The Environment Agency has been getting a lot of stick recently, especially over the flooding in the Somerset Levels.
Now nobody can stand in the way of nature when conditions are way above anything that can be anticipated and nobody ever will, but this authority has undoubtedly failed in its duty of maintenance time and again regards rivers and watercourses.
A little bit of history spells out that not all is right with the Agency in more than one area.
For a start, the Agency was born out of the amalgamation of all the river authorities and is itself part of DEFRA, not without its own controversy. The agency came about in ’96 and failed to perform in many ways soon after.
In 2007 DEFRA was bailed out with taxpayers’ money, 300 million, after being fined by the EU for violations in several areas. Between 2008-12, the agency incurred further fines from the EU, amounting to over 500 million, in order to balance the books.
The main reason for the fines was the farm subsidy payments debacle. DEFRA instituted cost cutting and the sale of assets including the British Waterways Board to a trust – the Canals and River Trust which in itself has turned into another saga in the making and is another story.
The current problems in the Somerset Levels are portrayed in this piece in the Mail, what comes from it is the Environment Agency seems to act in retro rather than a prevention role in to many cases:
It does seem a case of the jam being spread far too thinly and as in other articles, the money they spend on things like bird sanctuaries etc. is being done at a time of belt tightening, ahead of work that protects people and property.
Back in ’93 when we moved to Suffolk, the house we purchased came with extra land in the form of a couple of acres of water meadow running down to the River Stour, with a protection bank along two sides to protect the low lying cottages that were prone to flooding in exceptional years, the last time had been in ’78.
Across this meadow there were two drainage ditches with non return valves where it went through the bank, stopping high water levels flooding the village.
When we first moved in, the River Authority came every year and cleaned the ditches, cut all surrounding excess growth and checked the valves.
After ’96 we had no idea who was responsible as the responsibility had been shared out between the local authority the Environment Agency and the county council and it was impossible (if they actually ever knew themselves) to find out who did what.
In effect nobody did anything other than once coming along to “look” at it.
In 2000, after two very wet years and a couple of days when an inch of rain fell, there was widespread local flooding, we escaped by the skin of our teeth but it was a close run thing. There was a lot of local finger pointing that went on afterwards, with stories of negligence in the sluice management (proven later to be true) but dismissed at the time and accusations of total neglect of the river since the Agency took control, totally true.
The following year, they started a dredging campaign that involved almost the whole river, which rather undercut their initial response of “we’ve done all we can” from the previous year, but as a further show of the total ineptitude of the whole management.
We then had a visit from the chief engineer from the local council who, having ‘inspected’ the water meadow and surrounds, tried to imply the maintenance of the ditches was my responsibility. That was a bit silly as we had the deeds showing the River Authority who built them was responsible and it was then up to whoever took over to maintain them.
He didn’t like that and obviously hadn’t a clue which of the three authorities was responsible so I suggested as it certainly wasn’t me. Perhaps he should do his homework and find out who was responsible.
Just once before we left, the ditches were again cleared.
A current example of the difference between the Environment Agency and those it took over from is with the the drainage boards. The Broads Authority in Norfolk was not integrated and despite the rainfall this and previous years have no real problems?
Sluice gates being opened at a privately owned mill in Long Melford in 2008.
More Environmental Agency experiences of a similar nature:
It would appear that Lord Smith has stirred a hornet’s nest if the comments are anything to go by, almost total hatred for the man.