Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Written Evidence

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 sea level.

  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


October 2007

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