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OPINION: Forget the blame game, we need a proper system to deal with future floods

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 13, 2014

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Tackling the flooding crisis requires all-party co-ordination says John Mortimer of the CLA.

When the flood waters currently inundating the Somerset levels finally subside and when the political blame game has ended, we will need to engage in a national debate, a proper appraisal of where rights, responsibilities and costs should rest.

The CLA represents many of the landowners affected by the storms and floods – not just in Somerset, but right across our region - and we want to help move this debate forward, to look at how systems can be improved so that we are better placed to deal with any recurrence in the future.

But our immediate concern is how we are going to help and support the farms and small businesses that have suffered such enormous damage – and how we can help them remain in business until they can return to some level of normality.

It is not unrealistic to assume that we are going to have around 25,000 acres of Somerset farm land out of production for the short to medium term.

The final picture will take some time to clarify but one thing is certain, which is that life is going to be pretty uncomfortable for most sectors of farming in that area.

The scale of the economic crisis for farming is going to be of giant proportions.

We applaud the voluntary efforts being made to mitigate the livestock feed shortages – but there is another part to this story which is about the impact on our rural economy and the small businesses located in the area which also are ill equipped to deal with this scale of disaster.

We are talking not only about the farms, but about the farm shops, pubs, bed and breakfast accommodation, the tourism operators and the small businesses located in villages and converted farm buildings – these are the pillars which now support the land-based industries and, for the moment, we can only begin to guess at the level of impact this is going to have on those businesses.

At the same time, we need to consider the economic value we put on agricultural land and the contribution it makes both to our national economy and to the wider issue of food security. Keeping farmers in business and keeping the land properly managed until it can be returned to viable farming will be a challenge and will require funding.

That is why we need urgently to persuade the Government to support the proposal being made by our SW MEPs, Julie Girling and Graham Watson, to apply for emergency funding from the European Union.

Now is not the time for criticism, but there will be a time for cool, clear-headed appraisal and analysis of what should be done for the future.

One aspect of that is how we achieve a balance between environmental aspirations and flood defence requirements and much more coordinated thought needs to be given to how land owners can work with Government and its agencies, with Internal Drainage Boards and Local Authorities to reduce the risk and mitigate the impact of such serious flooding.

A key step will be to restore the capacity of the main river system to - or near to - the 1960 capacity.

Then, when the whole system is clear again, we need to look at what it would cost to maintain it at design capacity.

Clearly, in recent times, funding has been inadequate and our point is that we believe there is a case for everybody - including landowners, residents, farmers, the EA and the Treasury - paying more than they are now for the upkeep and maintenance of the system.

Although dredging and clearing main rivers will have a vitally important impact, it is clear that safeguarding the future of the area will not depend on dredging alone, but will require a suite of measures addressing the management of flow rates in the upper, middle and lower catchment. The CLA is determined to play and active and positive part in formulating those plans on behalf of our landowning members.

Since this crisis developed, the CLA has published its own three point plan of action; the Consortium of Drainage Boards has produced a ten point plan and the Secretary of State has called for a coordinated plan to be produced with six weeks.

Now is surely the time for us all to work together, to pool intellectual resources and practical experience to come up with a series of proposals which allocates costs, resources, rights and responsibilities fairly between the different parties, organisations and government, and which restores the ability of all those who provide the funding to ensure that the main rivers and channels are kept clear.

John Mortimer is the Director of CLA South West

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