Severn Valley Water Management Scheme - a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem?


Mike Morris

How can we address flooding on the river Severn?

The Severn Rivers Trust is a member of the River Severn Partnership. The Partnership's aim is to make the Severn, Wye, Warwickshire Avon and Teme the most vibrant and resilient river network, where exceptional quality of life, prosperous local economies and an outstanding natural environment is driven by a programme of innovation to reduce flood risk, secure future water resources and improve and deliver shared natural assets.

All well and good, largely as our own vision is for A Healthy Vibrant Severn for all.

The two go hand in hand, on paper at least.

Flood risk management is a key issue across the Severn catchment. The floods of last winter (2019/20) have almost been matched by the one we have just seen. Extreme flooding events like these are likely to increase as we go through the 21st Century, with the Environment Agency predicting an additional 850mm on top of our current flood peaks by 2050. Something has to fundamentally change or the number of properties, businesses, key infrastructures and impacted lives will be ever greater. Being flooded causes economic difficulties, immense anxiety, stress and reduced health and wellbeing and all at the Trust have significant empathy with anyone affected by flooding.

The River Severn Partnership has brought together all the key players in flood risk management from across the catchment, including the statutory flood authorities, local councils (the lead local flood authorities), water companies and many stakeholders. At the Severn Rivers Trust, we also play a major part in the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) which brings together a more community focussed effort towards the management of our smaller scale catchments for the improvement of our rivers and the communities that live, work and play within them. The two need to come together (a top-down and a bottom-up approach) to ensure that all sections of the catchment are in the conversation. We will be working hard in the coming year, looking to increase our resources and those of our partners in the CaBA partnerships to ensure the local voices are heard.

During 2020, the River Severn Partnership was successful in gaining funding towards the Severn Valley Water Management Scheme. More can be seen about this scheme at on the Environment Agency consultation webpages here: Severn Valley Water Management Scheme - Environment Agency (

We have been assured by colleagues in the Environment Agency that this scheme is in the Options Appraisal stage and that no decisions have yet been made, and that there is a significant process to go through before plans are finalised. There has been significant speculation about what this might look like, including the idea of creating a flood defence barrier as part of the north west relief road around Shrewsbury. This type of hard engineering is one suggestion, and we believe it is a long way off. However, it is possible that such a scheme could be given the greenlight, in which case we will use our position in the River Severn Partnership to argue for a different solution. A solution with far more benefits for the river’s habitats and species, as well as the local communities who live nearby.

A structure built across the River Severn north of Shrewsbury will likely have extremely negative impacts for the river and communities upstream of the structure. The natural form of the river itself will be further constrained, sediments will be held from moving downstream, fish will be impacted in their daily migrations (all fish migrate to some extent). Land owners and communities upstream will certainly have their businesses and livelihoods impacted by such a vast amount of water being held back, even for a short time. 

And importantly, any structure built across the river to reduce flooding downstream is, by its very nature, just a sticking plaster. It does not consider the fundamental cause of the problem, rather it just stems the flow far downstream of the source.

So, our solution is to work on the cause of the problem, in a sustainable and balanced way. We are in a climate emergency and a biodiversity crisis. We are likely to see greater impacts from significant flooding in the coming years. The solution is to consider these issues and work on them together.

By working on an integrated catchment approach, we see multiple benefits to the environment, to communities and business, all whilst reducing the impacts of flooding. The Severn Rivers Trust has worked with hundreds of farmers in the past few years, providing best practice advice on sustainable soil and water management, increasing biodiversity through habitat restoration and considering the farm as a whole, and part of a bigger picture across the landscape. In essence these discussions and the plans that we create with the farmer, are all about ensuring that the farm is sustainable for the future. By undertaking changes in management such as increasing organic matter in soils, reducing inputs to soils, improving water resource management such as installing rain water harvesting, installing shelter belts and many other solutions, we see outcomes such as increased water retention and crop yield, decreased sediment and chemical loss from the land, improved water quality entering our water courses, improved biodiversity, increased carbon sequestration, improved air quality, increased health and wellbeing for people; and for the context of the Severn Valley Water Management Scheme, reduced flood peaks. A multi-win scenario.

If this government is serious about tackling climate change, restoring our lost biodiversity and being a global leader in a green revolution, installing walls (even temporary ones) across rivers is not the right way to go. This is old school thinking and is not innovative. Working at a truly integrated catchment scale, across the entire Severn, supporting land managers and farmers to manage the natural capital on their land that benefits their business and the wider community, is the only solution. In our membership of the River Severn Partnership, we shall continue to remind our partners that our combined aim is to achieve an outstanding natural environment, driven by reducing flood risk. Working across the entire Severn will do both.