Owen Paterson, the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Cabinet, has been missing for months. Where has he been? Not in the limelight. But he popped up yesterday in the West Country to promise the world to the Farmers of the Somerset Levels.
Perhaps he was sent down ‘ere so as to avoid losing the Tories too many votes in the Newark by-election. Still, he must have been to Newark, as all Tory MPs must go at least three times and Cabinet Ministers 5 times!
I can see OPatz being put into his Pimpernel disguise by his Defra team, before heading into Newark in the middle of the night. Once. But five times must be pure humiliation.
One third of voters who bothered to turn out in The South West voted UKIP. Could well known euro sceptic and climate change denier Paterson be thinking about jumping ship to the Kippers to join the likes of Roger Helmer? Helmer, UKIP candidate in Newark, would ban teaching about climate change in schools.
Paterson met farmers and the Environment Agency yesterday after farmers complained the dredging of the Somerset rivers wasn’t happening fast enough for their liking. Quoted in Farmers Weekly, he said:
“The Environment Agency assure me that they are on target, but I’m meeting them, along with councils and the internal drainage board, to make sure we are on track,” and ” It’s not for me to micro-manage, but I’m very keen to see real partnership working between the EA and the internal drainage board. It’s incredibly important that local landowners have the power to do their own work to keep rivers clear.”
Paterson went on to explain that farmers could apply for grants of up to £35000 to drain their own land – they don’t even need to get three quotes, just do the work and make a claim.
I find this utterly extraordinary in these days when the Rural Payments Agency will fine a farmer if they have claimed single payment on an area of inelegible land as small as 10m by 10m (for which the payment is £2.30 a year), that a farmer can claim up to £35000 of tax payers money, for work done entirely for their own benefit, which could well cause significant environmental damage, which I have explored previously here, here and here. What sort of monitoring will be done, who will check to see whether the work was actually carried out, to what sort of standard – Much of the Somerset Levels is Site of Special Scientific Interest and European Site – who will be checking to see whether national or internanationally important wildlife has been affected. What about the incredibe archaeological heritage of the Levels? Who is going to be keeping an eye on this? And how will we know the money wasn’t just trousered?
And then there”s the Country Landowners Association. They complained to Paterson that the EA were being far too slow, having only dreged 10% of the 8km of river earmarked for dredging. That might have had something to do with the weather which has hardly been ideal for dredging, or the worst flooding in centuries that we have recently experienced.
Then we’re back to the same old story. CLA director John Mortimer let the cat out of the bag. “There must be 100km of river channels that need dredging. The EA must accept responsibility for the situation we’re in.”
“We need to undo 40 years of neglect and then put in place a system where landowners have a way of funding and actively maintaining the river channels. If the government wants responsibility to be transferred, they need to give us a clean system and let us get on with it – you can’t transfer a system that is still fundamentally corrupted after years of neglect.”
So there we have it, although I think some of us suspected this all along. The CLA (and no doubt the NFU) and I expect their friends in the Tory and UKIP parties, will be calling for state-funding for annual dredging of a 100km of river channels in the Levels. They expect us, the taxpayers, to pay for a very expensive, highly environmentally damaging land management exercise, purely for their own private benefit ie to marginally increase the production of their land.
The cost? £1 million per mile. £5M this year. If 100km of river channels were dredged, that would be £60 million. A year, in perpetuity. That’s a lot of nurses, a lot of teachers, a lot of fire fighters. That’s twice the annual budget of Natural England.
And that figure doesn’t include the cost, the real cost, to the environment. The tangible cost of lost carbon, reduced water quality, increased downstream flood risk. The intangible cost of lost wildlife, lost archaeology, and loss of the wild feel of parts of the Levels because they have not been managed for industrial farming for the last 30 years (and the farmers were paid very handsomely to not farm intensively, through the ESA).
Not only that, but presumably the public purse will be expected to pay for the removal and treatment of the initial 5 million tonnes of silt removed from these rivers, then the subsequent silt that is put in the non-tidal rivers of the Levels by upstream industrial farming.