David Cameron and the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, have been rather disingenuous in their response to fierce criticism in the wake of severe flooding on the Somerset Levels. Implying that the disastrous neglect of flood defences is purely a funding issue, both have recently given assurances that dredging will take place as soon as it is safe. Paterson said this would “almost certainly” involve a plan to clear the Parrett and Tone rivers, which residents say have not been properly dredged over the past 20 years.
But funding is only half the story. The amount of money DEFRA (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has allocated to the Environment Agency for the maintenance of England’s rivers fell from £108m in 2010-11 to about £70m this year. But the cuts are not just austerity measures.
The Environment Agency is constrained by the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework published on 17 July 2012, covering the period from 2011 to 2020. It may not surprise some of you that this framework has its roots in an EU directive on environmental protection. In line with commitments made at the 10th meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) held in Nagoya, Japan in 2010, the European Commission adopted a strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems. The United Kingdom Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), identifying hundreds of species and habitats that need conservation and greater protection, is a direct consequence of this EU commitment.
Of particular interest to the people of Somerset is the appearance in the list of the hairy click beetle. Under the terms of the Species Action Plan, the Environment Agency is responsible for managing the conservation of this beetle (along with other species such as otters and water voles). The hairy click beetle or synaptus filiformis, to give it its correct Latin name, inhabits waterlogged soil and is found only on the River Parrett in Somerset and, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, it’s survival is threatened by dredging operations!
That is why Paterson felt compelled to qualify his assurances about dredging with the phrase “almost certainly”. He knew perfectly well it will not be just a question of diverting money from another budget. He may have to take on the full weight of the EU monolith before he can authorise any scraping of the river beds.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against the hairy click beetle. But surely we should not be putting the welfare of a mere insect before the potential destruction of people’s homes and livelihoods. You would have thought it would not be beyond the wit of our leaders to maintain a sense of perspective and an ordered scale of priorities. Besides, the hapless beetles have probably drowned in the floods by now!
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