LAST winter, it was Somerset. Now Yorkshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and large parts of Scotland have been devastated by floods. So why are towns and villages which have stood for hundreds of years suddenly under threat, in rainy islands where bad weather is nothing new?
The politicians swanking around the disaster zones in hard hats and hi-viz jackets are pointing the finger at climate change – a convenient bogeyman in this situation, but in truth this is an unnatural disaster which was made to order in Brussels.
There are a number of different factors to consider, of course, but none have had a bigger impact than EU regulations such as the Habitats Directive, Water Framework Directive and Floods Directive, which have hugely increased the difficulty and expense of dredging our rivers.
For generations, people who depend on the land for a living worked hard to stop sand and gravel from raising up the riverbed, using the silt they removed to strengthen the embankments. Later, this unglamourous but vital work was taken over by hundreds of local drainage boards, often elected.
Everything has changed in the era of EU regulation. Protecting communities is now secondary to idealistic environmental goals, such as creating new wetlands – often by allowing flooding. Some areas of farmland in Somerset which had been drained since the 13th century have already been “restored” as marshes this way.
Dredging projects, on the other hand, are discouraged and tied up in endless red tape. Silt, once spread on farmers’ fields as loaming, must now generally be treated as hazardous waste, hugely increasing the costs involved.
And it gets worse. While EU environmental policies supposedly designed for the benefit of wildlife allow the rivers running through our communities to silt up, so that they cannot carry away excess water during heavy rains quickly enough, entirely contradictory EU agricultural policies have stripped the land further upstream of the natural features which could help to drain the rainfall organically.
Farmers who create sensible, environmentally-friendly shelter belts of trees and ponds, which absorb water 67 times faster than the soil under grass, are penalised under the Common Agricultural Policy for allowing “unwanted vegetation” on their land. To avoid having their payments cut, farmers end up scouring their land of anything which might serve as wildlife habitat – leaving no buffer between the bare hills and the undredged rivers downstream.
The end result of this managed neglect is the burst banks, drowned livestock and ruined homes we see today.
Fundamentally, the problem with having our agricultural and environmental policies managed by the EU is that there is no proper scrutiny of the people who wield power over us.
Who is ultimately responsible for the decisions to drastically scale back dredging, and encourage farmers to strip the landscape of vegetation? An elected minister could not possibly have survived a series of blunders this inept, but how do we hold an anonymous (and unsackable) committee of Eurocrats to account? The decision-making chain is just too vague and too far removed from ordinary voters.
It isn’t good enough for politicians to say we need a seat in Brussels so we can try and mend these failing policies. We’ve been trying to fix the CAP for 40 years, with Tony Blair even go so far as to surrender a huge chunk of our rebate on payments to the EU in exchange for “fundamental reform”. This has cost the country well over £10bn since 2005 – but the promised reforms have evaporated, in a show of bad faith that would have shocking if it were not so predictable
It’s time we took control of our own environmental and agricultural policies. Let’s have peace, commerce and honest friendship with our neighbours, by all means — but when it comes to how we maintain our rivers and manage our farms we should be able to look to our own elected representatives, and hold them to account for their decisions at the ballot box.
The Environment Agency, which claimed it could not afford the few millions needed for the dredging which might have prevented the billions in damage the floods have now caused, will have plenty of money to spare after we stop handing up to £55m a day to Brussels!
Arron Banks is co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign.