I watched the opposition day debate on the floods with interest – every minute of it.
There were quite a lot of MPs, of both main political parties, taking the time to praise their constituents and to ask for promises of government money. Fair enough. Some of them were more subtle and convincing than others.
I’ll put the link to the report of the debate here when it is available later today.
The heroes of the debate were definitely Kerry McCarthy, Alex Cunningham, Barry Gardiner (one of the #sodden570 remember), Mary Creagh and Richard Benyon.
I was impressed that Richard Benyon spoke out against dredging being the answer to everything, and also said that we should look at how we manage the uplands*. Good for him. But interestingly, Mr Benyon could not bring himself to use the words ‘grouse moors’, and neither could Rory Stewart, and (although it hardly matters) nor could the trustless Liz Truss (who is absolutely hopeless as a minister). My recollection is (though I will check) that in this debate no Tory could bring themselves to mention grouse moors whereas Kerry McCarthy** and Barry Gardiner*** certainly did!
It is a sign of some success when the Tory party is ashamed even to mention the words ‘grouse moor’ in parliament – progress indeed. How will the Moorland Association feel that their 860,000 acre contribution to floods, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and wildlife crime is now so high-profile that government ministers choose not to mention them, let alone praise their contributions. This is progress.
The more people who sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting the more difficult it will be for the grouse moor mis-managers to strut their stuff in public.
Benyon also defended, convincingly, his decisions as a minister over flood defence schemes. I don’t know the details, but his words had the ring of truth about them.
His successor, Rory Stewart******, was strong on praising people for their efforts and weak on any solutions. That’s not what we need from a government minister. As is often the case, I bet Benyon could do a better job second time around than he did first time around. I’d be very surprised if Ms Truss could ever get it right.
Neil Parish is an uninspiring farmer who is chair of the Efra committee. He seems to think that fellow farmers should be paid for water storage etc. I agree with that but I think we are already paying farmers for floods. What we need to do is change the contract between taxpayers all over the country and a few thousand farmers. Rather than pay lowland farmers lots of money and upland ones very little, we should redirect more money to the uplands but only, I say again, but only, for the provision of ecosystem services such as wildlife (eg Hen Harriers and Black Grouse), flood alleviation, carbon storage and clean water (see Chapter 6 in Inglorious). From what he said in the debate, and from what he said on the One Show a little later, I think Mr Parish**** wants extra money rather than a shift in the basis of payment.
See also Alex Cunningham’s***** closing remarks.
Thinking may be changing. It’s a shudder at the moment rather than a step in the right direction – but it is a shudder. There is the chance that Defra will realise that this is the last time that it can get away with saying ‘exceptional’ over and over again about lots of rain. We all now think that we will see similar things next week or next year or in a few years time – the exceptional is not exceptional anymore and any politician who doesn’t realise that had better hope he (or she) is moved or sacked before the wheel of misfortune comes round again.
* Richard Benyon said ‘Integrated catchment management schemes need to be thought through, involving agriculture, forestry, planning, water framework directive implementation, and the way in which we manage our uplands.’
** Kerry McCarthy said ‘Dieter Helm also highlighted the thorny issue of how some agricultural policies and associated subsidies pay little or no attention to flood risk dimensions. The examples he gave included greater exposure to rapid run-off from the planting of maize; the burning of heather to improve grouse moors, as it reduces the land’s retention of water; and farming practices in the upper reaches of river catchments.’
*** Barry Gardiner said ‘Grouse moors and sheep farming lead water to run straight off hills into populated valleys. Burning back heather reduces areas of peat and the ground’s ability to retain water. Climate change affects how much rain falls and how much water ends up in our towns and cities. That is our problem. We need catchment management and we absolutely need to see what the Natural Capital Committee will do and what it will advise the Government, but we must take on board the fact that land can no longer ignore the public good that it must provide. The grouse moor economy brings £100 million a year into this country, but its cost is incalculable. The Minister must take note and sort this out.’
**** Neil Parish said ‘We must also look at land management. At the moment, farmers are given compensation only when there is a loss of earnings. We need to look at that land and say, “Why don’t you farm that land in a way that allows you to have an income from it?” I am talking about planting trees or retaining water in the peat. Farmers might then view managing flood protection in a much more positive way. If we can put all these things in place, we could slow down the amount of flooding that is happening, but if we have 13 inches of rain in 36 hours, it is very difficult for any flood protection scheme to protect everybody.’
***** Alex Cunningham said ‘What thought has been given to changing the incentives for farmers and landowners in river catchment areas, particularly in the upper reaches of river catchments, which play a key role in determining flood risk?’
****** Rory Stewart said ‘We need to look at what we are doing with forestry and what we are doing with peatland restoration’