Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Chairman of the Environment Agency Chris Smith will be giving oral evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Afairs Select Committee today on the winter flooding. Assistant Director of External Affairs, Richard Hebditch, reflects on missed opportunities and learning the lessons.
Few of us can have failed to notice and feel sympathy for those affected by the extensive flooding over the winter. Not surprisingly, this was seen as a test for Ministers – were they capable of responding quickly to help those affected but also to set out the long term measures needed to deal with what will be a growing problem as climate change adds to extreme weather events.
But perhaps inevitably, the response in the winter turned into a blame game between local MPs, the NFU, Government Ministers and the Environment Agency.
But since then there’s been some progress on identifying common ground – Defra will set out in the Autumn a long-term plan for dealing with the increased risk of floods and we’ve seen the publication of a 20 year flood action plan for the Levels that recognises that a wider catchment based approach is needed, alongside some desilting of channels. Even those calling most loudly for more dredging are now calling for a more holistic approach with work to slow up water upstream , as in our own project at Holnicote.
But today, we could be seeing a return to the blame game. The House of Commons select committee overseeing the work of Defra have chosen to only focus on maintenance and dredging in their inquiry on the winter floods. We think that’s a mistake. Although the Committee had an inquiry last year on flooding and say that that dealt with those issues, it’s clear that only focusing on this narrow agenda after the floods will give a biased view of the actions we need.
For instance, the role of holding and slowing water in upper catchment areas won’t be covered, and the role of whether subsidies for farming add to the problem of silting up rivers or increasing run off from fields is off limits.
Today, the Committee will be hearing from the Environment Agency’s Chris Smith and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. With the publication this week of the IPCC’s report on the impacts of climate change, this should be a chance to explore how we can all deal with the increased threat of flooding. Instead, the Committee is in danger of missing the point, serving the interests of those who want to avoid the bigger challenge of changing farming practices or working across a wider catchment and instead want to focus on just one aspect of water management.