Some of you may recall that back in January I wrote about David Cameron’s Water Vole “epiphany”, in which he realised that wildlife didn’t need protecting and the Environment Agency should focus on protecting people’s property, and stop worrying about the Environment. Dubious that all the facts had been placed before the Parliamentary Liaison Committee, to which he had spoken, I thought I would do a bit of burrowing myself.
I asked the Environment Agency for the correspondence relating to the Kelmscott Vole Incident. And they have obliged me by providing a series of emails, file notes and other such useful literature, that enables me to piece together a more complete picture.
The area concerned is a rather remote spot in West Oxfordshire, right on the north bank of the Thames. As I have written about before, Kelmscott also happens to have been where William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement and the National Trust, amongst other things, lived for a time. The village was badly flooded in the extraordinary events of the 20th July 2007. Little did we know at the time that such events would cease to become so extraordinary, and more extreme events have taken place, practically every year since then. This is the impact of human-induced climate change.
After the incredibly wet year of 2012, it appears that forces operating within West Oxfordshire were mobilising to get watercourses that were considered to be failing to move water away sufficiently quickly during flood events, to be dredged. West Oxfordshire’s Principal Engineer, Laurence King (no relation) was pushing for the EA to do more dredging of watercourses. This from July 2013:
Laurence King, Shared Principal Engineer for West Oxfordshire District Council and Cotswold District Council, Environment & Commercial Services is very keen that we put pressure on the Environment Agency to ensure that all the water courses for which they are responsible are regularly cleaned out.
This is important as when heavy rain occurs, these water courses need to be capable of draining the maximum amount of water to prevent flooding and foul water contamination.
Now what we know about dredging water courses is that it has no effect on drainage during flood events. This is because the water course channel has a tiny volume compared with the floodplain. So during a flood event, the water spills out of the channel into the floodplain, as it is supposed to do. No amount of dredging will change this fact of physics. Dredging is only helpful in a particular set of circumstances, such as artificial watercourses which run through urban areas, or pinchpoints such as bridges.
In August 2013 the Environment Agency issued a consent to Mr King at West Oxfordshire District Council for “light maintenance works” to be carried out on a series of watercourses around the village, including the Radcot cut, a parallel pair of ditches running east-west parallel with the Thames. Here it is in the middle of the map.
A “Light Maintenance” consent approach was developed in the West Oxfordshire region by the Environment Agency as away of reducing regulation, for activities which did not involve dredging or building structures. It just happens that Kelmscott also falls within one of the 7 river maintenance pilot areas where EA were trialling a new approach whereby landowners would not need to apply for consent before doing things like dredging water courses. Whether the “light maintenance” light-touch regulation was part of the pilot scheme is not clear. The EA report does mention the fact that WODC cleared 1km of watercourse to “remove silt”.
A water vole survey of the Radcot cut had been commissioned by WODC and carried out in July 2013. The survey showed there was a chance that the strictly protected mammals were present and precautions should be taken. The EA biodiversity officer visited the site with Mr King and they discussed what activities would be consented within the light maintenance consent. The southern channel was to be left untouched as it had no influence on the flooding of the village – and a linear reedbed had developed in it since it had last been cleared. For the northern channel, the EA agreed with WODC that some sensitive management could be carried out – careful clearance of trees and hedges was needed to allow access by excavator to the channel, where clearance of the channel would “leave bank toes and faces undisturbed” to prevent illegal damage to water vole burrows.
In early May 2014 the EA visited Radcot Cut to discover that the consent had been flagrantly breached. Both teh channels had been cleared, trees and hedges had been destroyed, the channels had been scraped clean of their vegetation and gravel. And water vole burrows had been damaged. EA staff noted the presence of fresh water vole droppings on the day of the visit, confirming that the law had been broken. The EA stopped any further clearance work in the Radcot Cut while they investigated the illegal activities.
A flurry of emails both within the EA and between the EA, the Police and WODC followed. The Police were informed that an offence had been committed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Between 19th and 23rd May 2014, notices were served on the adjacent landowners that the EA were going to visit the site and take photographs of the damage.
It would appear that immediately following the visit of the EA to record the damage, someone decided to contact their local MP, a certain David Cameron. Cameron’s office then emailed the EA on the 4th June (saying what I don’t know as I have not been sent that correspondence). This was followed by a letter on the 12th June (ditto).
On the very same day, the EA evidently decided that it was not going to proceed with prosecution of Mr King for breaching his Land Drainage Consent. Although there had been previous mention of taking the case to the EA Enforcement Panel, by the 12th “Current thinking from legal is that we won’t take this to [the enforcement panel] and it will be warning or advice letter outcome”. Whether the EA had decided to draw back from prosecution as a result of Mr Cameron’s intervention is unclear, but the timing would make it quite a coincidence.
The Kelmscott Flood Committee evidently became very unhappy that the work they considered to be essential to helping prevent future flooding had been stopped and approach Mr Cameron again, this time sending him a “brief” and asking for a site meeting. Obligingly Mr Cameron attended a meeting on the 11th July, where he had his Vole Epiphany. As Cameron said to the Liaison Committee, as they stood on the bank of the Radcot Cut and surveyed the damage,
“It doesnt look to me like they’ve done anything wrong.”
and that’s when the homeless Water Voles appeared.
The brief from the Kelmscott residents is revealing, as is the annotations on it from EA staff. Far from appreciating the “light maintenance” light-touch regulation approach, the Flood Committee were aggrieved that their maintenance work had been halted, or indeed that the Environment Agency was even considering the need to work within the law. As the Flood Committee said in their statement,
“Light maintenance consent lays down very specific guidelines on how the work is to be carried out. The EA appears to have very limited flexibility in interpreting these guidelines and does so strictly to the law as has been seen in Kelmscot. We believe current issues are due to the fact that light maintenance consent is not appropriate for working on badly neglected watercourses but full dredging consent is not necessary, difficult and time consuming to obtain. The issues are exacerbated by the conflict of interest between flood management and biodiversity regulations, with the latter seeming to have a higher level of importance.”
Never mind the fact that there are laws which are there for a reason and a Regulator whose role is to ensure laws are not broken!
The Police eventually decided not to prosecute over the Water Vole disturbance, despite a prima facie case. The police officer who dealt with the case said rather revealingly
“it is very political”
before then saying that they would be asking WODC to consult with Natural England over any future Water Vole bothering. Naturally the EA were rather unimpressed by this, as they are the lead regulator with responsibilities for the furry ones. The EA expressed their disappointment with the Police quite robustly, pointing out that riparian landowners would indeed feel that they did not need to work within the law, if such flagrant breaches escaped justice.
In a recent Parliamentary question, shadow Defra minister Alex Cunningham asked
“what steps [the Secretary of State] plans to take to ensure oversight mechanisms are put in place when further powers to dredge watercourses are extended to farmers.
Floods and Biodiversity Minister Rory Stewart replied
“The draft Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2016 include conditions that must be followed by those wishing to undertake dredging under an exemption. If works are not undertaken according to the relevant conditions, then the Environment Agency will be able to take enforcement action. This includes suspension notices to stop any further works being carried out, enforcement and remediation notices requiring remediation within a specified period, and the power to prosecute.”
Judging by the Kelmscott Vole incident, the EA may feel they are not being encouraged to take such enforcement action, by their Political Leaders.