Years of neglect that have seen vital rivers silt up were partly to blame for the floods that wrecked livelihoods across the West Country, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has conceded.
Thousands of acres of farmland is still under water and other businesses and households are still suffering from last year’s record-breaking rains.
Some farmers have had to lay off workers and sell stock as they wait for land submerged for months to dry out, after weather that the NFU has estimated will cost the industry £1.3 billion.
Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, Mr Paterson said: “We have obviously got a problem about whether we are clearing out watercourses as well as we should be. We have got to look at this.”
He refused to point the finger of blame and congratulated the work of the Environment Agency and fire services for their work. But he added: “There is a case for having a good look at the impacts flood can have on agricultural land because it is a real problem.
West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger called for the “redefinition” of the agency’s responsibilities so that people’s needs are put first.
And last night farmer Peter Maltby, the chairman of Somerset Drainage Boards Consortium, called on the Environment Agency to restart dredging the Parrett and Tone, so crucial to drainage of the Somerset Levels.
He said: “The rivers’ capacity needs to get back to how it was in the 1960s. The drainage boards have done cross sections of the Tone and the Parrett and it’s generally accepted that they are down by about 40 per cent which means they can only carry 60 per cent of the water that they could carry.
“The Environment Agency could start in the summer and in the first year even if they just took out the pinch-points it would make a big difference.
“To do the eight miles from North Moor Pumping Station back up the Tone would cost between £1 milion and £1.5million, but if you compare that with the losses that have been suffered it’s peanuts. I have heard of a number of farmers who have had to give up employees and have become one-man bands and people who have got rid of their livestock. Some cannot expect any income until next September.
“The Environment Agency did a bit of dredging from a barge in 2004-05 but there hasn’t been significant dredging for 30 years. I think the engineers do understand and the problem is with the purse strings.”
Internal Drainage Boards, composed of appointed and elected members, include a significant number of farmers. Their duties include maintaining the ditches and minor water courses which drain into rivers.
Mr Maltby said: “We see the problems first hand, sometimes over two or three generations. We maintain our watercourses and can only hope that the Environment Agency will start to maintain its as well.”
Environment Agency spokesman Paul Gainey said: “We spend some £20 million annually on dredging in England and Wales. In many cases, however, dredging will not reduce the risk of flooding, simply because many rivers quickly silt up again as part of their natural processes. We therefore focus our efforts on dredging at those locations where it has a proven benefit of reducing flood risk.”
And the Prime Minister yesterday he rejected charges the Government has given up on a new deal with insurers on behalf of householders.
Talks with the Association of British Insurers (ABI) have dragged on for months, raising fears flood-threatened properties could be left without insurance.
The existing deal, which requires insurers to offer cover, is known at the Statement of Principles and is due to expire next summer.
Responding to a question from Southampton Labour MP Alan Whitehead, he said: “The discussions are still under way. They have made very good progress, I’m confident that we will reach an agreement.
“Of course, we have also put in an extra £120 million to flood defences and I think everyone can now see the flood defence work which has been done over recent years has made a significant difference.”
His words may raise eyebrows in Taunton, where the AA saw a rise of 11,600 per cent in flood-related call-outs, and even a specialist team was overwhelmed.
Last year was the AA’s busiest year ever for flood-related call-outs – nationwide its teams went to the aid of 8,211 cars stuck in floodwater, up from 1,280 in 2011.
And the West bore the brunt, with a 1,555 per cent increase in flood-related call-outs – up from 118 cars in 2011 to 1,953 in 2012.