The recent floods in Cumbria, and in particular their repetitive nature (2005, 2009 and 2015), suggest that now is entirely the wrong time for the Environment Agency (EA) to be implementing major maintenance cutbacks in respect of the flood defences in the Arun Valley.
There are two projects underway at present. The first being the abolition of the River Arun Internal Drainage District (IDD), which is the EA’s unilateral opt-out of its responsibility for the maintenance of many of the non-main river watercourses in the Arun Valley.
This is despite the flooding experienced in the lower Arun Valley in early 2014, some of which was exacerbated by the EA’s failure to dredge (or de-silt) many of the steams and ditches for which it is currently responsible.
It is also despite the statement in the EA’s Risk Assessment document that the proposed changes were expected to bring a high risk to the “reputation of the Environment Agency and loss of good will”.
If nothing changes, it will certainly have achieved that result. The EA intends to dump its responsibilities onto the county council, the district councils and the local landowners, a classic example of bureaucratic divide-and-rule, irrespective of the consequences for anyone except the EA itself.
This flawed proposal has been on the table since 2012 but, despite strong local opposition, the EA has decided to walk away from its responsibilities without the slightest consideration of the operational implications.
As far as the EA is concerned, the need to change responsibility for the River Arun IDD is a fait accompli, and others are being left to pick up the pieces.
The second project relates to the EA’s Lower Tidal River Arun Strategy (LTRAS), which includes the proposal to cease maintenance of the River Arun’s flood defences altogether in certain parts of the river (two near Pulborough and one just to the north of Arundel).
Some of the defences are already deteriorating and have needed repair for several years, but the EA has declined to bring them up to a satisfactory standard before opting-out of its current responsibilities.
The effect of this is that, in these three sections of the River Arun, the responsibility for maintenance will devolve onto the riparian owners.
The latter will therefore have to accept the operational and financial responsibility not only for the maintenance of the culverts, sluices and outfalls related to what will become the ex-IDD ditches, but also for the maintenance of the River Arun’s flood defence embankments themselves.
The alternative is that no future maintenance will be undertaken, that the land behind the extant and already deteriorating embankments will flood, and that there may well be down-steam implications in respect of both flooding per se, as well as undefined legal responsibility for flood damage to people, property and infrastructure.
Also, we will be left with the seemingly absurd situation where, on a relatively short river where the water owns no bounds, some parts of the flood defences will be maintained while others may be abandoned.
It therefore seems to me that this is the right time for the EA to put both these projects on hold pending a review to determine if the proposed changes really are in the best interests of the landowners and communities located in the Arun Valley, especially as in future we may well have to expect major flooding events at a greater frequency than in the past.