Let farmers lead way in cutting risk of more flooding, MPs urge

Sophie Harvey gets to grips with cleaning Isaac the Hereford Bull
Sophie Harvey gets to grips with cleaning Isaac the Hereford Bull
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FARMER-led management boards should be allowed to take over the maintenance of water courses to ensure everything is being done to minimise the risks of flooding in rural areas, according to a new report by MPs.

Several Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) across the region are keen to take on the role to ensure agricultural land is afforded better protection, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has revealed.

IBDs exist to supervise water level management of land within their district boundaries and they pay a precept to the Environment Agency for watercourse maintenance, but too little is being done because watercourses in rural parts are not prioritised, according to the NFU.

The union’s stance has now been backed by the Parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural 
Affairs (EFRA) Committee, chaired by Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh.

The committee’s Managing Flood Risk report found the current method for allocating funds for flood defences is biased towards protecting property, largely in urban areas, and that this therefore poses a risk to the security of UK food production.

The Environment Agency must amend its scoring system so that agricultural land receives a higher proportion of funding, and where IDBs wish to maintain local watercourses, they should be able to retain the funding they currently provide to the Environment Agency for this work, the report says.

The NFU’s regional director, Barney Kay, said a number of IDBs have found that the Environment Agency was either unwilling or unable to do the necessary work and the situation was untenable.

He said: “The suggestion that drainage boards should be able to take back this responsibility, and retain the money needed to do it, is eminently sensible, and if taken up by the Government should help ensure that practical maintenance is carried out and so alleviate the flooding risk.”

Some 14 per cent of the agricultural land in England and Wales is at risk of flooding from rivers or from the sea, with 58 per cent of the most productive English farmland within the floodplain, the MPs’ report says.

Mr Kay added: “Our members are increasingly concerned about the condition of our rivers and their ability to convey flood flows and obviously this has been brought into sharp focus by the flood events of the past 18 months. We hope that the EFRA report will inspire the Government to invest further in the essential maintenance of watercourses and recognise the true value of farming when prioritising flood defence spending.”

The Old Fleet Foss is a main watercourse that runs for six miles south from the village of Copmanthorpe, near York, draining water out to the River Ouse via the River Wharfe, and is an example of an area where the local IDB wants to take back responsibility for maintenance after the Environment Agency assumed control in 1970 when widespread development was taking place in the village. Since then, maintenance work has suffered and the state of the watercourse is now a concern for farmers and residents.

Charles Mills, who farms at Appleton Roebuck and is a board member with the Ainsty Internal Drainage Board, said: “This is something we can tackle, but we need the powers and money to do so. The news that the EFRA Committee is backing our position is certainly a positive step forward – we now need the Government to take their recommendations on board.”

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it was always evaluating the way it works and it intended to look closely at the recommendations in the EFRA report. It added the Environment Agency recognised the valuable role IDBs could play and was working with them on asset and maintenance transfer in some areas where this was the most cost effective option.