Tim is professor emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. He talks about the history of the Broads, the role of his research and more contemporary events, including national parks.
I am a professor emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia [UEA]. I did my PhD on the Norfolk Broads between 1965 and 1967 as a graduate student in King’s College Cambridge and came to the University of East Anglia in 1974.
I will give a little bit of the history of the Broads, the role of my research and then move on to more contemporary events, including national parks.
We know that in Roman times the Broads were full of different small islands, huge amount of wetlands and reed beds, and were very much more marshy and sea level related. There were huge numbers of fish, eel and birds: an absolute nature’s paradise.
As most of the Broads rivers were at sea level and there was very little dry land, as we would define it, and it was susceptible to tidal changes, it was not an easy area to live in. Because of this the area was essentially unused by people as it was impassable. But very slowly as the sea fell away they became a little bit more used, in terms of crude fishing and local communities. It was really only in the sixteenth century that drainage of any significance began to happen, mainly due to the influence of the Dutch. There was much more management of drainage in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.
By the time you get to the end of the eighteenth century the emergence of the wind pump technology improved the drainage systems, and the Broads, slowly, became more agricultural. Nevertheless there were still large areas of fen which were ecologically speaking diverse, and even back in the nineteenth century internationally recognised as being of very high value. This led to the Broads being seen as a paradise, and in the early part of the twentieth century there are many famous pictures of people in boats on pure liquid crystal water with large amounts of water plant life. So the Broads up until about 1930 were unique in terms of wetland ecology.
The history of the discovery of the Broads as an artificial regime goes back to a very fine Cambridge geographer called Joyce Lambert who spent her life looking at the ecology and history of the area. She did what I think a really good geographer does, she was as much as interested in the history of the area, particularly the parish history and its economy as she was with the ecology and geomorphology of the land surfaces around and below the Broads.
Intriguingly she found that in some of the Broads, particularly in Barton Broad there were baulks of peat very close to the surface of the Broad. They separated two areas of removed sediment, and the baulks actually ran along parish boundaries so that was a brilliant piece of work that she did.
So she actually found that the Broads were artificial, created by turf cutting or peat removal between roughly 1300 and 1500 when this was a primary fuel for mediaeval England. The boats would take the peat down river to London for something like a hundred and fifty years. That led to the formation of large areas of turf removal: then around 1450 there was a subtle change in the use of fuel including the beginnings of coal.
The peat areas were not well drained so the areas started to flood and water was slowly seeping into them and over the course of time became increasingly impossible to cut the peat out.
To be fair the peat cutters were working in watery conditions for many years before actually abandoning them. So the Broads as we know them really became full Broads around the latter part of the fifteenth century.
Although they are considered by a lot of people as not being a natural area they are endemically fascinating because they have got this remarkable human history: culturally and historically speaking they are unique.
Joyce Lambert’s work is a wonderful example of geography at its best. It is real craft work and it led to a very strong interest in the Broads being managed in a special way.
National Parks – the reasons why the Broads was not included
In the 1940s post World War Two there were two major reports published on the future of the national parks in the England and Wales. The first was by John Dower, published in 1945 and the second by Arthur Hobhouse which led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which was passed in 1949.
The Broads was not included and the main reason for that was that it was a navigable river system and there was a large amount of commercial boat activity all the way to Norwich, and around Oulton Broad and Lowestoft. It was therefore not easy to imagine this as being purely a natural area.
As the commercial activity slowed down in the ‘60s and 70’s there was a greater degree of interest in putting the Broads into a national park context. This was resisted by the boating interests for a very long time by the Great Yarmouth Port and Haven commissioners led by a redoubtable chap called Desmond Truman. He was adamant that there would be no such thing as a Broads National Park or anything resembling that.
The Countryside Commission was formed in 1968 and set up a review which led to a proposal to make the Broads a special statutory body called the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads. A special legislation called the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act was passed in 1979, but this was not a national park.
This led to the formation of the Broads Authority. This was statutorily formally recognised under the subsequent Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act of 1989. But still the Broads did not lie legally within the ambit of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside legislation.
Over time the boating interest has increasingly become recreational: hardly any commercial activity goes on now. The influence of the Port and Haven Commissioners really diminished after the formation of the Broads Authority, and the fact that the Broads Authority is increasingly dependent on the tolls of boat users for their income, led the Broads to being seen as becoming closer to the national park family by the early part of the 2000s.
The case for the Broads to be called the Broads National Park is being continuously pushed and even though it has no legal status, from 2015 the phrase Broads National Park has become common place, in part for commercial reasons.
To be perfectly frank I don’t think it really matters whether it’s part of legislation or not it’s still treated in everything but name as a Broads national park. My own feeling is that we should see this as a special national park or a special natural area and not think of it as just part of the national park family. This is partly because of its history and partly because it offers so many opportunities for very very creative and imaginative ways of dealing with the future of land and agriculture compared with what we have now.
This year is the seventieth anniversary of the 1949 Act and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, has commissioned the Glover report which is a review of national parks, a chance to rethink the role of national parks. I think that in this review there is almost certainly going to be some reference to the fact that the Broads should be seen as part of a wider national park family and not differentiated any longer.
As a PhD student in Cambridge in the ’60s there were three things that I was looking at.
The first was – how did boating interests relate to each other? You had groups of people sailing, groups of people who were motor boating and groups of people who were fishing, off boats and also on banks. Did they feel that the interactions were satisfactory or were they frustrated with each other? Would this have an effect on the image of the Authority, the image of the area and as a recreational pleasure ground?
I found that actually the issue was subtly to do with class. The sailing group tended to be middle class, a little more stand offish when it came to the people in the motor boats, who were not seen as part of their fraternity. They were seen a bit more like second class citizens which they were not, but my gosh those attitudes were around in the ‘60s. The anglers tended to be, surprisingly, much more working class and loved the idea of sitting on a boat doing nothing for half a day.
The tension between the three groups was actually quite complicated because the sailing boaters tended, increasingly, to take the view that the motor boat was too much hassle for them. Sailing on the Broads is difficult, it’s tidal, the winds are often flukey the rivers meander and there is a lot of shallow water in the margins. So from a sailing point of view an unmanaged boat or one that is not being considerately treated by the operator was likely to give rise to grief.
Over the course of time the boating interests moved to the fringes of the year into the Easter period and up to June and again after September. I found that repeat bookings for boating interests were very much associated with the early and the latter part of the year.
In the middle of the year you got people who either didn’t have a choice over their time or for whom the quality of the sailing wasn’t such an issue. There was a behavioural, cultural distinction in the way in which boating operated. The fishing interest often acted as mediator as they were from both classes, and were often very sensitive to a boat going by too fast.
This led to the second part of my research – which was about speed limits and whether it was appropriate to change and actually impose speed limits.
Part of that was also associated with the damage to the banks caused by the wash of the boats. Boats got bigger and although the wave from the boat didn’t look very much, the drag effect below the surface of the water was actually quite noticeable.
Many of the Broads’ rivers were soft clays with reed beds and were easily friable, easily broken down by a suction effect of a passing boat, particularly if the boat went too close to the bank and was moving too fast.
This led to the imposition of speed limits around the Broads particularly in sensitive areas. It took twenty years but nevertheless it was an important part of the Broads’ history and a very nice outcome from the research that I did.
Most people recognise that speed limits are part of the deal, if you are going to an ecologically sensitive area, with lots of birdlife and interesting things to look at and listen to then moving fast doesn’t fit with that all.
The third part – this was the issue of the management of the Broads from the different points of view of local government, conservation, boating, and the national and international interest.
I got into that quite big time and the final chapter dealt with what I call a Broads Consortium. A notion of an amalgamated governing body which brought together the Port and Haven Commissioners, local government, and national parks, even though as I have said previously because of the genuine incompatibility of the Broads with the national park concept, it was very difficult at that time to see a national park being created.
Nevertheless the idea of this coordinated approach, written in 1969, led to the beginnings of what became the Broads Authority.
Relationship between the marshes and agriculture
This work really began after I finished my research and didn’t come back to until1974, the time around joining the European Common Market and things started to change.
First of all there was the beginning of farming subsidies associated with drainage as long as they could show productivity increase. That was one significant shift and a number of farmers in the Broads area switched from high level, high water table grazing marsh to a much lower water table, pumped, arable farming of one kind or another.
The pumps were subsidised and that’s where the real gains came to the farmers. The big electric pumps came in in the 1970s and had a huge pumping capacity that dramatically changed the amount of drainage going on, from the old coal and diesel systems which were very inefficient when it came to the large Broads area.
We also began to realise that the wildlife and particularly the plant life of the Broads’ dykes was quite remarkable in terms of international value. It was very varied with a number endemic species, some with international importance, especially the stonewort species.
It was very clear that the farmer’s management when they were high level grazing marsh farmers had kept the plant life in the dykes very very varied, because of the need to keep the dyke systems open. So it was the marsh management of the ‘60s and ‘70s which really consolidated what was already a very rich ecological treasure trove.
Sewage treatment works, phosphate pollution, loss of plant life
At the same time, water companies were building larger sewage treatment works, as places such as North Walsham and Stalham were growing. The main pollutant from these works was a phosphate, and the treatment done by the works was a secondary treatment not a tertiary treatment. Tertiary treatment would require the removal of phosphate, which in those days was seen as too expensive
We didn’tfully know the link between phosphate addition and loss of plant life, the so called eutrophication transition. But at the UEA my late colleague Brian Moss did a huge amount of work to show that there was a direct link between sewage treatment works and the phosphate build up and the loss of this plant life. A huge transformation took place remarkably quickly between 1972 and 1978, virtually removing all the plant life of the main Broads, it was that quick.
Brian proved this by putting exclusion zones, essentially big rubber cylindrical exclusion mats, on the Broads, and inside these areas the phosphate was kept out and natural regeneration too place. You could actually see in the Broads patches of wonderful plant life being recreated.
Meanwhile the rest of it was an ecological desert, full of algae, which is a microphyte. The result of this was that the Broads completely lost ecological interest in a very short space of time. There was a lot of work done to them, including putting in tertiary treatment plants in, the test case was Barton Broad. That led to a big tertiary scheme in Stalham and the phosphate levels coming out of those works were very low. The hope was that the Barton Broad area would return to something like a wildlife paradise.
In fact it didn’t and we discovered that the reason for this was that the phosphates had got into the sediment from the decaying algae and were being recycled by the process of boat and tidal movement and just general stirring up of the mud.
The decision was taken to drain the excess sediment out, in what was essentially a big hoovering action, Broads dredging. The method of dredging was sucking material out and putting it in big holding areas besides the Broads, an extremely expensive process.
They then had exclusion zones around the dredged areas to see whether that would give rise to the return of the plant life that we were after. The answer was yes, partially but not completely.
We’re talking about a period of between 1972 and 1987, during which time three things became clear.
One is that the Broads could from time to time restore themselves given the right degree of phosphate control, dredging and exclusion.
Secondly, to do this would require constant maintenance, which would be very expensive and the returns quite frankly were really not worth it from the point of view of the ecology of the nation.
Thirdly, once you have got a rich, varied ecology system which has broken down getting it back to anything like its natural state is virtually impossible, and requires a huge amount of effort over a long period of time. It isn’t practical to do this so we came to the conclusion that there were only three things that we could do.
One was to take some smaller Broads and treat them as much as we could, dredging and exclusion zones wise. One of the test cases was Cockshoot Broad, just off the river Yare, and that is now halfway to becoming a decent Broad. A lot of work went into trying to get it back to normal but it hasn’t restored itself, which proved that ecological restoration is a mug’s game, takes too long with uncertain outcomes.
So that was one tactic that we tried and failed. That being said there are still schemes, even as we talk today, for restoration of essentially private or non navigable Broads to see whether we can bring them back to life, Hoveton Great Broad being a good example of one which is having a lot of work done on it.
Tactic two was to safeguard the plant life of these drainage ditches, particularly in the margins where the pure water from the fields came through ground water sources, springs, rather than running off the surface. At the margins of these areas there was a large amount of natural regeneration of extremely varied and famous plant life like Potamageton and water soldier. It was therefore seen that we ought to have sites of special scientific interest imposed on those dykes that had the greatest chance of staying in their rich natural state. This required maintenance.
This led to part three of the debate and was known as the Halvergate marsh debate. Should we be paying farmers to restore nature and maintain an already highly resilient system? Doing this rather than paying farmers to destroy them by drainage and by conversion to agriculture essentially removing anything remotely resembling interesting plant life?
A big battle took place between 1981 and 1985. In 1981 the Wildlife and Countryside Act was passed and said that if a farmer wanted to drain land and was impeded from doing so because of wildlife interest then the Nature Conservancy Council, as it was called at the time, was required to pay the farmer the equivalent of what was lost in revenue.
In effect you were paying farmers not to plant wheat when wheat was not necessary and couldn’t be a guaranteed crop as these are not naturally fertile areas. This was the deal and the farmer would have got huge amounts of money for doing nothing. By definition it was only the wealthy farmers with the resources, technology, tractors and drainage systems that could do this. In a way the most aggressive operating farmers were being singled out, using the system to their advantage whereas the least , most deserving landscape farmers were getting nothing.
So in 1983 a group of us, and I was part of this, went to the government over a big battle in Halvergate, and argued that what we should be doing is not paying farmers not to produce with huge subsidies coming from the conservation purse rather than the agricultural purse which we felt was an outrage. But what we should have from the agricultural purse was an investment in better management of the dykes and elsewhere for the enhancement of nature. It wasn’t simply the dykes, it was the landscape and the traditions of these open marshes.
That led, in 1985, to a trial scheme called the Broads Marsh Conservation Scheme, which was a joint investment between the Countryside Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food [MAFF], brokered by what at the time was called Nature Conservancy Council, later to become English Nature. It was a very successful programme largely because it was run by field officers who knew and understood farmers and could bring them into the system. They were given a flat payment per hectare for maintaining the dykes, and as long as they maintained the dykes they got the payment every year.
Most of the farmers were tenants with the land itself often being owned by distant landowners. The tenants are regulars who came back every year and the landowners were by and large favourable as they were not interested in making lots of money they just liked the marshes. The deal was very good at the time, a guaranteed income for doing what you were doing anyway, a sort of surplus income referred to by the farmers as ‘back pocket payment’.
From this came an important piece of legislation, and the introduction of Environmentally Sensitive Areas [ESA] which were areas protected by MAFF, the Nature Conservancy Council as it was called then and the landowning authority.
So the Broads grazing marshes became part of the Broads ESA, designated in 1986 and has run all the way through to 2006, it was a very successful scheme.
We continued with a huge amount of research investment, some of it funded by European Union money, some by UK investments, and some by the Broads Authority itself. There was a lot of investment in conservation enhancement in the 1980s and ‘90s.
The chief exec of the Broads Authority at the time Aitken Clark, was a great friend of mine and his great value for me was that he had a sense of vision that the Broads should be part of some international wetland complex, not just an environmental place in its own right. It would be better protected if it was seen as internationally recognised in significance.
He also chaired the European Federation of National Parks and Protected Areas and with his European friends brought the Broads Authority into that. This led to lots of interesting research with the Romanians, the Dutch, all kinds of people working on wetland complexes, enhancing these areas, looking at biomass creation, ecological enhancement and public enjoyment of recreation and wildlife.
I think that he singlehandedly created in the Broads an unstoppable commitment to enhancing the natural world and in an area that was primarily boating he managed to find a way to keep the boating and conservation interests closely allied.
This worked well until 1999 and then the test case came about because of the Sandford clause in the National Parks Act. This clause was set up by Lord Sandford and was concerned with how much should conservation trump any other aspect of use particularly public enjoyment and economic activity. If conservation was unavoidably having to be protected particularly in ecologically important areas over the public enjoyment and economic activity, then that put you in direct conflict with the national parks. So there was a lot of control over public use of these upland areas because of that legislation.
I should at this point also mention a wonderful man called Martin George. Martin was to begin with the regional officer of the Nature Conservancy Council but he became increasingly ‘Mr Broads’. He was the single most knowledgeable and influential person in the Broads area for something like twenty-five years.
His knowledge and understanding of the natural wildlife and intrinsic interest of plants, animals, and birds in the Broads were unparalleled, he was a genuine natural historian of the greatest quality. He was involved with the safeguarding of the Broads from an ecological scientific point of view because he saw in it something that would lead to public enjoyment and understanding and above all a new economic renaissance around boating, riverside and Broadside activities.
Martin was unique, one of my great friends and his great value was that he put the Broads on the map as a unique habitat. I think that if we hadn’t have had Martin as a champion of this cultural, historical, ecological and economic integration I don’t think that we would have the same degree of commitment across the wide range of interests that makes this area a very special area.
Conflict between conservation and boating interests
A battle between conservation and boating interests came to a head in the Hickling Broad area in 1999.
In 1999 the Hickling Broad area for reasons not completely clear produced vast quantities of the stonewort species Chara intermedia, an internationally recognised endemic species. Brian Moss has said that every now and again the natural world seems to have a synergy of productive relationships and an example of this was the episodic chara outbreaks, a sign of benign ecological conditions, which don’t last for too long, but could of course last longer if protected in some way.
This outbreak led English Nature to stop the boating on Hickling Broad area as the chara was taking over the area. This in turn led to a huge outcry from the boating interests; you’re talking about people there who sail in big races and have big clubs.
Aitken Clark set up the Upper Thurne Working Group to try and see how this could be best managed with selective cutting, all carefully understood and monitored by conservation bodies and UEA. About six percent of the chara was removed which was about a tenth of what the boating interest had wanted but from the point of view of the conservation interest it was already twice what they should have given way on.
Upper Thurne Working Group
The group managed, slowly, to build up a coalition between, boating, the parishes, the Broads Authority, conservation bodies and Norfolk Wildlife Trust who owned Hickling Broad. I was asked to be the chair and I did that from 1999 to until 2015. Over time it has become a very constructive body for bringing together the interests around the whole of the upper Thurne catchment area which has really been bedevilled by three things.
One being the propensity for every now and again for the chara to re-emerge, which it has done three or four times since 1999. We have always found a way around this now that we have excellent consultation and monitoring processes undertaken by the Broads Authority, Natural England and Environment Agency, so the new bodies have been helpful in this respect.
Secondly, we’ve done a lot of dredging and re-management, so thanks to the Upper Thurne Working Group’s coordinated efforts the area is much better for boating and conservation use.
Thirdly, I think the big payoff is that we got the parishes involved. They are behind the economic activity, they have the restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and all the things that make a small village tick.
Not to have them involved in the decision making process would have been a great mistake, so the real quality of the group was its links to the parishes. We had our meetings in the parishes, after initially holding them in Broads Authority establishments we very quickly got the message that we should be out there meeting with the parish people. The group now has website and all the things that you’d expect from a working group.
I think that this has all led to a greater recognition that with good consultation and well monitored scientific activity we can manage plant life even when it is highly sensitive, internationally important and highly connected to boating.
The subject of drainage which is still going on is much less manageable, and the increase of nitrogen emissions from too intensive farming. With grazing marshes you get very little run off, but where you have drained marshes, and there are many in the upper Thurne area, you have two side-effects – one is nutrient rich from the fertilisers and the other is that these soils have ochre. Ochre is a ferric hydroxide , an iron product which is a bright orange sediment which colours the ditches, does not have a positive effect on wildlife particularly damsel flies and dragon flies, and is a nuisance as it clogs up the drainage system.
When you drain deeply you get a ferric sulphate emission, an ochre emission which is a real problem, and one which we haven’t completely resolved today. The world has changed a lot in the last ten years and it is fair to say that the water management boards are much more environmentally sensitive and supportive now. They have changed their attitudes and are much more consultative, really careful with management of water drainage and have much better protection of some of these areas likely to be suffering from too deep drainage, nitrogen emission and above all ochre emissions.
We are not there yet but at least we now have better arrangement and more experimentation and huge improvement in consultation and research.
Climate change, erosion of the Norfolk coast and future plans
The final bit of the story in terms of the current base of the Broads Authority is the threat and that is the only way you can put it, is the threat of climate change, sea levels and the alteration of the Norfolk coastline as these conditions alter. Here you have a situation which is familiar to many people, that the Norfolk coast is eroding right in the far north eastern tip around Happisburgh. If you go west from there towards Scolt Head Island in Kings Lynn, Brancaster and Blakeney it’s accreting because the sediment is moving west. Going south towards Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft and it is also accreting but much more variably so.
On the west side the long shore drift is pretty reliable but the east side is much more susceptible to storms. Storms can take the sand and sediment out and if you put anything which stops natural beach erosion you then create a condition where the sediment is lost because the beach erosion, which is the natural movement of sediment, is stifled or suffocated by a sea wall or some off shore reef as in the case of Sea Palling.
When you get areas of the removal of sediment on mostly farm land there is no loss of property. In some parts of Norfolk however just north of Great Yarmouth and Hemsby there has been a lot of loss property, with houses falling on to the beach.
This has led to a big reconsideration of what we do with the Norfolk coast and with that the Norfolk Broads.
What to do with the Norfolk coast and the Norfolk Broads?
If we look at the coastal issue first, the big challenge is to have some areas which are protected simply because they are too important to lose, the most important of which is Bacton. This is where the big gasworks are and if Bacton was to fail you would lose a huge national asset. So like it or not Bacton will be safeguarded and Shell will actually pay for much of this. The proposal is to put sediment rich new sand in front of Bacton area, and to do so on a five yearly basis for ever, the process known as sea scaping is a new idea but a very old fashioned concept and shows that where there is a high value property such as the gas works you do this to protect it.
It is the same thing round Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. There will be a lot of investment in coastal protection where you have high value significant coastal property, particularly where you have high numbers of residential residences.
The areas which are not so popular in terms of accommodation and settlement have a much less certain future. In general terms the thought is that if the area is Broads related which means around Winterton and Horsey they will continue to put sand in those areas for the time being.
The Environment Agency has said that it plans to keep the sand sediment combination up for at least another twenty-five years, and probably fifty, the public don’t realise that the cost of this is two million pounds a year, which raises the question of what is the cost benefit of all this? And can you do it forever? This is relevant especially if the tides start to rise when you get some strong storms.
The sea level rise is not the number one problem, that would be what is known as a storm surge, when you get a huge volume of water building up in the southern North Sea. That volume of water can be up to three or four metres high and in extreme cases absolutely hammers anything in its way, all the existing walls, defences and banks are knocked about.
It doesn’t matter how much you invest in coastal protection, a big storm will take them out and then the big question is do you rebuild or do you not?
The last big storm was December 2013 and it thrashed the north and east coast, it took Great Yarmouth to within a few centimetres of being flooded and if the wall there had been overtopped that would have been four and a half thousand homes under water.
This gives you an idea of how vulnerable the system is and the chances of that storm happening again in the next ten years are very high, we could very likely have a couple of them.
This raises the question of how long can we maintain a Broads which is artificially protected? And also how much should we use a more adaptable approach which carries with it huge risks for the ecology and the coastal scene.
The line right now is to stay as we are because (a) there is no public appetite for a sudden change (b) the country does not have the resources for that right now and (c) it is too early for a really combined public commitment to that. You might get the specialist interest, researchers and coastal managers saying over the course of time we’re going to let things go. But when it comes to restaurateurs, holiday accommodation, and these very ephemeral communities like Walcott and Sea Palling the idea of losing them even though they are very small in terms of economy, micro level, it is still politically very difficult.
So we are in a kind of limbo land where for at least another ten or fifteen years we will restore unless there is a massive storm, of the scale of half as much again as the 1953 flood, which is twenty or thirty percent more than what we had in the 2013 storm. This is a possibility, then I think we would have a major reconsideration of the Norfolk coast.
It is one of the quirks of humanity that we actually have to wait for that event to happen, it can’t be done on prediction. We know that something is going to come, we know that there’s a threat but we don’t do anything until it happens and then we say ‘I told you so’.
There is also the slow recognition that the sea is beginning to rise into the water table of the east coast of Norfolk, which brings the problem of salt intrusion. This along with plant life protection and better drainage is the other concern for the Hickling area, where increasingly the coastal drains are becoming much more salty, and over time it is going to be almost impossible to stop.
We really only have two options then – one is to start to build a Romanesque edge to some of the Broads, where you have much more salt marsh being managed in a really rather clever way. You would have very sophisticated pumping, and that has the potential to have quite big carbon sequestration value, so that’s one option, which I think will be the most likely over the next ten to fifteen years. The new water management body would oversee four or five trial schemes on the east Norfolk coast.
The other possibility which is a long term idea would be some kind of water tidal protecting barrier at the mouth of the river Yare, not necessarily at the sea edge as that would take out the whole of the harbour of Great Yarmouth. it could be in the river corridor, but for this option to be considered there are three big questions which have not been resolved.
One, exactly where should it be, what should it be protecting against and what do you do about the downstream area when you have barrier which is up against a very high tide, with strong winds?
Secondly, if the barrier goes down what do you do about the eco systems which depend on flushing? We know that we have this problem of nitrogen build up. If the eco systems are polluted and also flooding areas of important riverside development, such as Horning or Brundall then frankly that is not very feasible for people. I don’t think that we have got our heads around what would happen if these important areas became significantly flooded as a result of a Yare barrier.
The third issue is that by doing this you might end up not having anything called the Norfolk Broads. Over the course of time, we’re talking about 2075 and beyond that in effect the Broads become a wetland again, and we lose an awful lot of the activity and redesign and reshape it.
It would mean that the big cities and communities would stay but a lot of the smaller communities would progressively have to be abandoned, we’re talking up to about 2100 but nevertheless you have to think in the longer term.
So there is an issue that the Broads could turn full circle in the lifetime of young people being born today. A return to a version of the Roman scheme with some areas protected would see a lot of new ecology and considerably more wetland than we have now.
That is likely to be the long term prospect, but we’re not designing for that right now, instead what we’re designing is an expensive, utterly futile half way house idea. We are creating more wetland, investing more in wetland management, to keep the macrophytes going, pumping like crazy to keep the sea down, but all of this is increasingly expensive and increasingly futile. But it is almost a case of ‘this is what we have to do because that’s what the public expects’, but somewhere down the line we will have to give way. As I have said before it would take just one huge catastrophically massive event, which may well occur between now and 2050 and possibly by 2025, to make us reconsider what to do about the Broads.
What would we do with these river villages and coastal protection, but as I have said this can only come after such an event, although it is being thought about and the current consultation around climate change is addressing this. The urgency of response and willingness to get a grip of serious options is still not happening, again it’s the mindset of ‘let’s wait, let’s prevaricate’.
Personally I think that it would be much more helpful if we had more genuinely constructed debate amongst people. We should start to design our coastal and riverside systems with that in mind so we are not feeling that we are sitting doing nothing, we should be much more ready for an event to happen.
I think that Upper Hickling is an example of how to approach this, by thoughtful, considered long term consultation, discussion and programming pilot schemes, rather than waiting for something to happen and then reacting.
So my conclusion is that the Glover review due to be published at the end of the year, to coincide with the possibility of new national parks legislation may well encourage a much more innovative, integrated and progressive approach to the whole concept of land and water management and the enhancement of nature.
That approach together with when the nature of human well being and the betterment of the economy coincide and align with the enhancement and the resilience of new forms of nature investment. It sounds like an impossible combination but it is going to have to be the name of the game, in a post Brexit and particularly high climate change world. We are already at a threshold where climate change has become a significant issue in terms of how we manage our affairs.
It’s not going to be long before we have to address this in Britain in a much more creative way than we have done up until now and do so way ahead of the inevitability of having to confront this with some form of no option outcome. An outcome which could cause an awful lot of cost, possibly of life and certainly of property and economic activity. That’s no way to function, post 2025.
Changes to the agricultural financial system, and the future for agriculture
We have waiting in the wings the possibility that we will leave the European Union. Regardless of that outcome either way there will be big changes in the agricultural financial system.
First of all the farming community will get less of a guaranteed payment, that will start in 2020 and will be complete by probably 2025, 2027 at the latest. It means that at least a third of farm income will no longer exist compared with now, which is currently based upon area and productivity, meaning that farmers will either have to produce more or earn less.
A lot of studies have been done on the farming communities of Norfolk to see what would happen, and it was found that around a third would significantly be affected as a result of this. Irrespective of whether we got to Brexit or not that’s an outcome that you can pretty well be sure of.
This raises another question – what happens to these farms? This gives us two possibilities, one is some form of nature endowment farming where we use water resources. We are a very dry area and over the course of time we will suffer greatly from drought and heat. The winter that we are in now 2018-2019 is one of the driest on record and we have not had any appreciable rain since the end of the summer. We get also get very hot dry summers, and if we get more summers like we had last year then there is a chance that we will run out of water for agricultural use on a regular basis. Along with water resource planning and reservoirs in farming areas the public will be encouraged to use less water in their homes and utilise waste water in their homes more. All this is likely to become commonplace by 2030, and houses will be built with this kind of thing in mind, they should already being built like this.
There will also be a need for much more water management and conservation, with a significant difference in the way we utilise it today.
Another interesting, exciting idea is an economy that might be based on some variant of nature’s endowment and nature’s services. For example we might recreate some peat areas, create more wetland and reed beds all of which are big carbon sequestering areas.
There is also the possibility of having a much more localised agricultural economy, with farms being let out to communities for community organic systems. I can foresee a time when places like Stalham or North Walsham have quite considerable community allotments, with land rented from the farmers. From an economic point of view the farmer gains a lot and from an agricultural and food point of view the community gains a lot.
I can’t imagine a world where we won’t have much more localised food production by 2050, or even 2025. This is partly because we won’t be moving food in the same way as before and partly there is going to be a push to get away from livestock production. Livestock production requires large amounts of forested areas to be removed to have that scale of production and livestock create methane, a greenhouse gas.
So the shift will go to organic grass-fed production of livestock which will become a specialist and high end product and more people will be utilising vegetable based food which will be locally produced. So I can foresee within twenty years agriculture within Norfolk and indeed elsewhere will be much more localised and much more vegetarian.
So I think that the combination of the Brexit scene, the climate change scene and the need to recreate some kind of natural system which has been butchered by us, will require us to enhance those opportunities. If we don’t do that we’re going to be in deep trouble.
I do think that a very relevant part of oral history is to view history from the future, a reflection of how we would we perceive ourselves in say thirty years, in 2050. What will people be saying when they look back to 2019 or 2025? Won’t they be saying ‘why did you wait so long?’
I think that you’ll get that kind of attitude by 2050, and that will be spelt out by our own children, and their children. They’re going to be saying to us ‘why did you take so long to get your head around this world? Because it’s gone to pieces, you knew all this and you did nothing about it.’
Tim O’Riordan(b. 1942) talking to WISEArchive on 15th April 2019 in Norwich.
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