Nature’s role in reducing flood risks in Oxford

Oxford has the second fastest growing economy of all UK cities but it also has a long history of flooding, with significant floods in recent decades causing devastating effects. Climate change is expected to cause more frequent and more severe floods across the UK, leading to the government declaring a climate emergency in 2019. Finding new ways to alleviate, and mitigate, the impacts of climate change is at the top of the political agenda and nature based solutions offer one potential remedy.

The Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme is a major project, led by the Environment Agency, dedicated to reducing Oxford’s flood risk and providing wider benefits to Oxfordshire. This scheme is designed to cope with floods of a major scale, to help protect the city in coming decades as flood risk increases with climate change, and forms part of a wider programme to improve flood resilience being planned by the Environment Agency across the Thames Valley area.

The proposed Scheme (currently in planning application phase) will create a new stream with wetland wildlife corridor, running through the existing floodplain to the west of Oxford, in order to create more space for floodwater away from built-up areas, reducing flood risk in Oxford and surrounding areas for many decades to come.

impression of OFAS

Artist’s impression of the proposed new stream, viewed from Devil’s Backbone

In 2019, the Environment Agency published the plans for an ‘environmental’ organisation to eventually take on the management and care of the resulting new flood scheme. Earth Trust was one of many well-known and respected organisations that put themselves forward to be awarded the opportunity to work with the Environment Agency to ensure the ‘scheme’ is a flourishing haven for nature, local residents and the regional ecosystem. The decision of which organisation will eventually be the long-term managers is yet to be concluded. Until then, Earth Trust is in a position to support the emerging plans for the end product and how it delivers the maximum benefits for people, climate and the natural environment.

There is no doubt that the construction of the scheme will be disruptive, and presents challenges for the existing landscape and ecosystems; Earth Trust acknowledges this, and continues to play a part in testing how to minimise these negative impacts and how the resulting land manager may be able to play their part in restoring nature. When considering our role in this period, prior to appointing a long-term manager of the scheme, Earth Trust was keen to make sure that our principles and skills could be brought into the process and the developing vision for Oxford has the interests of climate, nature and people taken into account at every opportunity.

Our ethos is that all green (and blue) spaces have an enormous part to play in healthy ecosystems that underpin how we, as humans, interact with our surroundings.

If managed well, the resulting new stream and flood plain have the opportunity to deliver even greater benefits for biodiversity, the environment and engagement of people, at the same time as mitigating the flood risks. These ecosystem services have the ability to deliver an abundance of benefits ranging from greater biodiversity on well-managed floodplains and water flow through the main channels, and opportunities for communities to engage with new areas of access, and managed recreation space.

Earth Trust was the lead partner in creating the largest floodplain wetland on the banks of the River Thames in 2021, near Dorchester-on-Thames (named River of Life 2). At the time of construction, and shortly after, the initial impacts were clear to see, and the new features we had created seemed stark in contrast to the surrounding established landscape. Just 6 months later, these new wetlands are already delivering exciting new habitats and breeding grounds for vast numbers of species, feeding directly back into the river, the floodplain and rapidly recovering meadows. Expert national partners are similarly excited by the results, with new opportunities emerging for how the wetland is delivering impacts for the climate emergency, biodiversity crisis and the enjoyment of residents and visitors alike.

The results we have seen with River of Life 2 give us faith in the power of nature to recover, and recover fast.

A major project of this kind will always be contentious and no-doubt disruptive. There are many different views to consider, and perspectives on how best to balance the needs of both people and nature in order to address the challenges of climate and biodiversity along with our health and wellbeing. But, the need for the OFAS is clear. The urgency for a scheme that delivers multiple benefits is one we hope can be realised in time.

The public consultation on the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme planning application ends on 9th May.
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