The River Brue catchment on the Somerset Levels & Moors has been chosen by Defra and the Environment Agency to be one of seven pilot projects across the country to trial new approaches to the consenting regime around watercourse maintenance on main rivers.
These pilot projects, to last for one year from 21 October 2013, will provide evidence to inform forthcoming government regulations to introduce a more streamlined and risk based flood defence consenting regime by 2015.
As part of these trials, the intention is to make it easier for farmers and landowners to find out what maintenance work EA have planned in a catchment and to make it easier for farmers and landowners to undertake maintenance work themselves on main rivers – for example de-silting to improve land drainage - provided that the work is low risk in terms of flood risk, water quality, habitats and wildlife.
Good practice guidance and a legal framework will be provided to participating landowners to assist work being carried out in a way which avoids any significant environmental damage. The EA flood defence consenting process will be eased where possible - and where a consent is still required (such as within designated areas such as SSSIs), applications will be fast tracked to enable work to progress efficiently. Monitoring will be carried out and a steering group which includes CLA is guiding the project.
The Brue has been chosen because there is local concern regarding the levels of silt build up in the main channel and adjoining rhynes. There is also a good mix of non designated and designated (SSSI) land and some pro-active landowners with an interest in carrying out work on the river themselves to aid land drainage.
Reductions in river maintenance by EA over recent years were felt to have exacerbated the effects of the 2012 floods and CLA, in the South West and nationally, have been calling on Government for some time to make it easier for farmers and landowners to undertake maintenance work on main rivers where the EA are unable to.
We would encourage farmers and landowners within the Brue Catchment to consider getting involved. Whilst any maintenance activity will have to be paid for by those participating, the project is an opportunity to ensure that de-silting work to improve land drainage actually gets done. The reality is that over recent years EA have increasingly been unable to do this sort of work simply to achieve better drainage of agricultural land. Due to the Treasury cost:benefit rules under which EA now allocate their dwindling maintenance budget, EA concentrate maintenance activities on rivers where larger numbers of people and properties (residential and commercial buildings) are at risk of flooding.
Whilst CLA continues to lobby against this approach, which discriminates against rural areas, the situation is unlikely to change in the short term. Moreover, the EA undertake river maintenance work under a 'permissive power' – they do not have a statutory duty to prevent land from flooding. Approaches such as that used in the Brue Catchment Pilot may therefore have an increasing role to play in future. More information on the Brue project – including a pilot area map, guidance and who to contact to get involved - is available from the EA website at http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/homeandleisure/floods/150299.aspx.