OFC 2016: Farmers to get green light to maintain watercourses

Farmers across England will finally be allowed to maintain their own ditches under government plans to improve flood defences.

Defra secretary Liz Truss will make the announcement in a keynote speech to delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference on Wednesday (6 January).

More than 1m acres of prime farmland will be better protected by 2021 through the government’s investment in flood defences, she will say.

See also: Pilot scheme allows landowners to dredge watercourses

“Subject to parliamentary approval, we will also allow farmers across the country to maintain their own ditches up to 1.5km long from April, so they can clear debris and manage the land.”

“This follows the successful pilots we started two years ago.”

Farmers are currently unable to remove debris such as silt from ditches without permission.

The ban is backed by some conservationists, who say it encourages wildlife. But farmers have complained that it prevents them from taking simple actions to reduce flooding.

Defra will also soon announce proposals to give more powers to internal drainage boards and other groups to maintain their local watercourses, Ms Truss will say.

Despite recent cuts, Defra will invest 12% more capital this parliament to improve flood defences, upgrade its animal and plant disease response and modernise the department, she will claim.

The government will also give local communities more control over their environment, including permission for farmers “who know their land best” to maintain ditches on their property.

Reshaping Defra will help Britain be a global leader in farming, Ms Truss will say.

“We are making efficiency savings of 15% at the same time as putting more money into capital funding – a 12%t increase to £2.7bn over the next five years.

“That means we can invest in technology and digital systems, growing our exports, world-leading science, protection against animal and plant disease and of course flood defences.

“In the past the department and its agencies have been accused of operating in silos – looking just at flood protection, just farming or just the environment. This is going to change.

“And we have been criticised for taking too much decision-making out of local hands.

“While it is right that we manage major national risks, it does not mean we should seek to micro-manage everything.”