West Lancashire at risk of being next Somerset Levels for the sake of the cost of a takeaway
For the past two years, the NFU has been the leading voice in trying to set up an Internal Drainage Board (IDB) which would take over much of the maintenance work that has historically been carried out by the Environment Agency (EA). With the EA’s budget squeezed, it has not been able to carry out the level of drainage maintenance required for a number of years. The NFU knows that in total last year, only £20 million was spent across the whole on river de-silting and de-weeding by the Environment Agency.
An IDB would maintain ditches, pumping stations and provide a habitat for wildlife in the catchment. Obviously, a body such as this would come at a cost. A substantial chunk of that would be borne by landowners such as farmers and the rest by local authorities – and there lies the sticking point.
For every business and householder to contribute to the running of an IDB, it would mean an extra charge on council tax, a proposal West Lancashire Borough Council isn’t even prepared to discuss at this present time for political reasons.
Dave Oakes, NFU North West’s flooding expert and farmer liaison officer who lives in Scarisbrick, estimates that the yearly cost to an average homeowner in the West Lancashire area would be similar to that of a takeaway or round of drinks in the pub.
He said: “With the vast majority of the drainage ditches in West Lancashire travelling through highly productive agricultural fields, it has been left to local farmers to educate their local councils and neighbouring businesses about the need for an IDB.
“For too long this has been seen solely as farming’s problem. The daily images in our newspapers and on our TV screens have brought that fallacy into context. We all have a responsibility to manage water sensibly in West Lancashire to prevent highly productive agricultural land, businesses and homes from suffering the same fate as those in Somerset.”
Dave Oakes was brought out of retirement by the EA and NFU in April 2013 because he’d spent the best part of 38 years managing water flow in the Alt Crossens part of West Lancashire. He is 62 years old and worked for the Environment Agency from 1973 until he took early retirement in 2011. He started off as a manual labourer cutting grass on watercourses with a scythe, worked on tractors, excavators and even became a member of a team which wore breathing apparatus to crawl through tight pipes and culverts to search for blockages.
He then became a team leader in 1996 and looked after maintenance teams at Alt Crossens and the Douglas. So it’s fair to say he’s operated at every level of drainage maintenance and can say with confidence that he’s got his hands dirty in the past.
It has been Mr Oakes’ job to formulate a workable plan for the future. As well as appointing Mr Oakes, the NFU has established five Flood Liaison Action Groups (FLAGs) in the North West region. FLAGs are made up of local farmers with the aim of them to run alongside the steering groups which are made up of representatives from local authorities, United Utilities and Natural England.
Alice Unsworth, NFU North West Environment and Land Use Adviser, added: “This is an issue across the whole of the region and we are trying to provide solutions to benefit the whole community. However, one of the main players continues to refuse to come to the negotiating table – West Lancashire Borough Council. In Cumbria, Allerdale Borough Council support an IDB in the Waver Wampool catchment and South Lakeland Borough Council are on board in the Lyth Valley catchment. In the Alt Crossens we have support from Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council but not West Lancashire Borough Council. Do they really want to allow West Lancashire to flood out of fear of making a potentially unpopular political decision?”
According to Defra national statistics, land within the Lower Alt and Crossens represents a tiny 0.1 per cent of England’s total farmed area yet is estimated to produce nearly 2 per cent of the English vegetable and salad crops and around 1.5 per cent of the total English potato crop. The agriculture and horticulture industry is thought to provide employment for 2,554 people on a full time basis in West Lancashire and Sefton across 435 businesses contributing £230 million of Gross Value Added to products grown within the same area.
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