Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Natural flood management

By Rosemary McCloskey


Like other parts of Gloucestershire, the Stroud Valleys suffered extensive flooding during the summer of 2007, which impacted 200 homes. The Environment Agency has since identified the Slad Valley as a rapid response catchment, at risk of destructive flash flooding similar to the event that destroyed parts of Boscastle in Cornwall.

Over the years, communities and authorities have realised that the River Frome and its tributaries are not suited to hard engineered solutions to the issue. This is in part due to the physical nature of the catchment and the distribution of the properties at risk, but also due to the heritage and aesthetic value of the Stroud valleys.

In 2012, the Environment Agency commissioned a report into the feasibility and potential benefits of implementing natural flood management (NFM) (also called rural sustainable drainage) throughout the catchment of the Frome and associated tributaries. Acting on the findings, a formal partnership was formed between Stroud District Council, Gloucestershire County Council, The Environment Agency and the Wye Regional Flood and Coastal Committee to employ a project officer to work with the community to identify and implement measures across the 250km2 Frome catchment.

The project approach

The Stroud Rural Sustainable Drainage project takes a locally driven approach, putting people at the forefront, building relationships between the community and landowners. It has helped strengthen community ties and understanding of NFM, as well as providing the NFM interventions at a low cost using local labour and volunteers.

As of January 2019, the project had worked with 19 land managers to implement 400 plus NFM interventions throughout the catchment. Implementing these many schemes across such a large proportion of the catchment has been possible due to the innovative approach:

  • Designed and implemented by local organisations and people using local knowledge and building on natural processes and techniques.
  • Co-designed with the landowners and community groups, which has meant much of the emphasis has been on establishing long-term working relationships between these groups.
  • Interventions often built by landowners or their contractors, using local materials and building skills and capacity.
  • A network of many small-scale interventions spread at strategic locations across the whole catchment, building in greater resilience.
  • The interventions designed to be multi-functional to achieve a number of outcomes, for example; introducing large woody material into smaller water courses in woodland areas; creating informal and more formal attenuation in woodland and grassland riparian areas using low bunds and berms, timber flow diversion structures and targeted tree planting to increase infiltration or flow complexity.
Learning from doing

The Stroud Rural Sustainable Drainage Project started as a pilot scheme to work with a range of partners to trial and develop NFM techniques throughout the Frome catchment. The success and positive uptake and response to the project has been down to the extensive partnership working with the community. Although there was an initial consultation report developed at the beginning of the project, which identified key sites and areas to work in, we have largely taken an opportunistic approach to developing schemes in the Frome catchment where it is safe and feasible to do so.

We’ve learned, over the course of the project, that having a few practical projects on the ground in order to showcase the learning and demonstrate the project objectives is critical in order to build trust and understanding of the methods. It is important to celebrate the wins of an ‘every little helps’ approach and this encourages landowners to spread the message to their neighbours.

Utilising local contractors and involving landowners themselves in the design and implementation of the measures has been important. A key piece of learning it that NFM techniques are not a one-size-fits-all approach. Every site and every catchment have their own unique characteristics, which is why it is important to be as flexible and adaptable as possible in the planning and implementation of the scheme. Identifying and reducing barriers to participation helps to achieve wins for all involved.

Whilst natural flood management is not a new concept, the evidence base for the methodologies is still being developed. One of the challenges of the Stroud project (and all NFM projects) is to provide evidence of the benefits.

We are working with a range of different organisations to implement a partnership approach to monitoring and researching NFM within the catchment. Establishing a monitoring partnership is not without its challenges including resourcing monitoring activities, standardising methods, sharing data and information, and diverging interests and agendas. It can be challenging to gain comparable data over short timescales for NFM; multi-year approaches must be planned in order to maximise the opportunity to gain valuable data.

Whilst it befalls all flood management authorities, NFM practitioners and landowners/residents to demonstrate the benefits of NFM from a social, environmental and economic perspective; we would include the caveat that gathering the scientific evidence should not mean that projects with smaller budgets, limited resources or other likewise constraints cannot go ahead because of the burden of proof. It is key that we continue to expand knowledge and the practical skills base around developing nature-based solutions. NFM should be about mimicking natural processes and building on what’s already there. We would hope to see NFM methods adopted as part of standard land and woodland management practices, and that flood risk management authorities continue to find ways to support the community and local environmental organisations to work with natural processes to reduce flood risk and improve resilience to environmental change.