Opinion: Woodland and Water – a success story in Kent with no de-silting and dredging

IMG-20131226-00110Almost 1,000 properties were affected by flooding from rivers across Kent earlier this year. However, against this backdrop there were small glimmers of hope.

A local success story involves the River Len, a small and heavily urbanised tributary of the River Medway in Maidstone. In autumn 2000, under similar rainfall conditions, the Len had flooded commercial and residential property in Maidstone town centre.

In 2002, the acquisition of 2.5 hectares of the River Len corridor was negotiated by Maidstone Council as environmental mitigation for a new supermarket and business park extension. Much of this land was then shrouded in concrete and littered with hundreds of used tyres and other fly-tipping. Indeed, in autumn 2000 flood-water had scudded-off the impermeable hard-standing, bringing with it tonnes of man-made debris which had blocked weirs and culverts intensifying downstream flooding.

The River Len land acquisition didn’t include funding for maintenance, so, since 2002, the local Lib Dem councillors have worked with residents, ably supported by the Council’s street cleansing service, to remove tonnes of hard-standing and fly-tipping from the site. They have also introduced management designed to benefit landscape, wildlife and local people. Relict patches of alder, crack willow and sallow carr were expanded (mainly through natural regeneration), reed and sedge beds restored, pools and marshy areas re-created and sunlit rides opened-up and maintained. In 2014 the site was officially designated as a Local Nature Reserve.

Ongoing recording of flora and fauna by local people has shown a sharp increase in both biodiversity and biomass, with uncommon native species including water vole, Desmoulin’s Whorl Snail, White-legged Damselfly and Grass Snake all flourishing in their urban environment.

The benefits from these changes were realised just before Christmas 2013, when Kent was hit by rainfall even more severe than that of autumn 2000. This time the re-naturalised banks of the River Len behaved very differently and instead of flood water (and debris) sheeting-off acres of hard standing, the River Len corridor, and its damp woodland and reed beds, dramatically slowed flows and held-back huge volumes of flood water and debris.

Remarkably, no properties were directly flooded in Maidstone town centre as a result of inundation by the River Len. Indeed, storm water was even pumped from the nearby, at risk, Loose Stream catchment into the River Len – and still no serious property flooding resulted.

Just imagine the damage and misery that could be averted were more of the UK’s riverside ‘flood-woodlands’ restored. Overly simplistic calls for increased de-silting and dredging of our watercourses in locations where at best it will make no difference to flood risk and at worst will exacerbate downstream flooding must be resisted. Knee jerk calls for such expensive and potentially destructive interventions from landowners (some of whom are actually paid to store water on their farmland), the media and populist politicians (many with an anti Environment Agency agenda) must not be allowed to trump scientific evidence.

Indeed, with sea levels in the south east set to rise by 1.2m by 2115 on their 1990 level such a dissipation of effort and resources would be folly. The Woodland Trust’s recent publication Stemming the flow – The role of trees and woodland in flood protection is a useful contribution to this debate.

* Tony Harwood is Deputy Leader Maidstone Borough Council Liberal Democrat Group.

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  • peter tyzack 10th Aug '14 - 10:30am

    glad to see that the Party manifesto will include an increase in funding for forestry. This example needs publicising far and wide, perhaps you can get it onto ‘Countryfile’? But surely every Parish/Community Council should have a tree-planting and regeneration budget, for wildlife habitat, public enjoyment, as well as intermittent flood alleviation ..

  • Simon Banks 13th Aug '14 - 4:02pm

    Excellent! And as a member of the British Dragonfly Society (though not actually a British dragonfly) I’m very impressed you’ve got White-legged Damselfly there. That species is sensitive to pollution and disturbance.

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