New scheme to cut redtape leaves landowners managing flood risk by de-silting watercourses has potential for huge environmental damage.

The Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA) has serious concerns over a new scheme to allow landowners to dredge their rivers without first obtaining permission from the Environment Agency (EA).

The scheme, under the title, River Maintenance Pilots, was announced by Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, and is designed to remove red tape and help landowners to manage the risk of flooding by de-silting watercourses, supposedly without causing any environmental damage. Indeed, Paterson considers that this de-regulation could actually enhance the environment, though there is no explanation as to how this astonishing statement might pan out in reality.

S&TA’s CEO, Paul Knight, says, "This is further confirmation of how far down the scale environmental protection has fallen under this Coalition Government. The UK has statutory responsibilities under EU legislation to protect and enhance the water environment, but this is seen by Defra as secondary to a knee-jerk appeasement of the agricultural lobby."

Knight continues, "No-one would argue that flooding needs to be controlled in certain areas, but at a time when the EA is openly supporting the concept of catchment management – coordinating all the issues which affect the natural dynamics of individual river systems – as a means of achieving high ecological status in our waterways, this reversion to piecemeal flood defence is extraordinary."

S&TA’s Head of Science, Janina Gray, adds, "There is no evidence that de-silting on an uncoordinated basis will benefit local flood defence – in fact, it could well be that one farmer’s dredging will merely move the flooding problem downstream to neighbouring landowners. It is also unfair to expect farmers to know whether or not their actions are impacting aquatic life – that is what the EA is for, and so taking away its regulatory responsibility could cause untold environmental damage, purely in the interests of removing red tape."

EA staff will apparently be on hand in each pilot area to provide advice, and new Good Practice guidance will, "Ensure that all activities take environmental concerns into consideration when maintenance work is carried out."

"This hardly fills us with confidence," says Gray. "Coordinated catchment management is the only way in which we have a hope of bringing all our rivers into a healthy ecological state, but what chance has that of succeeding when there is no legal requirement for landowners to seek permission or advice before starting up their dredging machinery?"

"There is a compromise solution," Knight concludes. "Defra should provide the resources for the EA to establish a fast track decision making system so that farmers in the pilot areas save time but also coordinate their dredging activities through the regulator. This would cut down the red tape and should ensure minimal environmental impact, at the same time as providing a useful pointer as to how catchment management could work in future."

To see the unintended results of dredging, view: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAZ_BuyM41s