Farmers slam Environment Agency over flood protection
ENVIRONMENT Agency (EA) chief executive Paul Leinster has pledged to work more closely with farmers and landowners to address the horrendous problems on farms caused by flooding.
Mr Leinster, and EA colleague David Rooke, came under sustained attack from NFU council members who lined up to criticise the agency’s ‘shambolic’ efforts to protect rural areas from flooding.
The agency was accused of failing to maintain waterways across the country and of prioritising environmental management over work like dredging.
It was also accused of hampering farmers who want to take the initiative themselves with unnecessary red tape.
“For goodness sake work with us, not against us. Get your act together, let’s see some action,” said Worcestershire farmer Steven Watkins whose farm was under water for much of 2012.
Oxfordshire farmer William Ennett said Thames Valley farmers were ‘sick and tired of the agency’s failure to manage the waterways’.
He said flood management in the River Thames was an ‘absolute disgrace’ and that farmers often found themselves unable to carry out their own maintenance because they were restricted by EA rules and regulations.
Wiltshire farmer Minette Batters said, for many farmers in her county, flooding was a bigger problem than bovine TB, particularly where ancient meadows were being destroyed by flooding.
Others described the agency as ‘not fit for purpose’ in one of the most heated sessions of NFU Council since the height of the Single Payment crisis.
Mr Leinster said he understood the ‘passion, frustration and anger’ being expressed by farmers and that there were clear issues that needed to be addressed.
He said he wanted to set up meetings with Defra and organisations like the NFU and the Country Land and Business Association to discuss a way forward.
But, he and Mr Rooke repeatedly stressed the agency could only work within policy framework set by Defra.
While the agency’s capital budget has been given an additional £120m, mainly for defence projects, the maintenance budget will be cut by £49m over the next few years, seemingly hampering its work in maintaining the waterways.
NFU Deputy President Meurig Raymond said it was critical that the Environment Agency and Defra put far more funding into maintenance budgets and that Defra policy re-balanced the weighting for flood defence spending to give greater consideration to high value farmland.
“We’ve heard today how farmers are still battling the impacts of wet land, whether that’s not being able to harvest crops or vegetables or autumn plantings being drowned, there are huge concerns out there,” said Mr Raymond.
“Farmers are saying quite clearly that they are prepared to look after rivers and undertake additional drainage on their farm but they are prevented by additional regulations aimed at protecting habitats. Surely we can do both?
“I have heard a welcome offer to work in partnership with the Environment Agency today. This we accept unequivocally, but it must be more than words - we need an honest dialogue and long-term commitment to think and act differently.”
He called for new ways of doing things, including guidelines that make it easier for farmers to undertake their own maintenance; new partnership approaches between the agency and farmers in some areas and new Independent Drainage Broads.
“We also need to ensure that productive agricultural land is properly valued in terms of long-term value to society so that the benefits of protection are fairly reflected in any flood management assessment,” he said.
A Defra and Environment Agency study has estimated that some 13 per cent of the best and most versatile agricultural land is in the floodplain – but this includes 58 per cent of grade 1 land in England.
A Defra spokesperson said: “More than 98 per cent of the arable land in England either has some protection by flood defences or is at no risk of river or sea flooding.
“In many areas, Environment Agency teams routinely dredge and clear channels to improve their ability to carry increased river flows. We are targeting our investment in flood defence maintenance where it will have the best outcomes.”
A sample of the comments as farmers vented their anger at the Environment Agency over its flooding policy:
“I don’t want the London flood barrier. I want my farm so it doesn’t flood continually. The river has come over five times this summer and our best riverside land is now the worst.”
Guy Poskitt, East Yorkshire
“For goodness sake, get your act together, let’s see some real action.”
Stephen Watkins, Worcestershire
“You know how big a problem TB is to us. Well I would say to you flooding is a bigger problem.”
Minette Batters, Wiltshire
“I have been inundated with messages complaining about your total lack of maintenance through the Thames region. The main River Thames has become a national disgrace. Nothing is happening, no dredging whatsoever.
“The farmers ought to be doing this work but they are hamstrung and tied by regulation from the Environment Agency. We would like to work with you, not against you but you don’t appear to be working with us. We are sick and tired by the lack of input from you in the Thames region.”
William Emmett, Berkshire