More farmers could take over flood-risk watercourse maintenance from the Environment Agency, the government has suggested.
It follows new guidance issued by Defra minister Therese Coffey, which could see more main rivers reclassified – or “de-mained” – as ordinary watercourses.
At present, the Environment Agency usually undertakes maintenance, improvement and construction work on larger main rivers to manage flood risk.
Smaller rivers and watercourses are usually looked after by local flood authorities, district councils and internal drainage boards – whose members include farmers.
Ms Coffey said the guidance sets out how de-maining should take place – where there were agreed benefits – taking into account the wishes of local communities.
De-maining has been successfully trialled since last year in four pilot areas – in Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire.
“Consultations on transferring these watercourses will happen in January,” Ms Coffey told the Association of Drainage Authorities’ annual conference in London on Thursday (16 November).
“The intention is that the remaining watercourses will start in summer 2018,” she said.
Farmers have long argued that they should be able to have more say in the way rivers are maintained – blaming the Environment Agency in some cases for failing to prevent floods.
Some 86% of Grade One farmland is within areas covered by internal drainage boards.
Describing the boards as “unsung heroes” in terms of mitigating flood risk, Ms Coffey said they should play a central role in whole catchment management.
A number of other internal drainage boards around the country are keen to take on responsibility for watercourse maintenance from the Environment Agency, she added.
“We will look at these areas closely following the pilots,” said Ms Coffey.
She acknowledged concern from delegates that the Environment Agency shouldn’t hand over responsibility for rivers that had been neglected or were in a poor state.
It was important that any transfer of responsibility or de-maining is done in a fair manner and the agency doesn’t pass on a poorly maintained river that isn’t fit for purpose, she said.
“It is not the case that internal drainage boards should take on watercourses and just become a sub contractor – that is not the relationship I am looking for,” she added.
Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan said the agency wants to work constructively with internal drainage boards.
Water management and ensuring an adequate supply for everyone was one of the biggest challenges being faced by the UK, he said.
“We are keen to identify other opportunities where we might de-main,” said Sir James.
“The cardinal principle is mutual consent.”