Government must learn important lessons from the severe flooding that is continuing to damage many rural communities - not just in Somerset but across the country - the NFU has said.
Farmers are prepared to play their part in finding solutions to avoiding and managing flooding, NFU Deputy President Meurig Raymond said, but the backlog of investment needed to maintain our key rivers is the clear responsibility of public bodies such as Internal Drainage Boards and the Environment Agency, which are best placed to deliver the levels of maintenance that are so desperately needed.
“Above all, the country needs to be in a position where flooding can be managed for both urban and rural communities, to minimise the disruption and devastation that is taking place in several regions, affecting our homes, rural communities, businesses and wildlife.
“We do not expect flooding to be prevented during exceptional events, but we do expect the EA to cater for events which are happening with such frequency. We have had flooding after a dry autumn, so this just goes to show how fragile our rivers are.
“For too long there has been a widening imbalance between the defences offered to urban communities verses rural communities, which needs to be addressed. Why is more value placed on urban communities at the expense of rural communities?
“It is not an overly simplistic argument of one versus the other, as the EA’s Lord Smith of Finsbury suggests. We must all do our part to prevent or be better prepared for these kinds of events in the future, but that can only happen if we work together,” added Mr Raymond.
“There is grave danger in grasping for simplistic solutions. But it’s clear that dredging rivers to return them to the previous capacity levels, while not quite a panacea, has to be a very important part of solving this problem.
“It would also have significantly reduced the extent, duration and frequency with which they’ve occurred in recent years, and significantly aided recovery efforts. We are encouraged that the government is now moving with urgency to prepare plans for dredging in the Somerset Levels, although this is long overdue.
“However we are surprised that dredging may not start until September. This is, quite simply, too long for those living and working in the Levels to wait and will not give enough time to tackle those problems that have already happened or those to come. But other parts of the country outside Somerset, like the Fens which are below sea level, also need urgent action, across southern England rural communities are experiencing massive disruption because of a backlog of river maintenance.
“As part of Defra learning the lessons, ministers must be more transparent and even-handed over how they allocate flood defence budgets and explain whether red tape is preventing quicker and more effective ways of working.
“Any spending on flood management is welcome, but the current balance between funding for new capital projects and maintaining our rivers and existing defences seems out of step. We need more ongoing maintenance to prevent our rivers getting into the state of those in Somerset and transparency about how money is being allocated and spent. To secure the confidence of the British public the Government needs to provide clear figures on exactly how much is being spent annually on maintenance and how this has changed over the past five years.
“Finally, farmers recognise that they can have a strong role to play in reducing flooding. We hope that this will be supported in the future by government through better regulation being trialled in the River Maintenance Pilots and schemes like Catchment Sensitive Farming.”