Farmers ‘must help avoid repeat of floods’

Farmers will be expected to take special measures to help prevent a repeat of this year’s devastating floods in Somerset, the government has announced.

A 20-year flood action plan to protect the Somerset Levels and moors was presented to parliament on Thursday (6 March).

Drawn up by a partnership of local and national organisations, the document was announced in a ministerial statement by DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson .

The Environment Agency would start repairing damaged riverbanks and dredging about five miles of the River Parrett as soon as it was “safe and practical” to do so, said Mr Paterson.

The plan also considers how to address flood risk in the longer term.

“Local partners will set up a new body to take more responsibility for water management on the Levels, and will establish new ways of funding this,” Mr Paterson said. “We will help them to do so.”

Enhanced approaches to catchment-sensitive farming would allow more water to be retained in the upper catchment, suggested Mr Paterson.

Catchment-sensitive farming usually involves farmers adopting techniques that reduce diffuse water pollution from agriculture to protect watercourses and the environment.

Examples include managing the use of soils, fertilisers, manures and pesticides.

With government help, Somerset will develop and pilot a special programme that extends this approach to include flood risk management as well as water quality.

The goal is to provide an integrated, comprehensive advice and support package for land management in upper, mid and lower water catchment areas.

As well as a locally administered capital grant fund, it will include advice and support on the voluntary adaptation and restructuring of farm businesses where appropriate.

Meanwhile, DEFRA will this year consider how best to secure flood-risk benefits when it makes forthcoming decisions on approaches to CAP funding.

The plan was immediately backed up by a £10m investment from the Department for Transport and a further £500k from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The money is on top of £10m previously announced by Prime Minister David Cameron. A further £1.5m has already been raised towards dredging and other flood prevention measures.

The plan also sets out other options for managing flood risk during a longer time frame, including the construction of a sluice or barrage for the River Parrett.

Somerset County Council leader John Osman said the local authority had worked together to find solutions in the short, medium and long term.

“We listened to local people in drawing up the plan and we will spend a lot of time now talking and listening to them again to ensure the plan is fit for purpose and supported by local people.”

Among the first to see the plan was the Flooding on the Levels Action Group (FLAG).

Local beef farmer and FLAG chairman Heather Venn said the group was “cautiously optimistic”.

“We need to keep a careful eye on this, and it is absolutely crucial that the funding is there, but it is a very positive first step and we welcome much that is in it,” she said.

The RSPB, which manages 708ha of land in the flood-affected area, had an advisory role in the plan’s development.

RSPB spokesman Mark Robins said it was good to read that resilience to flooding must be increased by maximising the benefits from catchment-sensitive farming.

“The plan published today is a step in this direction,” said Mr Robins. “However, we need to make sure good words translate into real change, as a matter of urgency.”

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