Defra to be more joined-up on flooding, Truss claims

7th January 2016

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David Baxter

Reforms to the environment department (Defra) will ensure it is more linked-up on flood prevention, environment minister Liz Truss pledged yesterday.

Speaking at an event held by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), Truss acknowledged that in the past Defra had operated in silos. “One bit of the network would be looking at flood protection, another at farming, another the environment, without linking up all the challenges. And we have been criticised for taking too much decision-making out of local hands,” she said.

Defra, which had its budget cut by a further 15% in the latest Treasury spending review, is to merge its back office functions with its agencies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency from July, she said.

Truss also announced that, from April, farmers would be allowed to maintain ditches up to 1.5km long so that they can dredge and clear debris and manage the land to stop it becoming waterlogged. Farmers will be allowed to carry out the work without the current need for permission from the Environment Agency, as long as they register the work with the agency. Defra is shortly to announce plans to give internal drainage boards and other local bodies more power to maintain watercourses, she added.

The changes are part of wider government proposals to integrate flood defence consents into the environmental permitting regime. The government yesterday published its response to the consultation, which revealed that 85% of respondents agreed with the proposal. If approved by both houses of parliament and the Welsh assembly, the changes will come into effect in April.

The NFU welcomed the changes, which it said it has been lobbying the government for over many years. The union’s president, Meurig Raymond, said: “As the secretary of state announces this, we are stressing that quick reactions and flexible decision-making must be part of these permissions.

“We must see more attention given to other policies such as an increase in funding for flood maintenance activities, sustainable drainage and see a higher value placed on farmland,” he said.

Following flooding in Cumbria in December, the government is carrying out a “resilience review” of the nation’s flood defences. Further flooding in the north of England and Scotland over Christmas has led to widespread criticism of the government’s approach to flooding, including from Lord Krebs, chair of the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change, and Dieter Helm, chair of the Natural Capital Committee.

The Association of Drainage Authorities has added its voice to those calling for a different approach. The association’s chief executive Innes Thomson said: “Now is the time for us to look at a catchment-wide approach to managing water from the highest points in our hills and mountains to our estuaries and lowland areas.”

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis has asked the government to guarantee there will be no more job cuts at the Environment Agency. The union reports that its members working at the regulator have complained about the huge strain the agency is under as a result of the cuts, with staff from across the organisation, including the back office personnel being called out to operate pumps, build flood defences and staff emergency hotlines, among other roles.

He said: “The agency has been cut to the bone in recent years and it is wrong. We all know that we will see more flooding in the future and yet there is still the threat of ideologically driven job cuts.”


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