The CLA welcomes the opportunity to comment on the Environment Agency's revised proposals for the management of flood risk in the Severn Estuary over the coming decades. Landowners and tenants, particularly those running agricultural operations, are directly affected by the management of flood risk.
The CLA has some 1,800 members in Gloucestershire and Somerset, the English counties affected by the proposals.
Our members are involved in a wide range of agricultural, tourism, leisure, forestry, energy and commercial ventures – at the last count there were around 250 types of rural businesses in membership. These businesses manage land, produce food, generate jobs, provide land and buildings for employment and housing for local people, and manage the wildlife and landscape of the countryside. The principal asset of most CLA members are land and buildings which are either used directly by the owners for economic or residential purposes or let to others to do so.
The management of flood defences, particularly in low lying areas such as those along the banks and tributaries of the River Severn, which has the second highest tidal range in the world, are of great importance to the farms and other businesses and communities that rely on them for protection.
Having reviewed the 2013 consultation documents, CLA welcomes the following general aspects:
- That concerns expressed by CLA and others to the original 2011 proposals have been taken on board in the revised proposals – overall these are far better explained and evidenced than last time
- That engagement and communications with communities and landowners has been significantly improved since 2011
- That the consultation documents confirm that any 'managed realignment' of flood defences and habitat creation projects on privately owned land will only be taken forward with the agreement of the landowners concerned – this basic point was not mentioned in the 2011 proposals and had to be pointed out by CLA and others. We are also pleased that there is a better explanation of the legal drivers for habitat creation (ie the Habitats Regulations 2010)
- That more up to date climate change data and projections have been used as the basis of planning, that changes to flood risk management will be based on actual climate change experienced rather than long term projections and that commitment has been made to review the strategy every 10 years or as & when major influences such as renewable energy projects in the Estuary arise. It does show however how strategies such as this are only as good as the data and assumptions which underpin them.
However we remain concerned about the following issues:
- The declining levels of public funding allocated to flood defence asset maintenance which are widely accepted to be insufficient to cover the work required. Neglecting to fund routine maintenance of what are in flood defence terms valuable protection assets results in a progressive decline in the ability of these assets to 'do their job'. The sensible thing to do is to maintain those which are already there so that they can continue to provide protection for communities, property and national strategic food production resources for future generations. Ceasing to maintain them disregards their long term value.
- New 'partnership funding' arrangements for maintenance of flood defences discriminate against rural areas because they do not properly value agricultural land. For agricultural businesses in particular, the land is their productive asset or 'factory floor' and therefore land is a form of 'commercial property' like any other. And distinct from other forms of commercial property, agricultural land is also a national strategic asset from which the nation ensures that its population can be fed 'whether in good times or bad'. However the value attached to agricultural land in the EA's cost/benefit analyses for allocating flood defence maintenance funds, takes no account of these factors. CLA has been calling for an overhaul of Government prioritising techniques, cost/benefit valuations and discounting assumptions for land for several years. Such an overhaul would result in far better cost/benefit ratios and outcomes for flood defence investment in rural areas.
- The potential extent of liabilities falling on landowners in situations where EA state that they are unable to maintain certain flood defences any longer (due to pressures on their maintenance budgets and the flawed methods used to calculate cost/benefit outcomes as described above). Businesses and communities in general have come to rely on flood defence assets being maintained over the years and if landowners effectively become responsible for asset maintenance in future they are potentially vulnerable to being sued by individual or groups of other property owners if the flood defence fails. As individuals they are far more vulnerable to this eventuality than any public authority such as the EA.
- Where defences are effectively to be handed over to the landowners to maintain, they should be 'handed over' in a reasonable state of repair. Moreover they should not be viewed as 'uneconomic' because EA have not carried out maintenance over recent years which they should have done due to budgetary constraints. EA maintenance programmes from previous years should be available for public scrutiny so that this scenario does not arise. Also any EA decisions to cease maintenance should be subject to open consultation and discussion with the affected landowners and communities well in advance. EA should be clear and transparent regarding how maintenance budgets are decided and publicise in a timely manner which assets will receive what investment so that all affected can plan accordingly
- The EA must continue to maintain those defences for which it or its predecessors entered into binding contractual agreements to do so in perpetuity
- There must be an orderly 'process' for landowners taking more responsibility for maintenance for flood defence assets with ongoing support provided by the EA to those affected. The process of landowners carrying out flood defence work including the necessary consenting regime must be made as simple and streamlined as possible
- Before EA make decisions to cease investment in certain stretches of 'uneconomic' defences, consideration should be given to Internal Drainage Boards taking on maintenance instead of EA on the basis that it may well be done more economically and that this might change the cost/benefit outcomes for certain stretches of flood defence.
We trust that the above comments will be taken into account in taking the Severn FRMS forward and we will continue to engage in constructive dialogue with EA and other stakeholders on the issue going forward.