Select Committee takes floods evidence from George Monbiot, bars Richard AE North for “offensive remarks”

I had been looking forward to watching (and you can now on Parliament tv) the Envronmental Audit Committee evidence session for the Floods inquiry, in which George Monbiot was called, alongside Richard AE North, former Environmental Health Officer and now leading Eurosceptic blogger.

After a long delay caused by Cameron’s blather about what a fantastic deal he’d got from the EU, the session began. George gave his evidence in his usual articulate manner, peppered with anecdotes to bring the dry statistics to life. Even the notorious Peter Lilley failed to make any impression on George, and Lilley’s rather lame attempts to blame the EU for the floods were brushed aside as the fantasy they are. The only thing George got a bit mixed up on was in relation to how much water a river channel held, and why dredging did nothing (usually) to reduce flood problems.

Peter Aldhous was in the chair, as Huw Irranca-Davies had resigned to stand in the Welsh Assembly. George’s evidence had finished and I was waiting to hear what Richard AE North had to say, when Aldhous made an announcement – North had been barred from giving evidence, because of allegations that had been drawn to the attention of the Committee, that he had made offensive remarks online, and that “on balance” the committee had decided not to take evidence from him.

This is, in my experience, pretty unusual. What could North have said that was so offensive that the Committee felt it would be inappropriate to take evidence from him? Did they think he was going to start calling for Prince Charles’ head on a stick?

As I mentioned earlier this week, I have come across North myself before. I don’t think it would be too fanciful to suggest that North is the brain behind Chris Booker. Booker, the “journalist” you may remember who wrote a number of articles claiming that the Somerset Levels floods in 2013/14 were caused by EU policies, such as the Water Framework Directive and the Floods Directive. This is of course EU phobic lunacy but it fits well with North who sees himself as a leading campaigner for the UK to leave the EU. North is, I would suggest, a right-libertarian – which is bizarre for someone who made a career in the foood-regulation industry. Ok so far so mildly offensive. But surely select committees take evidence from libertarians all the time.

I had a quick look online to see if I could find to what the committee might have had its attention drawn and found this piece by George Monbiot from back in 2010.  Yes, certainly plenty of offensive remarks here.

North was livid that he had been invited to give evidence then barred. He fulminated on his blog yesterday against the “loathsome creatures” of the select committee and took aim at its chair in particular. North was particularly offended that it was the select committee

clerk who yesterday conveyed the news that Mr Irranca-Davies didn’t have the guts or courtesy to tell me to my face.”

Evidently North has not heard that Irranca-Davies is no longer the chair of the committee.

So he lashed out against an entirely innocent person accusing them of cowardice.

Afterwards, I asked him on twitter what “offensive remarks” he thought the committee referred to  – and in reply, he blocked me. I think that says all it needs to about Dr North – this sort of behaviour is, I have found, fairly typical of those on the libertarian right.

As a leading player in the Brexit campaign, we can only hope that North falls out with everyone over the next 3 months and does the campaign real damage.

Posted in Environmental Audit Select Committee, flooding, George Monbiot, RIchard AE North | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

UKIP reiterates its opposition to nature protection.

Some have recently  suggested that UKIP has a coherent environmental policy. Well, a few UKIP supporters have, anyway. I’ve written previously about the bizarre views of UKIP’s environment spokesperson Andrew Charalambous aka Dr Earth.

And then there’s UKIP’s MEP and agriculture spokesman Stuart Agnew, who notoriously expressed alarm that climate change action would suck so much Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere that plants would not grow.

Yesterday the European Parliament considered a report into the implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy, and in particular the European Commission’s review of the Nature Directives, the Birds and Habitats Directives. The Parliament overwhelmingly voted in favour of the report, which highlighted the need for Europe to do much more to protect its biodiversity, and to strengthen the implementation of the Nature Directives.

The vote was 592 MEPs in favour of the findings of the report, with 54 against; and 45 abstentions.

I was interested to see who were the 54  who voted against; 18 of the 54 were from the UK. They were:

the ECR group: James Nicholson – Ulster Unionist

the ENF group: Janice Atkinson former UKIP, who has now joined forces with neofascists, the French national front.

the EFDD group: Stuart Agnew UKIP, Tim Aker UKIP, Jonathan Arnott UKIP, Gerard Batten UKIP, David Coburn UKIP, Bill Etheridge UKIP, Nigel Farage UKIP, Ray Finch UKIP, Nathan Gill UKIP, Roger Helmer UKIP, Mike Hookem UKIP, Diane James UKIP, Paul Nuttall UKIP, Patrick O’Flynn, Margot Parker UKIP, Jill Seymour UKIP.

Interestingly three MEPs from UKIP, William Earl of Dartmouth, Julia Reid and Jim Carver, abstained.

So a third of those who voted against doing more for nature across Europe, were from the UK and almost all of these were from UKIP.

This shows very clearly how much UKIP cares about nature. 

If you care about nature and have a UKIP MEP in your area, why not let them know what you think about their attitude towards nature.



Posted in Europe, European environment policy, Nature Directives, UKIP | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Oliver Letwin reveals enthusiasm for natural flood management


Dorset under water (c) Miles King

Oliver Letwin is our local MP here in West Dorset.

I’ve met him a few times, to talk about different environmental issues. He’s friendly, fiercely intelligent; and loves a good argument. I don’t agree with his politics at all, but he has always listened to whatever it is I’ve been advocating and evidently knew what the arguments were.

He’s also extremely gaffe prone (eg this recent revelation about events long past) and consequently has been in the back room as Cabinet Office minister for quite a while, but that is a very influential job. He will now chair the National Flood Resilience Review, which will report in the Summer.

Letwin writes a regular feature in our local paper the Dorset Echo. Most of the time it’s anodyne stuff, but this morning’s piece is quite an eye opener.

During the deluge that hit first the Lake District and then much of the rest of the north of England at the turn of the year, I am sure I was not alone in hoping that this would mark the end of the rain. So much water descended in such a short period that we seemed to have had a whole year’s rainfall by the end of the first week in January.

But, as we all now know, this was considerably too optimistic.

I really can’t remember a time when the water table locally has been so high for so long. Even during the period when the Somerset Levels were submerged for weeks, West Dorset seemed drier than it does at present.

I hope it isn’t tempting fate to say that we haven’t, so far, experienced anything like what has afflicted some parts of the west and the north. And we have also, so far at least, avoided the combination of fluvial, surface water and sea-storm flooding that can prove so damaging for our coastal settlements.

But it has been, and remains a continuing concern.

As I have mentioned in previous columns, some straightforward measures – such as the reconfiguration of the bridge at Charminster – clearly achieved a good deal just through simple engineering (admittedly at considerable cost). And I am delighted to see that engineering projects like the pinning of the land above the tunnel at Beaminster and of much of the coastline at Lyme Regis seem to be doing their work admirably well when faced with prolonged adversity.
Share article

But I think it is becoming increasingly clear that the nation is not going to be able to provide itself with sufficient long-term protection on an affordable basis just by undertaking the massive further investment programme of engineering works that is now scheduled.

We are going to need to plan really seriously for a restoration of natural capital to slow down the water cycle by planting trees and making other landscape adjustments to our various water catchments over the next couple of decades. (my bold)

On a point of information, I would say that Winter water tables in Dorset have been higher before eg 2000. But we have just had 193mm of rain in January, so everything is awash. And of course the ever expanding area of Maize in Dorset, increases the amount of water and mud on the roads.

Regular readers will know of my antipathy to the Natural Capital approach.  But the principle being established by Letwin goes beyond whether we see nature through an economic frame or not. Letwin, a senior figure in the Government and one very close to the current PM, is saying that we as a society have to move beyond business as usual and change the way we manage the landscape, ie river catchments, to slow the flow of water.

Next week sees Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee continue its investigation into the floods. They have called George Monbiot to speak.

Bizarrely, they have also called Richard AE North, who I have run into before, and who will no doubt blame it all on the EU. Still that should be entertaining, if nothing else.

I hesitate to say it, but it does seem as though there is some momentum building as a result of the appalling flooding that has happened this winter. It’s incumbent on us all to keep pushing at this issue, keep it at the top of politician’s agendas, to achieve a recognition that we need to work with nature, not against it.

Posted in flooding, George Monbiot, Oliver Letwin | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Natural Capital Day


can natural capitalism help reduce flooding? (c) Miles King

Monday was Natural Capital day at the Green Alliance. They produced a report called Natural Partners, in which they sought to explain that Natural Capitalists and Nature Conservationists could get along fine, instead of bickering. On the same day, they held a Natural Capital debate in London, which I went along to. There was a very good turnout.

I read the report on the train to London. At first I was not sure about it; was it entirely sensible to frame the debate as either traditional nature conservation, or natural capital? Other options are available – for example a broader environmental stance, or indeed the new kid on the block – rewilding.

A deeper problem for me was that the report failed to mention the vital importance of education and raising awareness. Education and raising awareness drives societal change at a number of levels – in terms of personal (consumer) choice but also, more importantly, changing perceptions of the value and importance of nature to people; and the need to change the way people live with and in nature. This has profound implications across other activities – people will not support the need for more regulation or incentives (the main policy levers that nature conservation uses, according to the report) to support nature if they do not understand its value to them (and society). Education and awareness raising also drives pro-environmental behaviours, which are in themselves beneficial to nature eg people changing consumption habits.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the proposed solution laid out in the report ie Natural Capital and Nature Conservation approaches are complementary,  was that the report entirely omits the problems associated with framing. Cognitive Linguistics research shows time and again that one frame dominates others. If the dominant frame is an economic one, only the economically relevant values of nature will be considered in decision making, or by individuals.

For a clear exposition of framing in nature debates, here’s an excellent blog from my namesake Miles Richardson. Others who have written deeply about the problems of using economic language as a frame to view actions for nature include Sian Sullivan and Common Cause Foundation. I would recommend reading both of them to gain a wider understanding of this critical issue.

I thought the authors of the report really struggled to find examples of where a Natural Capital approach was actually working. The report gave an example of flooding and the Natural Capital approach drawing in private sector funding. In reality this has not happened – the facility has been there for five years but the amount of private sector funding has been pitiful. £600m of the Govt’s £2.3Bn flood defence budget is expected to come from outside Govt. So far, only £61M has come from private business sources, while cash strapped local authorities have stumped up £190M.

I was not really convinced that the comparison between the pros and cons of Natural Capital vs Nature Conservation really worked (eg Page 15).

Green Alliance argue that Natural Capital operates on the presumption that the economy and environment are interdependent – but other Natural Capital devotees eg Prof Dieter Helm, are far more neoliberal – arguing that the environment is part of the economy.

I would suggest that in both cases, the assumption is contested. The environment existed before the economy was created (the economy is, after all, a social construct) and will exist after the economy has long gone.

the report suggests that for a natural capital approach, Natural assets are prioritised according to utilitarian values;  whereas for nature conservation, the priorities are based on threat, or for cultural or scientific values. But these are also utilitarian values.

But things got better – the report (to me) seemed to be putting forward the position that Natural Capital views nature through the lens of business – what can nature provide to a business bottom line, and what risks can nature put in the way of increasing shareholder value?

Let’s be clear – and this is not a criticism of business: Businesses are not there to increase natural value, they are there to increase sharedholder value. Sadly, in most cases, there is an inverse relationship between the two.

To look at this from the most sceptical position, a Natural Capital approach is about redefining the environmental crisis in a way that enables business as usual to continue. Even though business as usual is exactly what is causing the environmental crisis.

The main problems causing the environmental crisis are a burgeoning global population, unsustainable consumption of natural resources; and the increasing disparity in global wealth patterns. If a Natural Capital approach is going to do anything, it has to recognise these facts and act accordingly.

But my fear is that a headlong drive towards Natural Capital framing will create a global market in natural capital credits and debts. What would happen? The creation of natural capital offshoring – akin to corporate tax avoidance. Companies would set up subsidiaries in natural capital havens, where the “debits” would accrue without penalty. Natural Capital credits would be accounted for in those countries which required it (through regulation or “best practice”). Create a global market in natural capital and you create an opportunity for Natural Capital flight to the country with the weakest ethical framework (or none at all).

The report concluded, wisely, that “only in rare circumstances could a Natural capital approach lead private investment into restoration of lost or degraded ecosystems” but, intriguingly suggested that it may work best in the sphere of productive land-use.

The debate was quite interesting – I though Professor Georgina Mace spoke the most sense, urging great caution with how Natural Capital may end up not only delivering nothing new, but providing a justification for business as usual to continue. Prof Mace made a heartfelt plea that Natural Capital approaches could work but was clearly doubtful whether they would. Mace also pointed out that a Natural Capital approach has to recognise that there will be winners and losers – and that disparities may function between different sections of society, across different locations, and at different points in time – eg future generations may pay the cost of our inability to protect stocks of natural capital now.

Duncan Pollard, a senior executive from Nestle, who are funding the Green Alliance work on this issue. He was trying very hard to show how seriously Nestle take Natural Capital, but made a particularly telling remark – that any additional costs associated with adopting Natural Capital accounting would be passed on to the consumer. As far as Nestle are concerned, this is not about changing their business model.

Johnny Hughes, chief exec of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, gave a typically rosy view of Natural Capital, for he is a cheerleader among the Trusts; and the wider NGO movement, for adopting Natural Capitalism. Johnny sought to explain how good for businesses adopting Natural Capital acounting would be.

Questions came from the floor – many were very sceptical of the Natural Capital approach. One commentator mentioned that he was struck by the scale of finance moving into this area.  Apparently the green Bond market is booming and scale of city money is colossal. One green bond released last week as oversubscribed by eight times.

I was lucky enough to be able to ask a question – so I said this:

“When I hear that the green bond market is booming, my greatest fears for natural capital appear to be coming into focus. Give how the global finance sector has operated in the past, can we expect a trade in natural capital debt to lead inexorably to natural capital offshoring and natural capital debt havens? IF business WILL seek to pass on any extra costs associated with natural capital accounting, won’t consumers end up footing the bill AND all natural capital turns out to be is an inflationary measure, akin to a bout of ecological quantitative easing.”

Yes it got a few laughs but it was a deadly serious point. Georgina Mace echoed my concerns and Johnny agreed that was a great danger of Natural Capital going to the dark side (ok he didnt actually say that).

Johnny pins his hopes on a Natural Capital ethical framework or charter, which he is working on and hoping IUCN will adopt. But if it’s only voluntary – how will it be enforced?

I came away feeling even more strongly than before that, at least the way the Natural Capital debate is going, it is being captured by corporate interests who will use it for their own benefits. I’d like to believe that Natural Capital can be a force for good, as Professor Mace hopes for, but I fear it will not.

Posted in Green Alliance, Natural Capital | Tagged , | 15 Comments

More Maize Madness: Far from being a climate change panacea, producing Biogas helps intensify its consequences

Tackling climate change is one of the most pressing and urgent things facing humanity, alongside (and related to) the 6th Global Extinction crisis. Some suggest that tackling Climate Change trumps all other considerations.

One of the biggest consequences of climate change facing the UK is severe flooding due to increasingly intense rainfall.

But flooding is exacerbated by unsustainable types of land-use. Maize is one of the most unsustainable and environmentally damaging crops it is possible to grow in the UK.

maize field flooded

Somerset Levels Maize field, flooded.

One of the reasons for this is that Maize is harvested so late in the season that the ground is too wet to do anything with, after the harvest. So fields are left either with stubble over winter, or rough-ploughed. This field is in the Somerset Levels, the scene of intense flooding two years ago.

Maize harvesting involves a forage harvester driving up and down over the field and tractors and trailers driving alongside collecting the maize harvest. So all the traffic across the field compacts the soil which leads to water running straight off the compacted surface – akin to a tarmac-ed car park.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that the NFU are pushing for much more Maize to be grown – to supposedly help alleviate climate change. Maize for biogas, they say, will help mitigate climate change by replacing fossil-fuel derived natural gas with biogas, produced by fermenting maize. the NFU would like to see well over 200,000ha of land converted to grow biogas Maize. I’ve previously criticized the maths underpinning the idea that growing biogas Maize actually saves any carbon at all; and the ridiculous double subsidies that support its production. What I hadn’t appreciated then was how much maize is needed to fuel these Anaerobic Digester (AD) plants.

We have an AD plant on the outskirts of Dorchester at Rainbarrow Farm, next to Prince Charles’ model village of Poundbury. In fact the plant is partly owned by Prince Charles via his Duchy of Cornwall. I imagine Duchy farms in the area (for there are many) also grow the maize to fuel the plant. I was a bit surprised, last Autumn, to see tractor with trailers full of Maize trundling through the streets of Dorchester on their way to the digester.

Anaerobic Digestion can in theory turn all sorts of green waste into environmentally friendly biogas. But in the case of Rainbarrow Farm, two thirds of the plant’s feedstock is maize – that’s 26000 tonnes of maize. If that sounds a lot, that’s because it is a lot. Maize is highly intensive crop, producing around 50 tonnes per hectare of farmland. That means over 500ha (1200 acres) of farmland is needed, just to supply one small AD plant. Still, you might think that’s worth all the environmental damage, increasing the risk of flooding, destroying the wildlife (and fishing) quality of rivers by filling them with polluted sediment. After all, what’s more important than tackling climate change?

The only problem is this: apart from the fact that growing maize to produce biogas has a much bigger carbon footprint than anyone in the industry likes to admit, this AD plant creates enough gas for around 2000 houses per year. With 200,000 households in Dorset, we would need to be growing 50,000ha of maize to supply them with gas.

That’s half the area of arable land in Dorset.

Meanwhile the NFU continues to push for landowners to be paid for the loss of crops when floodwater is stored on farmland, following the successful case last week. This would presumably include loss of Maize crops grown for biogas, on land that had formerly been permanent pasture. Pasture which, until it had been converted into Maize, had been very good at holding and storing flood water, without any damage to the grass crop. As Private Eye would say, Trebles all round.


Posted in Anaerobic Digester, biogas, climate change, flooding, Floodplains, Maize | Tagged , , , , | 21 Comments

All Carrot and no stick week a farmer in the Yorkshire Wolds successfully sued East Riding Council for compensation of £14500 for the loss of a field of carrots. The carrot crop was apparently lost when floodwater was pumped onto the field at Burton Fleming, to prevent houses in the village from being further damaged by the water. This is apparently the first case of a farmer claiming compensation against a Council under the 1991 Land Drainage Act. The Council are waiting to see the Land Tribunal judgement before deciding whether to appeal.

The farm in question, Robert Lindley Limited, is a 670 acre (284ha)  farm in the Yorkshire Wolds. In 2013, the most recent years for which figures are available, they received €134,000 of farm subsidies. This relatively small amount for the area indicates that the farm uses some land to produce food which is not eligible for farm support payments – perhaps their large flock of free range chickens. Carrots are eligible for farm subsidies.

Robert Lindley Limited has received farm subsidies totalling €1.175 million euros since the Common Agricultural Policy rules changed in 2003. Before that time, farm subsidies were paid to farmers to support food production. Since 2003, payments have, in theory, been “decoupled” from production – from that date, landowners can receive payments under the CAP without producing any food, as long as their land is in “Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition”. The change was intended to reduce the overproduction of food which had been one of the consequences of the CAP in the previous decades.

The business also appears to be doing pretty well – shareholders funds increased from £1.35M in 2013 to £4M in 2014.

Carrots are an extremely lucrative crop: 700,000 tonnes of carrots are produced every year in the UK from just 9000ha, producing a crop valued (at sale) at £290M. While most of the value is captured by distributors and retailers, even if only 20% of that value went to the farmer, it would be worth £6400 per ha.

It was a strange coincidence that also last week, Neil Parish, Farmers Friend, and chair of the EFRA Parliamentary Select Committee, suggested in conversation with the Prime Minister

“In some areas the rivers need to be dredged in order to get the water out to sea faster. In other areas, perhaps upstream, you actually need to hang on to that water for longer. Therefore, perhaps planting trees or perhaps re-wetting that land —the farming practice — is necessary. At the moment, most of that compensation to farmers is for loss of profit, and it is not actually very much of an incentive for farmers, necessarily, to produce that land and use it for flooding. What I would like to see — I don’t know whether you would agree with me — is a much more proactive policy, where farmers are actually encouraged more to take on that water and manage it, and for that to be part of their farming practice, rather than being forced into it, so that we are using more of a carrot”.

Carrot indeed. Parish was reflecting the NFU position that farmers should not only receive farm payments for not necessarily producing food on their land, but should also receive top up payments for allowing it to flood in times of dire emergency. And, as the Burton Fleming case shows, if they are not dangled this additional carrot, they can sue the local council for compensation, with the support of the NFU and its insurance provider NFU mutual.

For the National Farmers Union, and, inter alia, its membership, have a direct financial interest in farmers receiving compensation from councils where farmland is flooded and crops lost. Farmers receive insurance from their union’s insurance company NFU mutual. So, if they can get compensation from somewhere else (eg Councils) then they can avoid having to spend the farmers money paying insurance claims, with consequent increases in the insurance premiums. No wonder NFU Policy Director Andrew Clark was pleased;

“We are very pleased it was decided that the authority should compensate Mr Lindley. It demonstrates the need for the flood authorities to be aware of the consequences of actively flooding farmland when carrying out flood risk management.

“It’s really vital to consider that many fields are used for food production and are the most important part of a farm business. The NFU is committed to supporting members affected by flooding issues.”


I wrote last week about the balance between private profit and public benefit. Society as a whole has to consider whether rural land should be managed in such a way that water is either retained so as to avoid downstream (urban) flooding, or that water is drained as quickly as possible from that land to maximise food production and farmers profits.

Given that landowners are no longer paid to produce food, for what are we paying them their subsidies, if not to provide public benefits? Public benefits that include, for example, retaining flood water on their land to avoid people’s homes being rendered uninhabitable and their treasured possessions destroyed. Surely this should be a condition of receiving CAP subsidies.

If the Burton Fleming case is upheld, it would indicate that landowners are going to be paid by UK taxpayers, to drain their land and create downstream flooding (via the CAP), and then paid again, by local council tax payers, when their land is used to hold flood water back.

I wonder whether the residents of Burton Fleming, whose houses were flooded in 2012, are aware that the Council Tax they are paying, is being used to pay their local farmer compensation (and therefore keep other farmers’ insurance bills down), instead of paying for essential services like schools, or the fire service. East Riding Council will need to have found £194M of savings from its budgets in the 10 years to 2020.




photo: “Carrot Mayhem Milking Slade Lane – – 1090544” by Michael Trolove. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Posted in Common Agricultural Policy, drainage, farming, flooding | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Two epiphanies at Kelmscott


Water Willow, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (Kelmscott in the background)

David Cameron isn’t the only person to have had a personal epiphany about nature at Kelmscott. Cameron related a story about Two Water Voles, to the Parliamentary Liaison Committee yesterday, about which I have just written.

The PM used his “two voles” story, to illustrate why landowners should be given the freedom to dredge and ditch without interference from red-tape wielding hi-vis jacketed busybodies from the Environment Agency. He and others also used it to make the point that nature gets in the way of progress.

But there is another Kelmscott story. Because Kelmscott was home to William Morris. Morris was an anarchist/socialist, so perhaps he might not be welcome on the PM’s radar.

Morris also helped found the National Trust. But Morris is more famous as one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement; a movement inspired by nature, by the plants and animals that Morris and his fellow artists found in the countryside around them, in places like Kelmscott.

Morris understood that People Need Nature. When will we get a Prime Minister who understands?



“Dante Gabriel Rossetti Water Willow 1871” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Posted in David Cameron, People Need Nature | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The story of the Voles, the ditch and the Prime Minister

Water_Vole_on_Boot_Hill_(5592665124)Those of us who believe that nature is important and that in order for nature to be better protected from the activities of people the best approach is to gather evidence, scientific evidence, analyse it, and present it to those in power, should heed this story.

Yesterday the Prime Minister attended the Liaison Committee, where he was questioned on a wide range of issues. The Liaison Committee comprises all the chairs of the Parliamentary Select Committees. So Neil Parish, new chair of the EFRA committee, and Devon farmer, was there, as was Labour’s Huw Irranca-Davies, new chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. You can watch the piece here from 17:22.

It was good to see Huw I-D give Cameron a hard time over the cuts in subsidies for renewable energy, though Cameron is an accomplished PR man and had the figures to hand, which he deployed. It’s a pity in these sorts of situations that the chair isn’t able to intervene and ask an independent arbiter to look at the facts on both sides and determine who is right. In normal circumstances this would be someone like the National Audit Office; but I can see it would be difficult for the NAO to have all the necessary information to hand instantly.

Davies then congratulated the PM on reappointing Natural Capital-finder General Dieter Helm to chair the Natural Capital Committee, and quoted Helm’s recent paper (which I have written about earlier this week) on flooding saying the “current approach to flooding is never going to be adequate”.

Cameron agreed “we need to do more of everything – more defences, better at river management, whole drainage and area systems work”.

As an example of more of everything he explained how the “Military came in more quickly the money was disbursed more rapidly.” He also celebrated an “attitudinal change in the Environment Agency – were trying to balance up the effect on nature and protection of property. The time for that is over. This is about protecting human life, about protecting our homes”. I want to see that continued shift

In Somerset the PM said “this is a man made environment, it was ridiculous those rivers weren’t being dredged. I threatened to go and drive the dredger myself and now we have seen those rivers dredged.”

EFRA committee chair Neil Parish, who is close to the National Farmers Union, congratulated Cameron on dredging the Somerset Levels. Parish asked “what is your long term vision plan on flooding?”

The PM explained that there would be more spending on investment, building capital schemes, bringing in partnership money, and looking again at agricultural policy, planning policy and pushing this attitudinal change he mentioned earlier. He rejected the idea that it was a bad idea to build on floodplains claiming that London was a floodplain. Only a tiny proportion of London sits in the floodplain of the Thames, perhaps he was confusing Westminster with London.

Parish pushed on arguing for more dredging, but also suggested upstream management to slow the flow including planting trees and rewetting land, but he wanted farmers to be paid extra to do such things – “more of a carrot” as he put it. Cameron agreed that a catchment approach was needed, with dredging downstream and upstream attenuation ponds and changed farming practices.  So far so vaguely promising.

But then Parish returned to the fold “are you convinced attitude of the Environment Agency towards dredging has changed? Many places in Britain need dredging”.

At this point our PM recounted a story, “an epiphany” as he put it. (here’s the verbatim), It was probably a well-versed one judging by the way he recounted it. At Kelmscott in his constituency, the Environment Agency were threatening to take legal action against a landowner who had cleared out ditches with water voles present, without EA consent. The PM had a site visit, and in front of all concerned, two water voles appeared on the bank. This, as the PM said, settled the matter. The moral of the story is that  EA red tape stopped sensible landowners doing what was needed, and the red tape didnt even do what it was supposed to do ie protect nature, because the voles were still there.

Parish leapt on the opportunity – arguing that the EA needs to pass powers for dredging and maintenance down to local drainage boards (IDBs), Local Authorities and local landowners/farmers (and this is what Truss announced last week). As he said “if there’s a tree in the river, lets have someone local come out and do the work.” Leaving aside whether the tree is helping to slow the flow or not, Parish was pushing the argument that landowners should do this work – and presumably be paid for it. Who would pay though?

Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the Liaison Committee, also leapt on the vole story, taking the opportunity for some more nature bashing.  “While looking at voles” he said sardonically, “perhaps the PM could look bats, aphids, newts and snails, all of which seem to have slowed up work at one time or another.”

The evidence, scientific evidence, that nature benefits people in a hundred different ways continues to build. The evidence that clearing out ditches insensitively or at the wrong time of year, damage water vole populations is total and absolute – there is no ambiguity. While sensitive ditch management is good for water voles, Insensitive or inappropriate ditch maintenance is one of the reasons why the Water Vole population in England has crashed. But because the PM saw two voles (who may have been running around on the bank, starving, precisely because their habitat had been destroyed by the dredging) on the bank, the case was dismissed.

And it’s easy to see how such an experience, and such a good story, could influence the PM’s views on nature more generally, as well as reinforce his own prejudices against “ridiculous” regulation. Not only his – as the same language was used by the Chancellor, when in2011 he said he was going to make sure that goldplating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”.

While we may recoil at the abject naturephobia of our political leaders, we must also recognise that they understand that a good story (even if it’s wrong) will usually trump facts or statistics.

Read about other epiphanies at Kelmscott here

Photo by Peter Trimming from Croydon, England (Vole on Boot Hill) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Posted in David Cameron, deregulation, Dredging, Environment Agency, flooding | Tagged , , , | 21 Comments

Somerset Levels Drainage: Back to the Future


Bridge works on the River Sowy, Somerset; photo courtesy of Bren Hodkinson EA.


While the debate over flooding continues to ebb and flow, it seems that the newly minted Somerset Drainage Authority, sorry Somerset Rivers Authority, have found their way back to the bright shiny future of the 1950s, when electricity would be too cheap to meter; and we would all be traveling around in flying cars.

The SRA announced that they will be widening the artificial drain known as the Sowy River “by as much as Four Metres” along a 10km stretch of this drain. As well as widening the Sowy, a flood bank along its edge will be raised further. Another enormous land drain, the King’s Sedgemoor Drain will be dredged and deepened, and its flood banks raised.

The main beneficiaries of this multi million pound scheme (funded by the taxpayer through the Local Enterprise Scheme) will be farm landowners, whose land will flood less than it would have done. This will enable them to increase productivity, get rid of their low productivity  permanent grassland and grow more of crops such as Maize, the most environmentally damaging crop grown in Britain.

There are also claims that it will reduce urban flooding though there is no mention of this in the 20 year SRA flood action plan. Indeed it is difficult to see how the Sowy river would do much for urban flooding, at least compared to allowing Aller Moor to flood more naturally.

The area which the Sowy drains is also valuable for wildlife. The northern section of the Sowy passes through King’s Sedgemoor Site of Special Scientific Interest, which is also part of the Somerset Levels and Moors Special Protection Area. To the south of this area of wildlife-rich wet grassland, lies an area of most intensive agriculture, on Aller Moor. One unanswered question is whether the proposed works on the Sowy will lead to the wildlife of the Somerset Levels being damaged. Given that King’s Sedgemoor is protected under European legislation, the SRA will have to show that widening and deepening the Sowy will not have any damaging impact on the wildlife there.

Sowy and SSSIs smaller








There are alternatives – allowing low-lying farmland to flood during periods of high rainfall, just as it used to for centuries. But this would require a change in attitude about what farmland is for, and what farm subsidies are for.

This is just one more example of the regressive approach this Government adopts when it comes to tackling flooding. We should be reconnecting rivers such as the Parrett to their floodplains, allowing them to flood naturally, not developing ever more expensive hard engineering solutions, with all the long term maintenance costs they demand. And, given that climate change is predicted to increase the extent and intensity of flood events, what is the carbon footprint associated with removing the around 200,000 cubic metres of peat that widening the Sowy will entail?


Posted in drainage, flooding, Somerset Levels | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Flood, The Environment Agency Chair and the Grouse Moor


Sir Philip Dilley, Environment Agency Chair


The Forest of Bowland is an interesting place.

It’s a chunk of Northern England’s uplands, where a number of rivers originate. Much of it is owned by Unitied Utilities, and they ran a project called SCAMP, for Sustainable Catchment Management Programme. SCAMP showed very clearly how changes in the management of the uplands can help with things like Carbon storage, water quality and downstream flood attenuation. Management such as blocking drains in blanket bogs, reducing sheep grazing and stopping moor burning. Here are some slides about SCAMP from one of the project partners RSPB. RSPB were particularly interested in Bowland because it’s a Special Protection Area for birds, like breeding waders and the Hen Harrier.

Bowland is a bit of a black hole for Hen Harriers, thanks to much of it being managed as Grouse Moor. I’m not going in to the detail of this, as you can read about it ad nauseam at Mark Avery’s blog. Suffice to say Hen Harriers do very well on Unitied Utilities’ land in Bowland.

There are two other main estates on Bowland – one is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster. This is a little known offshoot of the Government, but Duchy land is effectively public land. There is no Duke of Lancaster! The third one is called the Abbeystead Estate and it’s owned by the Duke of Westminster, who certainly does exist. The Duke of Westminster is one of Britain’s wealthiest people and enjoys shooting grouse at Abbeystead, as do others. In fact Abbeystead, an 18000 acre estate of grouse moor and hill farms, holds the record, set 100 years ago, for the largest number of grouse shot in one day – 2929 birds were shot by eight shooters.

Coincidentally, 1915 probably held the record for the number of people shot in one year, until it was surpassed by 1916.

Hen Harriers do not have a good time on the Abbeystead Estate. And neither do Lesser Black Backed gulls, an amber listed species.The gull colony has been decimated, under a legal programme of culling.

But Gerald Grosvenor loves his field sports, and was Vice President of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. He also bankrolled the Countryside Movement, which became the Countryside Alliance. He gave the Movement a £1.3M “loan” which he never expected to be repaid. I haven’t managed to find out whether that loan still sits on the books of the Countryside Alliance – if anyone can enlighten me, please do.

The Abbeystead Estate, being grouse moor and hill farm, is managed by sheep grazing moor burning and the drainage of blanket bog – all of which contribute to speeding water off the hills. Despite being a European protected Special Protection Area, the moors are still burnt for grouse. Due to the bizarre way Natural England determine SSSI condition, the Abbeystead SSSI units are assessed as unfavourable recovering, apart from those areas where the gull cull takes place. Natural England have produced a plan for the Bowland SPA that recognises all the different “impacts” on the birds and their habitats  – it makes for interesting reading – the Abbeystead Estate are name checked under almost all of the “pressure/threat”.

Although it’s difficult to know exactly where the estate boundary is, as far as I can tell, the Abbeystead Estate comprises most, perhaps all, of the catchment of the River Wyre, which flooded so badly in December. 80 properties were flooded in St Michael on Wyre, though they did not receive a visit from Environment Agency Chair Sir Philip Dilley. Why would they? You may ask, after all thousands of properties were affected by the flooding this year and Dilley visited only a few.

The reason they might expect to see Sir Philip is because he is a Director of Grosvenor Estates, who own the Abbeystead Estate Grouse Moors and hill farms.

It would be interesting to know whether Sir Philip has been invited to shoot any grouse on the Abbeystead Estate yet.


Posted in countryside alliance, Environment Agency, flooding | Tagged , , , , | 20 Comments