Paterson promises the world to Levels Farmers – they want the Sun too.

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.


About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in CLA, farming, flooding, NFU, Owen Paterson, Somerset Levels and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Paterson promises the world to Levels Farmers – they want the Sun too.

  1. Mike says:

    I think that sums it up nicely Miles. A tragic scenario which Labour may not have the gumption to redress next year. The EA are in a demoralizing position. They spent years working to restore the wetlands; they know dredging won’t achieve much, and are only doing cosmetic dredge currently. With the climate problem it’s vital the levels maximises the carbon sink potential. Anything else is greedy and irresponsible.

  2. mark robins says:

    Miles, you are being much too black and white about the Levels. Water management is key and the carriers and associated infrastructure of pumps etc all need maintainance. Two key questions though stand out and OPatz etc all fail the leadership test on these:
    1 what flood risk standards can all the people who live in, work in, or care about the Levels expect in the C21st¿ and
    2 wheres a sense of a fair transition to these? How would these be organised and how would the public good be built into this?
    As usual in the Levels it feels like we are walking into a future while looking backwards.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Mark.

      I am being black and white about it – and provocative – I may well have got things wrong.

      That is why it says at the top of the blog “musings, ramblings and probably a few rants.”

      I am not trying to take on board all sides of the argument and come up with a 20 year vision that everyone can sign up to. It’s not my job.

  3. A totally perverse situation with no joined up thinking by Government (yet again), which needs to hit the headlines again. For me this is scandal and corruption, and needs to be taken up by the popular press (not just the Guardian) so it can run and run in full view of the public. Your excellent blog would be the perfect starting point Miles. Question is who is there with a high enough profile to make it happen?

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Ralph. I suppose I am laying down a challenge asking how will this money be accounted for, given how tightly every other bit of public money these days needs to be.

  4. David Eyles says:

    I visited the Levels on Tuesday, again on Friday, and spoke to a number of farmers and the Environment Agency about the dredging and other aspects connected with it.

    Firstly, let me deal with Mike’s point above that suggests (as others have) that dredging has no effect upon the ability of the Levels to drain effectively. This is nonsense. Try the following simple experiment. Fill a watering can and time the number of seconds it takes to empty, having first taken the rose off the end. Then repeat with the rose fitted. In my case it takes 16 seconds without the rose; and 24 seconds with the rose attached. The rose represents the constriction of a waterway caused by silting up and growth of vegetation such as self seeded willows and Phragmites.

    The silting up of the Parrett and the Tone has reduced the cross-section area of the waterway by about 40% from its 1960s profile. This represents a serious obstruction and consequent reduction in the volume of water that can be shifted over any given period of time.

    The rapidity with which those rivers have silted up over the last few years is alarming. I was shown a post and rail stock fence which was originally positioned about 5 years ago, to go down to the water’s edge. The distal end is now high and dry, surrounded by grass growing on an embankment which would allow stock to wander around it in perfect safety and graze the other side.

    I can almost hear the shouts of “farmers are industrial farming upstream and this is causing an acceleration of silt deposition”. But those shouts are wrong for the following reason: The original bank profiles, being fairly steep, allowed the river to maintain velocity and thus a certain amount of self-scouring, with most silt dumped in the Bristol Channel. However, all lowland rivers will silt up in time and the Parrett/Tone are no exception. Summer flows are lower than winter and the semi-tidal nature of the Parrett means that slack periods produce standstill twice a day and hence deposition of silt. The more the channel is constricted, the slower the summer flow rate and the more silt will be deposited. As time goes on, this process of self-silting will accelerate. After 20 years of not being dredged these two rivers had set the scene for a tragedy when we happened to get into a year of high rainfall. That happened in winter 2012/13 and again in 2013/14.

    The mere fact of a 40% reduction in the cross-section area of the rivers meant that there was a corresponding increase in the height of the river levels, causing over-topping in places and meaning that pumping from rhyne to river was pointless because the water simply went in a circle. Filling a river in a floodplain with silt and vegetation is a very bad idea.

    “Cosmetic dredge” – The Environment Agency assure me, and many others, that they are attempting to return the river back to the 1960s profile. I believe them when they say this. They are doing this in two stages for each side of each length of river. The first is to dig out the centre of the river and down to 1960s bottom, whilst maintaining a safe slope for the bench upon which the excavator is standing. The second stage is to take out the bench from the top of the embankment and restore the river bank profile. Pictures of a dredger stood on a bench which is lower than the top of the embankment and producing a profile of (I’m guessing) 20 – 30 degrees bank angle are at the first stage.

    At the time of writing, accordingly to my own back-of-fag-packet calculations, the EA is approximately 5 to 6 weeks behind programme. Owen Paterson and everyone else in the EA assures us that they will catch up and finish on time as the number of dredging gangs is trebled. Hopefully this will be the case.

    The current set-up is that the Internal Drainage Boards clean out the rhynes. The responsibility of the EA starts at the large structures and pumping stations and the rivers. As far as I can tell at the moment, this means the Tone, Parrett, King’s Sedgemoor Drain, Sowy, Axe, Brue and Huntspill. Doubtless all of these mean that dredging will have to be extended well beyond the current 8 Km of the Tone and Parrett currently under way.

    Over the last 20 years, there has indeed been a failure to join up any thinking on what to do with the Levels. That failure started in 1997 on the formation of the Environment Agency itself from a combination of the National Rivers Authority, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution and possibly one or two others. At that point, dredging of the rivers was stopped and Baroness Young famously made her remark to the House of Lords that “..a limpet mine should be attached to all of the pumping stations.” Her recent arrival from the RSPB was noted at the time by many in the Levels; and that remark is still remembered today. It has repercussions. However, the IDBs continued to do their work to the satisfaction of the farmers, but who continually warned the EA and others that a tragedy was in the making unless the rivers were also dredged. They were right.

    I cannot comment on your figure of £35 000 being offered to farmers to dredge their own land, if indeed this is actually what has been offered. (Given the activity of the IDBs, this seems an unlikely duplication of effort). But I can say that the compensation, that has been offered for various works as a result of flood damage, is beset by bureaucratic obstructions such as the production of three quotes and only being paid on receipt of paid invoice. As far as I am able to tell, no compensation money has been yet been received by either farmers or ordinary residents.

    It is true to say that the whole thing needs to be sorted out, to the satisfaction of farmers, residents and also taking into account the environmental value of the Levels. But slagging off farmers as being greedy and environmentally damaging, whilst “trousering” huge sums of taxpayers’ money is an insult to the very people who created the Levels in the first place; maintained them for centuries; who use them to produce food for human consumption and at the same time maintain 650 square Km of extraordinarily important habitat for a very rich biodiversity. In the end analysis Miles, even you need to eat.

  5. Miles King says:

    Thanks very much for your comment David.

    Whether I need to eat as much as I do (I don’t), and whether the infinitesimal increase in production on the Levels created by river dredging will make any difference to that amount (it won’t), is irrelevant.

    You didn’t comment on my main points – how will we know whether the £35k grant for land drainage is being spent on the things it’s supposed to be being spent on, and how will we know that no damage to environmental or archaeological features will have been done, using taxpayers money.

    Secondly on what basis should the public pay for annual maintenance of 100km of watercourses on the Levels – where is the public benefit? And no, farmers producing food is not a public benefit to the British public, since they can and do sell it to the highest bidder.

  6. David Eyles says:

    Miles, I do know where you have got the £35 000 figure from or what its constraints are, if it exists at all. So perhaps you could enlighten me on that one before I debate its significance.

    And before I comment on what looks to me like a deliberately inflammatory statement, would you please define exactly what you mean by “public benefit”?

    • Miles King says:

      Here’s the Defra announcement removing the need for 3 quotes.

      The public benefit – this means benefits to society at large, rather than for individual gain. So provision from land of public goods covers things which benefit the public – the provision of clean water, carbon storage and other climate adaptation/mitigation actions, the provision of biodiversity, the protection of archaeology historical features and other things of value to the community. It could also cover more intangible benefits to society such as the benefits the environment provides for physical and mental health and wellbeing, spiritual wellbeing and inspiration.

      Food production at the farm, regional or national level is not a public good – because in economic terms for it to be a public good it has to be non-rival and non-exclusive. Non-rival means if a product is used by one person it can be used by someone else – a view or wildlife are obvious examples of a public good hwich does not get used up by one person preventing its utility to another. Food is evidently not non-rival.

      Food production is also not non-exclusive (pardon the double negatives) – because the farmer can choose who consumes the food, thus excluding some individuals while allowing others. Farmers are under no obligation to provide their food for consumption by the British public, let alone the members of their local geographic community.

      While the totality of food production across the world could be construed to be a global public good, this is another debate.

  7. David Eyles says:

    Thank you for the link Miles.

    As I thought, the grants are a maximum figure and are for repairs to flood damage. They are not for farmers to go off and do some ad hoc dredging because they need to find something to do with their time off (spare time being a commodity they don’t have anyway). The Internal Drainage Boards do that in exactly the same way as they always have.

    The largest single item of damage experienced by farmers is the need to re-seed their grassland after it had died as a result of being under water for three months. This is no small expenditure. At least one farmer has tweeted that he re-seeded after last year’s floods and that cost him £12,000. He has to do the same thing again this year and the problem is even worse for him, because the die-back is even more extensive. Multiply that by many farmers and you can see what the problem is.

    The environmental damage that you are so concerned about is nil or minimal. The commercial grassland is re-sown just as it is regularly anyway, so there is no greater risk to archeology or anything else. As well as farmers, the soil invertebrate populations have suffered enormously, and so will everything else that depends upon them.

    Now to your definition of what is a “public benefit” and whether farmers provide that or not. You are arguing that the provision of food is not a public benefit. So let us examine that – first of all under the terms of your definition:

    Farmers provide three things: food, management of the landscape and habitats for plants and animals. All three – lets call them ‘services’ – are related. From your definition, I think you would agree that the provision of landscape (or “views”) and the provision of habitats is of public benefit. the outstanding, and contentious, item is whether food is a public benefit or not.

    Your definition shifts into economics and suggests the qualities of “non-rival” and ‘non-exclusive” jointly exclude food. Food is consumed by an individual and therefore in its consumption, by your definition, it cannot be non-rival. Further, again by your definition, a farmer can dictate who eats his food and so food cannot be non-exclusive. In fact, both of these qualities are complied with by the farmer producing food, because the farmer supplies his service to the market, not to an individual, and cannot dictate who eats his produce and who does not. That is: the public benefits from the market place, not the individual farmer. It is the market place, into which the farmer supplies, that provides the public with food; and therefore the joint entity of farmer and marketplace provide the public benefit.

    So, even by your own definition, farming to produce food is a public benefit. However I feel that your definition is an artifice designed to exclude large swathes of human activity which are beneficial to both to the environment and to humanity, and so I would look at the issue more broadly.

    Our development as a species has gone by stages from hunter-gatherer, to pastoral nomad, to agriculturalist, to industrialist; and now we could argue that we are on the transition from industrialist to post-industrialist. However, the agricultural stage has been vital to the development of modern society. Farming, which produces a surplus of food, beyond the immediate needs of the farmer and his family, has allowed towns, specialisation into trades and professions and culture to develop. As agriculture has become progressively more efficient, the cost of food to the wider society, has dropped as a proportion of disposable income. This is especially the case since the end of the Second World War. During my lifetime, the agricultural revolution across the world has meant that the periodical famine caused by crop failure and poverty has almost been eradicated. Those shortages of food, that do occur every now and then, are either the result of a local environmental disaster such as an earthquake, or they are caused by war and insurrection. Sometimes, difficulties in storage and infrastructure (such as is sometimes the case in India) will also cause shortages. But in the main, we seem to have cracked it. For the time being.

    However, the future is in doubt as to whether we can continue to feed a burgeoning world population, rising to 9 or 10 billion by 2050. More locally, the UK population is expected to rise to about 70 million. Feeding these with the continued expectation of relatively cheap food in order to allow us all to enjoy the benefits of continued development and rising quality of life, will be a challenge. UK farmers must produce more food on fewer acres for this to happen, because worldwide markets will become increasingly expensive.

    I therefore conclude that your suggestion that farmers, in producing food and other things such as landscape quality and habitats for wild plants and animals, is patently absurd.

  8. David Eyles says:

    Sorry, that should read: …”your suggestion that farmers, in producing…….wild animals, are NOT producing a public benefit, is patently absurd.”

    [Why is that I read and check for typos and only find the serious ones after I have pressed the ‘send’ button?]

  9. Miles King says:

    Interesting points David. By the way it’s not my definition – eg

  10. David Eyles says:

    Ah well then, if comes from the EU then it is definitely b….cks.

  11. Miles King says:

    LOL – I had a feeling I might get that reaction. How about this source then?

  12. David Eyles says:

    Thanks for this link in particular. On a quick scan, I suspect I am going to take issue with it in a number of ways. But I really must get out for a walk to clear my head, so I shall trundle off to the coast path and think while I am walking.



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