Why won't Ryedale say NO to the Environment Agency's plans to Abandon Flood Defences? - April 2008


Councillors owe the public an explanation for their failure to support the motion I put to Council on 13th March in the following terms: “ As a matter of principle, the Council opposes the blocking  of drains, the creation of new river meanders and the abandonment of flood defences and the Environment Agency be so advised.” This was amended, at the suggestion of Councillor Keith Knaggs to read: “In principle, the Council opposes …….etc.” In spite of this helpful suggestion, the Council voted against the motion by 12 to 11. The opponents comprised 11 Conservatives and 1 Liberal Democrat (Howard Keel), and I understand Councillor Knaggs actually applied the whip so as to stop his own group members voting according to their conscience.


To put the matter in context, the Environment Agency has produced a “flood management plan” for the River Derwent Catchment. Note: the operative words are “flood management” and not “flood prevention.” This plan contains many proposals which are entirely uncontroversial, but there are others which are outrageous. Amongst these are the proposals to block land drains, create new river meanders and abandon flood defences. Of course, radical action of this kind is only intended where these “do not provide a reduction of flood risk to property”.  


In a letter dated 28th August 2007, Barbara Young, the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency stated as a fact that: “ the amount of maintenance work in rural areas has reduced over the last twenty years as we focus our attention on protecting people and property”. So what does the Environment Agency mean by “property”?


Phil Woolas MP, the Minister for the Environment, wrote on 19th August 2007: “It must be recognised that, in some cases, reduction in the maintenance regime on some watercourses might represent optimum use of public resources nationally. I understand the Agency is moving to a system of allocating resources  based on a more formal assessment of the level of risk associated with individual watercourses. Some water courses fall into a lower risk category which impacts upon their priority for investment.”


In other words, a rigid “cost benefit analysis” is being applied on the basis of the number of houses which are protected by the flood banks. Such a formula (like the one which has been applied to new flood defences in Pickering) will inevitably benefit the cities at the expense of the countryside, and unless urgent action is taken, the farms and villages in the Vale of Pickering will be at risk.


Some people seem to be burying their heads in the sand by saying that no flood defences will ever be abandoned without the landowners’ agreement, and that all will be well if we just ask the Agency to compensate landowners. These people clearly do not live in the flat part of the Vale of Pickering or are not aware of the extent of the flood plain or of the flood defence banks, or if they are, are not at all bothered by the prospect of large parts of existing villages being inundated if the “rivers are united with their flood plains”, as the Agency likes to put it.


Those of us who live in what was once “Lake Pickering” know just how little maintenance work on flood banks has been carried out by the Agency. We know the rivers have not been dredged since 1985 and we see the cumulative effect of the silting up of the river beds. One’s imagination does not have to stretch far to predict the future. Malton and Norton and other towns are already protected by flood walls. As silt continues to build in the undredged river, there will eventually come a point when they cease to be effective. As they see this moment approaching, the Agency will ensure that only minimum repairs are carried out to rural flood defences, so that it will not then be difficult to persuade us that the best way to save the towns would be to let our land and villages flood and so hold back the water from the towns.


It was in this context that I brought my motion to the Council. In doing so, I made it clear that the motion was “in principle only” and so would not bind the Council to oppose any action if there were sound hydrological reasons for taking them. I particularly made it clear to Councillor Keel that the motion would not bind the Council to oppose any action that was necessary on hydrological grounds to protect Pickering.


I thought the motion would be uncontroversial. I believe John Greenway, our outgoing MP, supports my view. Regrettably we do not know the views of Ann McIntosh, his likely successor, who is also the Shadow Minister for the Environment. Regrettably too Councillor Knaggs led his members to vote against the motion.


I challenge Councillor Knaggs to offer a written explanation to the residents of Ryedale for this .


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