Dr Martin Parsons is an author, writer and teacher currently living on the Suffolk coast

When dealing with natural disasters the urgent issue is: deal with the immediate problem – although one glance at the Somerset levels clearly shows that has not been done as well as it might be.

However, the recent flooding, whether December’s tidal surge that affected the east coast or the recent fluvial (i.e. river) flooding that has devastated not just the South West, but also significant parts of southern England has illustrated an underlying problem that must also be addressed.  It is simply this – the Environment Agency, which has statutory responsibility for amongst other things flood protection as a quango, lacks any real democratic accountability.

This was clearly illustrated two weeks ago when Paul Leinster, the chief executive of the agency, told a select committee that he was deciding whether to repair sea defences in Norfolk and Suffolk that had been breached in December’s tidal surge, or whether to abandon the area to the sea. That an unelected civil servant should assume publicly that he could make decisions such as this that so profoundly affect local communities illustrates the democratic deficit with the agency’s decision making.

The implications of that democratic deficit are now similarly being played out in the Somerset Levels, where farmers who no longer have any grass to feed their cattle this year, due to it having been underwater for the past five weeks, are furious at the agency for prioritising nature conservation projects over ensuring that watercourses can effectively drain water off the land.

One of the primary justifications for quangos is that they make technical rather than political decisions. However, as the agency’s recent statements on East Anglia and the Somerset Levels clearly illustrate, many of the decisions it has made over the last few years have in fact been, in the broadest sense of the term, political rather than simply technical. As a quango, the agency is funded by government, but not directly controlled by ministers. In other words, ministers can say to the agency: “We really think you should dredge the rivers draining the Somerset Levels urgently”, but they cannot actually order them to do so.

That is why it has been such an appalling dereliction of duty for Chris Smith, the former Labour cabinet minister who is now the agency’s chairman, to refuse to visit the Somerset Levels for five weeks before, while allowing Owen Paterson and DEFRA, which fund the agency, to take the blame. All credit to Patterson for actually going to Somerset and talking to local people who are understandably very angry at decisions made by the agency that have ruined their lives and, in the case of many farmers, possibly livelihoods as well. However, the truth is that despite his courage in facing that situation, the Secretary of State is actually somewhat hamstrung by the agency’s lack of direct accountability and direction from ministers.

This democratic deficit has been made worse by two pieces of legislation. The first is the EU Habitats Directive, which requires replacement habitats to be created not merely when a major development has taken place, but also where a natural habitat such as salt marsh has been lost due to coastal erosion. Let me emphasise at this point that the idea of habitat replacement is in principle a good idea, provided that land is purchased on the open market for a fair price. However, this is not always the case. Two years ago we took a family holiday on a farm in the Somerset Levels, and the farmer, noticing that I had written some articles on coastal erosion for ConservativeHome, told me how it had been discovered that the agency had put an entire beef farm that bordered the Parrett river under managed retreat to replace saltmarsh habitat that had been lost due to the expansion of Bristol docks. That in itself may present a further perspective on the agency’s reluctance to dredge to that river.

The second piece of legislation that has tilted the balance of power even further in favour of the agency is the 2010 Flood and Water Management Act, which was rushed through Parliament without proper scrutiny in the so called ‘wash up’ period in the last few days before the 2010 general election. Section 38 of this gives the Environment Agency a statutory right to actually create flooding, raise the water table or create coastal erosion for what are, in practice, a wide ranging set of reasons, with district councils, landowners and tenant farmers only needing to be ‘consulted’. Ironically, this act was introduced in response to the Pitt Review of the summer 2007 floods.

The problem with this lack of democratic accountability is not simply that a quango such as the Environment Agency can become detached from local people’s priorities for the areas they live and work in, it is also that governmental bureaucracy without democratic accountability has a tendency to pursue its own agendas, and sometimes lose sight of what it is really there to do.  A disturbing illustration of this was a report published in 2007 which looked at how well prepared the country was for a repeat of the 1947 floods caused by repeated heavy rainfall triggering the sudden melting of accumulated snowfall. Those floods, which resulted in over a thousand square miles of land being flooded over a two week period, represent a partial parallel to the situation currently facing communities in Somerset and elsewhere in southern England. Disturbingly, the report found that in 2007: “No national database is available which contains the type, height, design level, and maintenance conditions of U.K. river flood defences even for main rivers.”

There is therefore an urgent need to bring much greater democratic accountability to flood defence, as follows:

  • In relation to sea defences, as I have argued before on this site, much could be devolved down to local authority level and appropriate block grants for major projects from central government.
  • For fluvial (i.e. river) flooding the situation is more complex, since rivers need to be managed at a whole catchment level, which, except for the smallest rivers, rarely fall within a single local authority area, with major rivers such as the Waveney (Norfolk and Suffolk) and the Stour (Suffolk and Essex) often themselves forming county boundaries. However, it is possible to introduce at least some measure of local accountability, as can be seen in the work of the internal drainage boards that are responsible for drainage before it reaches the main rivers in a number of lowland areas.
  • The decision making on flood protection needs to be as local as possible. However, it is very clear from the situation in the Somerset Levels that where there is an emergency lasting more than a few days we need to have a mechanism for Ministers to take direct control of operations. The pantomime we have seen in recent weeks with Lord Smith, the chairman of the Environment Agency which has direct responsibility for flood protection refusing to visit Somerset – leaving Owen Patterson to tour flood hit areas while lacking direct control over flood protection – is a situation that cannot be allowed to be repeated. Ministers must be able to take direct control in emergencies.
  • There is an urgent need for a review of both the 2010 Flood and Water Management Act and the EU Habitats Directive. The latter appears to be quite unnecessarily setting nature conservation against farming and the rural economy when, in reality, most farmers are instinctively conservationists who spend their lives working with and managing the natural environment. As such ,there is a strong case for including this in the competencies that the Government is seeking to get back from the European Union.
  • Whatever reform is introduced, it must be subject to wide-ranging consultation and proper parliamentary scrutiny. With little more than year until the next election, it may be difficult to legislate in the current parliament. However, the problems that have become evident in the 2010 Flood and Water Management Act, which lacked such scrutiny, point to the need to focus on doing what is good for the country, even if the present Conservative-led government doesn’t necessarily get the full credit for it.