A CROSS-party group of MPs has expressed deep concern after it emerged the Environment Agency has just £30m to spend on dredging rivers for the whole of England and Wales this year.
Anne McIntosh, the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, said the Commons environment, food and rural affairs select committee which she chairs was “shocked” to learn that such a small amount was being spent on keeping the nation’s waterways clear.
Dredging has become a hugely controversial issue over recent weeks, following the disastrous winter flooding which has left large parts of the south west underwater.
David Cameron admitted last month that the decision in the late 1990s to massively reduce the dredging of English rivers had gone on “far too long”, and that a “new approach” was now needed.
The dredging of key rivers in Somerset is expected to begin within weeks, after years of complaints from local farmers, residents and internal drainage boards (IDBs) that the waterways had become blocked.
Speaking in the Commons, Miss McIntosh laid bare the tiny amount of money set aside by the Environment Agency for dredging English and Welsh waterways, and made clear her cross-party committee’s deep concerns.
“The committee was shocked to learn that only £30m is spent each year in the whole of England and Wales on controlling aquatic weed, dredging, clearing screens and removing obstructions from rivers,” the North Yorkshire MP said.
“We will never know whether regular maintenance and dredging on the Somerset levels by the IDBs or the Environment Agency would have prevented the traumatic flooding we have seen since last autumn and right through the winter.
“I repeat – there is only £30m this year for clearing water courses, normally referred to as dredging.”
Rows over funding for flood protection have dominated discourse in Westminster for weeks, with Mr Cameron finally announcing an emergency package of measures in February.
Yesterday, however, it emerged that a crucial scheme for flood defence work on the Humber faces a £60m shortfall which may need to be plugged by cash-strapped local authorities. Five councils will be asked to find nearly £500,000 a year for the next two decades to keep defences intact on the estuary, following the devastating coastal flooding which struck in December.
In the Commons, another senior Tory backbencher – Beverley and Holderness MP Graham Stuart – warned that Government pledges of support for flood-hit communities can quickly dry up once the waters recede.
“One challenge with flooding is that when it is a hot topic, it is a hot topic,” he said. “Leaders of the day make lots of promises –but there then tends to be a fading away; a salami slicing of budgets.”
Ministers insist they are doing enough, however, with the Prime Minister’s emergency package of flood protection measures including an extra £130m for investment and maintenance over the next year.
A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) defended the £30m annual spend on dredging, pointing out this was just one part of the quango’s wider spending on flood protection measures.
“Dredging and clearing channels in rivers are important parts of the Environment Agency’s maintenance regime,” he said.
“A total of £147m has been allocated for agency’s flood maintenance activities in 2013-14, which includes work on river conveyance including dredging.”