Opinion: Floods could yet make Paterson’s career a washout

As pumps work around the clock on the Somerset Levels in a desperate effort to save the political career of DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson, a nation holds its breath.

A month ago, at the Oxford Farming Conference – itself disrupted by flooding – half of Somerset was once more a lake (as it has been for most of the past 20 months). But Mr Paterson was still to be found insisting that responsibility for land drainage must fall on local farmers and landowners. Apparently there were not enough people living on the Somerset Levels to meet EA criteria to fund the dredging of rivers, so it was up to farmers to “work with the EA to drain and clean local waterways themselves”.

Four weeks later, that stance looks like political suicide. Mr Paterson’s boss, PM David Cameron, has taken fright at the news coverage of helpless rural communities in Somerset battling endless floodwaters. Cobra, the Whitehall emergency committee has been called, the army put on standby and, seemingly regardless of cost, it has been announced that the dredging of the Parrett and Tone Rivers “will begin as soon as it is safe to do so”.

Significantly, not everyone is convinced that the flooding of the Somerset Levels is a disaster. Even with locals declaring “it’s not the army we need, it’s the navy”, the RSPB and the Somerset Wildlife Trust still saw fit to issue a joint statement making it clear that they remain opposed to the dredging of the rivers Tone and Parrett.

Most farmers who live near water will be familiar with the issues that have been raised this past month. As farming has become of secondary importance to biodiversity and wildlife conservation to many voters, so successive governments have progressively cut funding to the EA for drainage and maintenance of coastal sea defences.

Where the wheat grower cherishes fertile alluvial soil, the environmentalist craves ‘re-wilding’

In my own area, controversy has swirled around plans drawn up by the EA 10 years ago to “restore” the estuary of the River Cuckmere. In partnership with the National Trust, Natural England, the Sussex Wildlife Trust (I think you can guess where the bias of this policy is headed) and East Sussex County Council it was proposed that repair of the river levees should cease, and natural processes should be allowed to reassert themselves including periods of flooding. If farmers objected to the proposal, government guidelines were cited that prohibited the maintenance of drainage defences where housing is not a consideration.

Like the Somerset Levels, the Cuckmere estuary has been subjected to considerable drainage improvement in modern history. Shingle was constantly removed from the mouth of the river, and in 1846 the course of the river was straightened by a “cut” as it approached the sea to increase the speed of water flow and reduce flooding upstream. If ever implemented, the abandonment of these drainage improvements would restore the saltwater estuary and marshes, enrich ecological habitat and improve tourism (which it is suggested contributes more to the local economy than does agriculture).

But where a farmer’s heart gladdens at sheep contentedly grazing, a conservationist imagines flocks of snipe, white egret or migratory waterfowl. Where a stockman appreciates abundant summer pasture for his cows, the botanist yearns for salt mudflats. Where the wheat grower cherishes fertile alluvial soil, the environmentalist craves “rewilding”.

The drama being played out in Somerset has important national implications. It has already changed perceptions of where government priorities should lie. In future, cost-benefit analysis of land drainage will surely stretch well beyond housing considerations to include the preservation of rural communities often dependent on the fragile economics of livestock farming.

Whether Mr Paterson’s cabinet career will survive recent events is not yet clear (his predecessor never recovered from her mis-step of proposing a forestry sell-off). But the DEFRA secretary’s extreme embarrassment at the flooding is invaluable to any farmer battling EA cuts and a creeping conservation agenda.

Stephen Carr runs an 800ha (1,950-acre) sheep, arable and beef farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in partnership with his wife, Fizz. A third of the acreage is in conversion to organic status.

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