Wash Frontagers’ Group calls for flood defence cash to safeguard Fens economy
- Credit: Matthew Usher
On the anniversary of the destructive tidal surge of December 2013, farmers along The Wash are making an urgent call for vital agricultural land to be given a higher priority in flood defence investments.
The tidal surge of December 5 last year was a night of conflicting fortunes for many along the East Anglian coast.
While the rising waters devastated many homes and livelihoods, others were able breathe a sigh of relief as they were narrowly spared from disaster.
One of those was Gavin Lane, one of four shareholders at Admirals Farm on Terrington Marsh, west of King's Lynn, where he grows about 400 hectares of combinable crops and sugar beet.
His land, close to Norfolk's border with Lincolnshire, is separated from The Wash by a flood bank which came within a metre of being breached as the tidal surge swelled 12 months ago. Next time, he feels the area may not be so fortunate.
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So he is one of a group of farmers using the first anniversary of the surge to make an urgent plea to recognise the vital importance of Fenland farming and food production when funding decisions are made over flood defences.
The Wash Frontagers' Group (WFG) comprises 68 farmers and landowners along the coastline from Hunstanton to Skegness, who are concerned that the state of more than 80 miles of sea defences needs addressing urgently.
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While millions of pounds in government cash has been announced this week for projects to safeguard homes and vital infrastructure, Mr Lane said the sea wall protecting thousands of acres of fertile farmland has seen very little maintenance for 30 years – and if the elements were to conspire to produce another similar surge with a following wind, the consequences could be unthinkable.
He said: 'We were lucky in the fact that it was a very still and very calm night. In King's Lynn, there was a bit of flooding into King Street from the Purfleet area, but the defences held.
'If we'd had a strong prevailing wind we could have seen it go over the top. The impact would be devastating. Nobody is quite sure what the effect of salt water would have been, or how quickly you would get that land back into production, but even after the water had subsided it may have taken three to five years to get the land back into croppable condition.
'All bets are off as to how far the breach could go inland. If it was to happen again there is the possibility it may be able to affect transport links in the surrounding community.
'It is not just the farmers that would be affected, because it would affect food processing businesses in the area, and if it was to affect the transport network there would be other businesses that could be affected. We feel that if for any reason those businesses feel that the risk was getting greater, there is the chance they may decided not to stay in the area. It would only take one more tidal surge and a breach of the sea wall to convince people that this area does not have adequate protection against flooding. Once they go, they are not going to come back. So it would have a big knock-on effect for the whole community.'
The WFG says there are 365,261 hectares of farm land behind the seawall in the Fens Strategic Area, which includes parts of Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire – with more than 80pc estimated to be at risk of flooding.
Mr Lane said the coastal banks at Terrington were routinely maintained and strengthened during land reclamation work in the 1960s and 1970s, but after that work stopped in the 1980s there had been little work for first line of defence.
He said: 'While the Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) have continued apace at maintaining and improving the movement of alluvial water to prevent tidal surges up rivers, the Environment Agency (EA) has done little or no work to the sea bank for the best part of 30 years.
'What we would like to see is a partnership between the EA and the IDBs to produce a comprehensive local plan to do repairs when necessary and increase the height of the bank when necessary, in areas where it is needed.
'Over the last few years a lot of the money has gone on large capital projects and we feel now the emphasis should go back to the maintenance of existing defences. We are a high priority. We may not have the largest population, but the knock-on effect to other businesses would mean that this area would be hugely adversely affected if there was another tidal surge.'
The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents farms and rural landowners, is backing the WFG in its bid to protect land, homes and businesses in the Fens.
Eastern regional director Nicola Currie said, under the current cost/benefit system, the limited available government funding for flood and coastal defences is prioritised for schemes with 'high benefits', such as protecting people and property. As a result, farm land and rural areas, in spite of their important role in providing the nation's food, can miss out.
However, the government will now allow local finance to top up funding for schemes where the benefits are deemed to be not high enough for full state backing.
Mrs Currie said: 'Partnership funding is new for coastal defence work; while it is being piloted in the Suffolk coastal estuaries the Wash project is going to be the first real test of this government concept.
'I have briefed Defra minister Dan Rogerson, who is supportive of the WFG project. Mr Rogerson felt that early indications suggest that up to 25pc more schemes will go ahead through partnership funding in the coming years than if costs were met by central government alone.
'However, even he agreed that 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.
'Existing rules and regulations will have to be revised to enable it to go ahead.'
A spokesman for the Environment Agency said expenditure on flood defences is prioritised based on government guidelines.
She said: 'Within these guidelines the value of agricultural land is a factor, but the primary focus is to reduce the risk to people and properties.
'The Environment Agency's role is to make the best use of available funding, prioritising expenditure where it has the best return on investment relative to government guidelines.
'We do carry out regular maintenance on the sea bank at Terrington Marshes which includes regular grass cutting and vermin control.
'We carry out formal asset inspections every 12 months. Following the surge last year a detailed inspection was conducted and assessment of the sea banks were made. We are satisfied that the bank at Terrington Marsh fully meets its target condition and therefore does not require further maintenance over and above that already carried out.'