Friday, 5 December 2014

Farmers fight flood threat

High tide for the newly formed Wash Frontagers' Group

Vast swaths of the Fens in eastern England could be catastrophically flooded by the next North Sea surge if nothing is done to shore up sea defences.

Much of the country’s prime arable land around the Wash is below sea level and farmers say that more than 80 miles of neglected sea defences need urgent attention.

The £2.3bn spend confirmed by the government for flood projects around the country this week earmarks nothing for raising defences across one of the country’s most at risk areas.

Farmers of land around the Wash marked the first anniversary of last December’s tidal surge with the formation of the Wash Frontagers' Group (WFG) and an urgent call to action.

They are concerned that the region’s farming and food production industry - worth an estimated £3bn to the UK economy - would be fatally damaged if sea walls are breached.
           
Stafford Proctor, who farms at Long Sutton and is WFG chairman, says the Wash sea defences protect some of the country’s most productive farmland.

And he described last winter's floods across the Somerset Levels as being like "a drop in the ocean" compared to what could happen in the Fens.

"Last year's tidal surge showed just how vulnerable our land, homes, businesses and the whole area is to sea water inundation,” he says.

“In Boston alone, 700 homes and businesses were affected. Just think what the effect of a massive inundation would be on the economy of the whole Fen region. It would be devastating.”
           
Recent figures show that behind the protective seawalls there are 365,261 hectares of farm land, more than 80 per cent of which is classified as at risk of flooding.

The region, which includes South Lincolnshire and parts of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, is known as the Fens Strategic Area and is home to around 655,000 people spread across remote rural communities in towns and villages.

“We were very close a catastrophe across this area and we don't want people to revert back to the status quo as though nothing had happened,” says Proctor.


Stafford Proctor - WFG chairman

According to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) county adviser for South Lincolnshire, Simon Fisher, raising the sea defences is not just about protecting the future for farmland.

“It includes everything else that makes life tick - people, communities, towns, industry, agriculture, environment, utilities, energy generation and transport infrastructure,” he says.

“A huge amount of fresh produced is produced from South Lincolnshire and the financial contribution this county makes to the economic well-being of this country is worth billions of pounds.

“If we look at the true value of local agriculture and its upward supply chain, it is £3 billion plus and supports in excess of 60,000 jobs in the Fens.

“We need to protect the land and businesses surrounding the Wash and find the funding to raise the sea defences that so many people depend on.

“If you had a major sea inundation around here, no matter how well defended the towns of Boston, Kings Lynn, Wisbech and Spalding are, they are going to be cut off and sat in the middle of a giant pond.”


WFG members (from left): Nicola Currie, Simon Fisher, Simeon Disley, Stafford Proctor, Gavin Lane

Fisher is also dismissive of the concept of ‘managed retreat’, a suggestion put forward by some wildlife organisations, including the RSPB and Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.

“There are some very good examples of tiny bits of land being left to the sea and that is probably perfectly feasible,” he says.

“But when you are talking of the Fenland area as a whole you'd be heading inland to Peterborough before you get to a point where it wouldn't flood anymore.”

Proctor is sceptical too. “The argument for managed retreat is creating more ‘green’ areas to try and dissipate the waves - but if anyone was down here last year they would have seen there weren't any waves.

“It was like a silent invasion,” he recalls. “The water just came up flat and got higher and higher. No amount of green marsh will protect you against that.”

Negligible sea bank maintenance work on this part of the coast has been carried out since the mid-1908s and WGF estimates the cost to fix the most needy parts of the sea banks would stretch to around £100 million.

“Compared to what is at stake everyone says this makes a lot of sense,” adds Proctor, who farms 2000 acres of Crown Estate land.

“But in order to do something we need public support and funding - the whole point of what we are trying to do is to raise awareness of the need to do something urgently.”

Country Landowners Association (CLA) eastern regional director, Nicola Currie, believes the WGF will only succeed if it garners support from the Environment Agency and Natural England.

“Under the current cost benefit system, farm land and rural areas miss out because government funding for flood and coastal defences is prioritised for schemes that protect people and property,” she says.

Defra minister Dan Rogerson has indicated his support for the WFG project andsuggests that up to 25 per cent more schemes for coastal defence work could go ahead through partnership funding than if costs were met by central government alone.

“There are real challenges to raising funds locally, which is why the CLA is calling on the Environment Agency and Natural England to be fully supportive of this innovative group,” adds Currie.

“If we continue to do nothing eventually we are going to have a major disaster - we just can't keep carrying on having nemesis like this.

“The only solution is a stitch in time - we have to keep going on sea flood defence and this is why we are calling upon government to help both financially and with changes to legislation to make it easier to get this work done.”

Climate change and rising sea levels mean that storm surges are expected to become more frequent in years to come.

They occur when a rising area of low pressure takes pressure off the surface of the sea allowing it to ‘bulge’ upwards before being pushed down through the North Sea by strong winds.

During last December’s surge parts of the North Sea reached higher levels than the devastating floods of 1953 but sea wall defences around the Wash area largely kept the water at bay.


A new blue plaque marks the level of last December's storm surge
The WFG chose to launch its campaign this week alongside the giant sluice gates of a tiny settlement called Surfleet Seas End, where water is poured into sea channels to keep farm land from flooding.

Here, the Welland and Deepings Internal Drainage Board has just erected a small plaque several metres above the normal sluice gate water level.

It serves as a stark reminder of how sea water came to within just a few inches of bursting these banks at the height of the storm surge during the night of 5 December last year.
 
Report and photographs by Clive Simpson - please contact for further information


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