Farmers in Yorkshire say their livelihoods are under threat because little is being done to help safeguard thousands of acres from flooding.
The Environment Agency is withdrawing watercourse maintenance on the River Swale and Ure, which run near dozens of farms, as part of plans to reduce or stop work in areas where the “impact of flooding affects fewer people”.
The cash-strapped government agency has announced plans for a “six-month transition period” to work with farmers, landowners and drainage boards to transfer the responsibility for the work to them.
But the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) has accused the Environment Agency of making “woeful progress” to ensure that alternative arrangements are in place for the agency to withdraw its management.
If last year’s washout autumn is repeated this year, farmers will be facing further devastation to their businesses, the TFA warned.
In a recent letter sent to DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson, Mr Dunn says: “In the North East we understand that the agency has imminent plans to serve notice to cease maintenance (of the rivers Swale and Ure) with nothing in place to ensure that essential maintenance continues.
“As a result, our members are concerned about issues of flooding particularly where they farm near rivers and close to major built-up areas.”
He adds: “River banks require ongoing maintenance and there are some which have been left in a poor condition for some time. This is particularly the case in relation to areas which have seen flooding in recent years. Another winter will compound the problem.”
Mr Dunn called on the Environment Agency to ensure internal drainage boards were “fully functioning” and able to pick up the work before any withdrawal notices are served.
He also urged the agency to liaise with landowners and farmers to give them “clarity of advice and information about rights and responsibilities”.
Tenant farmer David Cupit manages 291ha (717 acres) of arable land owned by the Crown Estate in Helperby, York, which borders the River Swale.
Last year, he suffered devastating crop losses amounting to tens of thousand of pounds when the river burst its banks and flooded 100ha of the farm.
Mr Cupit said: “Until the Environment Agency has worked with the drainage boards to put in an alternative system, they should postpone their plans for a withdrawal for at least 12 months and carry on the maintenance work.
“At the moment, they are being very selfish and just thinking about themselves and how they can save money. They are walking away from their responsibilities and leaving nothing in place.”
Yorkshire grower Guy Poskitt, managing director of MH Poskitt, said up to 120ha (300 acres) of his farmland near Goole was flooded last year.
He said: “We are sat under cloud at the moment. It hasn’t rained much and everything is fine. But if we get some heavy rain we will get a flood situation.”
He added: “If the Environment Agency wants to withdraw maintenance from the river banks, they should return it to the state they found it in.
“If they don’t want to maintain it, are they going to allow us to maintain it? Who’s going to pay for it?”
In January, outraged farmers speaking at a fiery NFU Council meeting criticised the Environment Agency for a “complete lack of maintenance” of watercourses, which had led to waterlogged and flooded farmland.
Following the meeting, the Environment Agency pledged to work closer with farmers to reduce red tape and bureaucracy to allow them to maintain watercourses on their land.
The Environment Agency was expected to comment on the story later today (Friday, 27 September).