UK: Farmers’ flood protection call

Flood defence River Blyth Walberswick 2012

Flood defence River Blyth Walberswick 2012 - Credit: Mike Page

Farmers’ leaders have called for a more effective partnership between farmers, government and the Environment Agency to help protect high value agriculture land - and the food it produces - from flooding.

Farmers reacted strongly when Environment Agency director of flood and coastal defences David Rooke addressed National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Council at its headquarters on Tuesday. Farmers claim they are being prevented from undertaking voluntary maintenance of water courses and farmland is being left to flood.

Spending on flood defence has reached an all-time low, farmers claim, and more funds are needed.

Despite an additional £120m capital spend for flood defences announced in the autumn, after the record-breaking wet summer, farmers believe that long-standing real spending budget cuts has seen river maintenance reach an all-time low – and with catastrophic impacts.

NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond said it was critical that the Environment Agency and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (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,” he said.

“And while the capital budget has been given an additional £120m, in the main for defence projects, we have heard today that the Environment Agency is expected to have £49m less over the next few years to spend on essential things such as maintenance. This is nonsense and has to be reversed.

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“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.

“New thinking could be: guidelines that make it easier, not more difficult, for farmers to undertake their own maintenance; new partnership approaches between the agency and farmers in some areas and new Independent Drainage Broads would help. 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.

“Today we are at the beginning of a dialogue with the agency that should lead to a better environment and more productive farmland. For its part the NFU will continue to lobby ministers in the strongest terms on the urgent need to reverse the decline in spending for essential river maintenance.”