Sue has today written to the Floods Minister, Dr Therese Coffey MP, with her concerns regarding the Environment Agency’s proposed changes to charges for river and flood management.
A number of local flood action groups in Cumbria have raised their own significant concerns with the process. Under the proposals, schemes with drivers to enhance the environment or reduce flood risk will be subject to disproportionate permit charges, with increases of nearly 500%, which in some cases could jeopardise works going ahead.
In her letter, Sue said:
“The Government’s recent 25 Year Environment Plan stated “we will work with nature to protect communities from flooding, slowing rivers and creating and sustaining more wetlands to reduce flood risk and offer valuable habitats”, and goal no. 4 of the plan is “a reduced risk of harm from environmental hazards such as flooding”. I am concerned that these increased charges will hinder the achievement of this goal.
“I write in support of the consultation response from the West Cumbria Catchment Management Group, who do not agree with the proposed changes. The group is particularly concerned by the proposed increased charges on Main Rivers. Many of the activities which require permits are essential for grant funded river restoration works planned and delivered by the group. The revised charges will see many of the planned smaller schemes become cost prohibitive to the detriment of the statutory Environment Agency water quality and flooding targets we set out to achieve in partnership. Many of the projects planned by the group are on watercourses within designated sites which do not fall under exemptions.
“Common activities in designated sites include soft bank protection, bank re-profiling, installing cattle drinking bays and woody debris management (less than 25% channel width). Under the new proposals, these would be charged at £764, a significant increase of 349% from the current charge of £170. These fees would increase further when significant annual subsistence fees and pre-application discussion fees are also taken into account. In instances when these permits are required for environmental improvement activities, the proposed revised fees would be an unacceptable cost for civil society and the charitable sector to bear.
“As you know, we have issues with gravel removal from rivers in Cumbria. The new charge for this would be increased to £968 (a 469% increase from £170). Local flood action groups have great concerns about this increase, when gravel removal from local rivers has already had a positive impact on river levels, reducing flood risk and riverbank erosion.
“As the Catchment Management Group says in their response, permitting fees should be subsidised for works that are improving environmental condition including work by private landowners/individuals. For projects in partnership with the Environment Agency a technical assessment should be done as part of the project development, in collaboration with the EA. We strongly urge the EA to consider alternatives, including opportunities to allow schemes designed to improve and enhance the environment to be accepted for permit exemptions – an option not considered possible under current proposals.
“Such a significant leap in the cost of permitting and pre-application discussions, without applying a scale of incremental increases to the revised cost of permitted activities, will only encourage smaller businesses and individuals to undertake unpermitted and potentially environmentally damaging work by not engaging the Environment Agency in pre-application discussions.
“Perhaps it would be appropriate for the Environment Agency to consider development processes, through a charitable fund linked to permit exemptions, to assist those who might struggle with the proposed step change in charges. Should the proposed increase in charges be applied as planned, there are concerns that the increased charges would limit further investment from smaller businesses and individuals to enhance the environment through Water Stewardship activities and involvement with the catchment-based approach, potentially restricting investment in new innovative practices for the benefit of the environment.
“I also have significant concerns about the timescales involved in the consultation, particularly as my local flood action groups were only made aware of the consultation in the last few days, and so they have only had a short window in which to respond. Would it be possible for the consultation to be extended in order for everyone affected by these proposals to have their say?
“I’m sure that you will agree that volunteer organisations such as those carrying out environmental and habitat improvements along rivers in West Cumbria are not businesses. They carry out voluntary work, funded by members’ donations, for the benefit of the environment. The risks of the type of work are minimal, and they work with local Environment Agency and Natural England officers. They now face massive cost increases to carry out their improvement activities.
“Perhaps the increased charges on voluntary organisations are an unintended consequence of the proposals. I am sure that the Environment Agency would not want to discourage voluntary organisations from carrying out their vital improvement projects.
“I believe that the Environment Agency needs to think again on the effects of these proposals on voluntary organisations, which play a vital role in protecting our communities which are at risk of devastating flooding. I would be grateful for the opportunity to meet with you in order to discuss these matters further.”