Farmers could be paid to store flood water on their land to protect communities downstream of swollen rivers.
The payments would be made under government plans to revise farm subsidies after Brexit to link them to the delivery of “public goods” rather than the EU system of rewarding farmers based on how many acres they own.
Hannah Cloke, professor of hydrology at the University of Reading, said paying landowners to store water was one of the most effective ways of reducing the risk of homes and businesses being flooded by rivers bursting their banks. She said: “Using the land to store water and compensating people whose land is flooded is better than spending money on lots of flood defences.”
Farmers who allowed their land to be used in this way were providing a service, she added, and should be rewarded.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, said other countries, including the Netherlands, already made such payments.
The House of Commons environment select committee recommended the idea in a report in 2016 which said: “Storing water on farmland can provide a cost-effective means of reducing flood risk, but farmers are naturally wary of allowing their land to be out of production for long periods.
“Defra should put flood risk management at the centre of any new support schemes for farmers which replace the common agricultural policy.”
The Environment Agency already operates about a thousand flood storage areas, some of which involve arrangements to compensate landowners when land has been converted from farming.
The “environmental land management system” being developed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would allow these payments to be made to far more farmers.