Today’s news has headlined on the floods across the country, not just the Somerset Levels, but other areas where a combination of the exceptional levels of rainfall, and in some cases poor maintenance of waterways, flood defences or effective flood management plans.

Stuart Agnew MEP, UKIP’s Agricultural spokesman, has written a report on the flooding and dredging on the Somerset levels identifies divided responsibilities and conflicting priorities which have contributed greatly to the present situation. The report opens by stating the facts on what has changed since 1996:

When the Environment Agency (EA) took over the National Rivers Authority in 1996, it virtually stopped the process of dredging. The authority’s river boards, dedicated river engineers and 240 Local Flood Defence Committees were put under the control of the Environment Agency (EA).This gave the EA absolute power without responsibility or accountability. The EA and Natural England put most of our rivers under the EU Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in its Habitat Directive, which means they are protected. The EA has used this as another reason for not dredging. However, the EU directive on habitat decrees in Article 6 Paragraph 4 that human health or public safety has precedence over SSSI Habitat. The EA then apparently ceded part control/involvement to the European Centre for River Restoration (ECRR), which developed 207 restoration projects for English rivers.

It would seem that the various EU directives create a situation of conflicting interests:

  • On one hand, human health and public safety must take precedence over environmental concerns, and there must be preparations to prevent and deal with flooding.
  • On the other hand, plans must be holistic and take into account sustainable and environmentally friendly measures.

These directives are not prescriptive, but clearly the EA has used them to reduce or stop dredging of larger rivers, and clearance of smaller rivers and brooks. It has also chosen to reduce expenditure on dredging, and in so doing seems to have long term intentions of creating “washlands” in that area, despite EU Directive statements such as:

“Reducing human casualties and damage to economic activity and the environment are key objectives shared by all EU countries and implementation of the 2007 Floods Directive has an important role in making this happen.“

AND

“Flood risk management plans should focus on prevention, protection and preparedness. With a view to giving rivers more space, they should consider where possible the maintenance and/or restoration of floodplains, as well as measures to prevent and reduce damage to human health, the environment,   heritage and economic activity.”

AND

“Throughout the Community different types of floods occur, such as river floods, flash floods, urban floods and floods from the sea in coastal areas. The damage caused by flood events may also vary across the countries and regions of the Community. Hence, objectives regarding the management of flood risks should be determined by the Member States themselves and should be based on local and regional circumstances.”

We cannot directly blame the EU for these floods, but they have set up a situation where there is conflict between environmental and human objectives, the EA clearly having put priority on the environmental ones, particularly with respect to the Somerset Levels.

Another factor is the dilution of responsibility – Stuart’s report lists 165 different ECRR projects across the country, and 16 different Global, European and National organisations that have involvement with England’s rivers, such as the European Network of Freshwater Research Organisations, Global Water Partnership, and the Wild Trout Trust .

On top of all this, there is an organisation called the DGE, North Sea bordering countries as members, which has the following objectives, summarised below:

  • Best practices on sediment and dredged material management.
  • Sediment and dredging issues in relation to river basin management plans and marine spatial planning
  • Dealing with new legislative developments concerning dredging and related issues.
  • Technical input to influence the implementation of new legislation.
  • Strategies on maintenance and relocation of dredged material.

The body also focuses on compliance with and implementation of EU legislation:

  • Water Framework Directive (WFD)
  • Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD)
  • EU Waste Framework Directive
  • Birds and Habitat directives and Natura 2000
  • Soil Protection Strategies
  • Flood Directive
  • Environmental Liability Directive
  • And specific national legislation

So, even this body, specifically focused on dredging, has conflicting objectives – dredging to prevent flooding versus environmental protection.

Then let us look at the post of Chief Executive of the Environment Agency – from 2000 to 2008 it was Baroness Young of Old Scone, who was formerly Chief Executive of the RSPB, and coincident with her EA appointment she was also Vice President of the RSPB, Bird Life International and President of the British Trust for Ornithology – a conflict of interest if ever there was one. Her replacement was Dr Paul Leinster, who has no such conflicts of interest, fortunately.

Clearly, where it has come to the Somerset levels, not only has priority been given to environmental protection over human health and safety, but there seems to have been a covert move to change the very nature of the Somerset Levels from a human and agricultural habitat into an environmental “washland” habitat.

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