Taxpayers across Somerset and Dorset could be asked to help pay to reduce flooding on the Somerset Levels.
Speaking during a visit to a farm in Somerset today, environment secretary Owen Paterson said money for work to prevent further inundation should be raised locally.
The area of the rivers that drain into the Levels extends deep into West Dorset and a corner of North Dorset. New building in the upper catchments is likely to have reduced the ability of the ground to absorb water, adding to problems downstream.
A catchment-wide levy is one way of paying for the proposed Somerset Rivers Board, which it is hoped will bring greater local control to the maintenance and improvement of water management. That would mean landowners, businesses and residents across the county border being asked to contribute.
Mr Paterson said: “The general consensus is that it should be spread across all those within the catchment.”
He said the councils and drainage authorities involved in delivering a 20-year flood action plan should “come up with a preferred option to raise money locally”.
A spokesman for Somerset County Council, which is the leading authority for the plan, said: “A catchment-wide approach is a possibility, although it is still early days and we will need to evaluate all of the options available to us.”
The catchment runs north almost to Weston-super-Mare, east to the Somerset-Wiltshire border beyond Bruton, south along the A37 towards Dorchester, and west into the Quantock Hills.
Mr Paterson was visiting Michael Curtis’s farm at Thorney Moor, Muchelney, to announce the second phase of grants under the £10 million Farm Recovery Fund to help farmers affected by flooding get their land back into production as quickly as possible.
Two months ago, water was covering 90 per cent of the farm’s 700 acres, Mr Curtis and his family had moved in with his in-laws and he was considering evacuating his cattle. The water fell six inches and saved the day, but his animals cannot yet return to the damaged ground.
Until now awards have been limited to £5,000 but from April 28 farmers will be able to apply for up to £35,000. Those who have already applied under Phase 1 can also apply under Phase 2, to a collective total of £35,000.
There has been criticism of the amount of bureaucracy involved in the applications, and the time it has taken some to receive their payments.
Mr Paterson said: “We have had criticism, but a balance has to be struck. We have to obey European Union rules or we get fined and we have to make sure it is value for taxpayers. We have got the format right down from 50 pages and we are going to come up with a standard rate for grazing land.”
Mr Curtis, who will apply for the higher grant, said: “He’s very keen on keeping the application simple and we are glad of that.
"The problem with livestock farming is it is at least a three-year cycle so you don’t always realise what all your problems for the long term will be, but this is a good gesture.”
Mr Paterson stressed that the 20-year action plan for the Levels must be a partnership, but he did not dismiss more Government action.
And he promised the Levels would “emphatically not” be forgotten.
“I intend to come back regularly," he said. "I am very much keeping a very personal eye on this.”
Somerton and Frome MP David Heath, in whose constituency Muchelney lies, accompanied Mr Paterson. He said: “We continue to make good progress, and it’s good to have the Secretary of State down again to see for himself.”