Innovative Flood Defence Scheme in Pickering a Success – and Geographers’ Work Vital


An innovative flood defence scheme developed in Pickering, North Yorkshire, has been hailed as a success in an evaluation by the Environment Agency. The ‘natural flood management’ scheme, ‘Slow the Flow’, is estimated to have reduced the chance of flooding in Pickering from 25% in any one year, to less than 4%. The ‘Slow the Flow’ project was developed with help from leading Geographer Professor Sarah Whatmore, Professor of Environment and Public Policy, School of Geography, University of Oxford, and her team, who pioneered the use of ‘environmental competency groups’ to engage communities in discussions about flooding, when they had lost confidence in authorities and research to deliver results in their area. Professor Whatmore and colleagues discuss their innovative approach in a paper published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers in 2010, whilst the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) has just published a resource for schools which analyses the ‘Slow the Flow’ project in Pickering, and the geographers’ role in this.

The natural flood management scheme in Pickering consists of 167 ‘leaky’ dams and 187 heather bale dams within a stream, two timber bunds (part-concrete structures aimed at diverting water away from the town) and improvements to farmland, woodland and moorland in the river catchment. In addition, 40,000 trees were planted and an upstream flood storage reservoir was installed. The Environment Agency’s analysis has concluded that the natural flood management scheme prevented flooding in Pickering, around Christmas 2015, that would otherwise have occurred to a small number of residential properties and the town’s museum. The flood peak was reduced by 15-20%, with around half of this attributable to improvements in catchment management and tree planting, and half due to the flood storage reservoir.

Commenting on the Environment Agency’s report, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Liz Truss MP, said that the scheme had been ‘truly innovative’ and that ‘every approach must be tailored to local geography and knowledge’.

Geographer Professor Sarah Whatmore and colleagues led a project between March 2007 and June 2010, under the Rural Environment and Land Use (RELU) funding programme, that brought together residents in Ryedale, North Yorkshire, natural and social scientists. The ‘environmental competency group’ , which called itself the ‘Ryedale Flood Research Group’, worked with the scientists to develop proposals for upstream storage of potential flood waters that were then incorporated into a successful multi-agency bid for funding from Defra, to develop a demonstration project in Pickering. The upstream solutions proposed by the group had previously been discounted by the flood management consultants advising local Environment Agency staff in Pickering. The demonstration project in Pickering received £700,000 from Defra and ran between April 2009 – 2011. Commenting on the importance of the work of Professor Whatmore and others, in catalysing the formation of the Ryedale Flood Research Group, the local Environment Agency Catchment Manager said that the geographers’ work had had a tremendous impact: ‘the RFRG study provided background information, technical support and public support which helped progress the upstream storage element of the Slowing the Flow Project.’

Subsequent funding from the District Council helped to develop the natural flood management project around Pickering, now hailed as a success. However, John Curtin, Director of Flood Risk for the Environment Agency, has warned that the natural flood management defences developed will not be sufficient to protect the town in the event of extreme rainfall.

An event in autumn 2016, in the 21st Century Challenges: Policy Forum series, will focus on flooding. Further information will be published here in due course.

Image credit: Panoramic of Water Newton, with the flooding of the land. Broo_am (Andy B), Flickr.

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