Memorandum submitted by Rt Hon David Heathcoat-Amory
MP (FL MP 18)
I write in response to your forthcoming report
on flooding and land drainage. I represent the North Somerset
Levels which adjoin about five miles of coastline on the Bristol
Channel. We are vulnerable to flooding both from the sea and from
rainfall which can overwhelm the drainage system on the Levels.
Large parts of the Somerset Levels are actually below the mean
Some farmers in areas designated as SPAs receive
enhanced payments to keep the water table up for a defined period
of the year. This control regime only works if the drainage ditches
(or "rhynes") are properly maintained and if surplus
water can be pumped into the larger drainage rivers at times of
high rainfall. These rhynes are the responsibility of the local
drainage boards and the system works reasonably well.
The Environment Agency is responsible for the
rivers into which the rhynes discharge. It is here that the problem
arises. In recent years the EA has regarded this drainage network
as primarily an environmental resource. The rivers are not being
properly maintained and weed growth is not adequately cleared.
Overhanging trees are allowed to grow along the banks and, if
they fall over in flood conditions, they can block the rivers,
which are often narrow.
I have had several meetings with the local EA
recently and it is clear that they regard their flood prevention
duty as being to protect larger urban areas. However many of my
constituents live in the rural areas at risk and are already finding
it difficult to obtain flood insurance. Certainly if Somerset
had experienced anything like the heavy rainfall seen further
north in July, the result would have been extremely serious.
The risk could be substantially reduced if the
EA rebalanced its duties and took more seriously its obligation
to maintain the drainage network which is the result of centuries
of work and is now threatened. Perhaps the fundamental problem
is that the EA has an unresolved conflict of interest between
its environmental and land drainage functions. I can provide you
with further information from those with expert knowledge in Somerset
or can I invite your committee to visit the Somerset moors and
levels to see for yourselves.
I understand that the EA is to take on additional
coastal defence functions which would make the Agency even larger
and more unwieldy. May I suggest that your committee takes a careful
look at whether it is appropriate to put all these different responsibilities
under one agency, particularly as some of them conflict.
Rt Hon David Heathcoat-Amory MP