Despite the exceptionally dry start to last year, record rainfall from April brought the drought to a rapid conclusion, and 2012 was officially one of the wettest on record.
As many will be aware, the unprecedented rainfall brought flooding to many parts of the country, with tens of thousands of hectares of farmland being affected, some for extended periods of time. The Somerset Levels and Moors, areas around the Hampshire Avon, parts of the Thames Valley, areas in West Lancashire and, more recently, the North East of the country were all badly affected.
Flood management remains a continuing priority issue for the NFU: - some 13 % of our most best and versatile land is in a floodplain, but some 58 % of grade 1 land, our most productive land, is within the floodplain. If we are to produce more food in the UK then making the most of our productive land must be an important part of our strategy.
Recognising the extent and severity of the impacts of the floods, a ‘summit’ meeting was held with members in late 2012 and chaired by Meurig Raymond the NFUs Deputy President. This meeting highlighted critical issues for the farming sector and clear policy lines for the NFU to pursue which included:-
- The need for Defra to invest more funding into maintenance budgets;
- Farmers must be better enabled to undertake watercourse maintenance via the appropriate regimes;
- Defra policy must re-balance the weighting for flood defence spending to give greater consideration to high value farmland; and
- Productive agricultural land must be properly valued to reflect its long-term value to society.
This was followed in January 2013 by the Environment Agency’s attendance at the NFU’s Council meeting. Paul Leinster and David Rooke, Environment Agency’s Chief Executive and Director of Flood Risk Management, were invited to attend to talk about the Agency’s roles and responsibilities on flood issues. This resulted in the Environment Agency offering to work in partnership with the NFU on flood management issues – and we accepted this offer, recognising that we needed a long-term commitment and honest and constructive dialogue.
The Agency’s attendance at NFU Council was closely followed by the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson’s, statements at the NFU’s conference in February 2013 (but also in an EFRA Committee oral evidence session at the end of March), that enabling farmers to maintain their own watercourses is one of his key priorities.
In terms of progress since then, the NFU and the Environment Agency have shared our ideas and respective priorities and have drawn up a joint strategy to address flood management issues; the NFU has submitted written evidence to the EFRA Committee on its inquiry into flooding; and, in addition, the first meeting of an NFU flood issues group, established to monitor the NFU’s contribution to discussions and debates, took place at the end of March 2013.
Although in progress, in policy terms, may still be in its early stages the Environment Agency’s willingness to work with farmers on flood management is encouraging. If we are to produce more food in future, then managing the risks of floods must be an important consideration and integral to any food producing strategy.
Diane Mitchell is the NFU's chief environment adviser