight in the context of the climate and biodiversity emergency. On this basis, the current FRM Act funding requirements could be separated for NFM to require a multiple benefit assessment rather than a single cost-benefit assessment. Work is therefore needed to build practitioner confidence in wider benefit assessment tools.

#2 Climate emergency opportunity

In May 2019, the Scottish Government declared a climate emergency and set an ambitious target of Net Zero Carbon to be achieved by 2045. To achieve this, significant tree planting and wetland/peatland restoration will be required to provide carbon capture. Moving away from a traditional subsidy model, focused on crop and livestock production and revaluing land for the public service it provides, such as carbon storage and flood regulation, could provide an opportunity for NFM to be delivered while ensuring farmers’ businesses are kept viable.

#3 Proportional approach

Hydraulic modelling is a necessary tool to develop flood schemes. Significant strides have been made in modelling approaches for NFM in the last 5 to 10 years, however there still seems to be a lack of confidence from regulators in these methods compared to traditional approaches. The problem in this case seems to be that regulators need monitoring and assessment to gain this confidence, but there aren’t enough schemes on the ground to achieve this.

As a result, there seems to be a need for a proportional approach. NFM measures are low-risk in terms of consequences for failure when compared to a hard engineering solution. The cost of NFM measures are much lower than multi-million pound engineered works therefore, the investment lost through failure of NFM is a more acceptable risk with less significant consequences. There should be a proportional requirement and assessment of modelling from regulators, based on risk, before NFM scheme can be trialled.

#4 Community and intermediates

From the experience shared, successful projects have required significant landowner buy in and community ownership. NFM can be viewed by land managers as high-risk in terms of attracting pests and livestock diseases. In this regard, land managers need to be educated on the benefits of NFM as well as ongoing funding and maintenance requirements and available support. There is also a need for practitioners to better understand farming practises and the traditions surrounding these so best solutions can be identified from a flood risk and land management perspective. An intermediary group, like Scottish Flood Forum, that was dedicated to NFM would bridge this gap, develop trust and cut the bureaucracy faced by responsible authorities in identifying funding mechanisms.

#5 NFM needs a rebrand

NFM should be considered as sustainable land management, rather than flood management. It must be recognized that the standards of flood protection provided by NFM without any structural solutions are for smaller and more frequent floods. NFM will provide resilience in high return period events, reducing the impact of floods to local communities. Rebranding and educating the public and practitioners in this regard would position NFM as a powerful resilience rather than prevention tool.

This would also allow the wide-ranging benefits of NFM, regarding improvements in soil quality, water quality and biodiversity, to be promoted rather than flooding being the headline benefit. These significant environmental and social benefits could potentially open more funding routes.

In conclusion, there have been significant barriers to implementing NFM under the FRM Act and responsible authorities, consultants and government need to work collaboratively to overcome these. This involves improving how we quantify the benefits of NFM and the appropriateness of legislative and policy vehicles available to fund and deliver schemes. With the upcoming updates to the National Planning Framework 4 and Scotland’s Land Use Strategy there is a substantial opportunity to overcome these barriers through policy and funding routes and to achieve the flooding and wider benefits associated with these good land management practices.

Originally published 03.12.2020