Ditch clearing© David Burton/FLPA / imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

Rules preventing farmers from dredging and maintaining ditches unless they complete lots of paperwork have finally been relaxed.

Farmers across England can now undertake low-level work on their own land without needing to seek Environment Agency (EA) consent.

See also: Farmers to get green light to maintain watercourses

Defra said the relaxation would remove unnecessary paper permits and allow the EA to focus their efforts on wider strategic flood-risk management.

The exemption only applies to man-made ditches, land drains, agricultural drains and previously straightened watercourses. It does not apply to natural rivers.

Until now, landowners have had to apply for permission from the agency before carrying out certain maintenance activities on their land.

Landowners even had to ask for permission simple measures such as placing a ladder in a waterway or building a small footbridge.

The new flood risk activity permits allow farmers to dredge and maintain ditches up to 1.5km long without needing to fill out extensive forms.

Red tape

Defra secretary Liz Truss said the government wanted to ensure farmers had the right conditions to thrive, which would include providing them with the means to protect their land from flooding.

“That is why we are cutting red tape for our hard-working farmers, reducing flood risk and allowing them to do low-level maintenance work without unnecessary paperwork.”

As well reducing red tape for 50% of activities currently requiring a permit, Defra said the move would help to reduce the risk of flooding in low lying areas.

It would allow the EA to focus on evaluating higher risk activities and ensure river catchments are the building blocks of environmental management.

Local knowledge

The relaxation would also empower local people with the best knowledge of local risks and their needs for clearing certain waterways, said Defra.

Strong safeguards would be put in place to limit the impact of some activities – for example protecting Sites of Special Scientific Interest and spawning fish.

The move follows the successful pilots that we started two years ago, showing farmers and landowners can carry out this work in an environmentally sensitive way.

Defra said the EA would continue to provide farmers and landowners with appropriate guidance and support where necessary.