Richard North, 23/02/2020  

As the rain continues to pour and the reports of flooding proliferate, we've seen re-emerge the assertion that the real cause of the flooding has been the intervention of the EU and its prohibition on dredging rivers.

Most recently, we've seen this on last Thursday's edition of the BBC's Question Time, when a member of the studio audience was allowed to ask the panel: "Why have the EU stopped dredging the rivers, and then they wouldn't have flooded in the first place?"

Not having watched the programme, I cannot tell whether this point was addressed by the panel but, to judge from the sharp reaction on Twitter, it was allowed to go unchallenged, only later being condemned in a Twitter post as "incredible ignorance".

That single post, at the time of writing, elicited 413 replies, 705 retweets and 2.4K "likes", with a not untypical response being one of denial – as in this claim that "Dredging rivers in England has absolutely nothing to do with the EU".

Another commenter suggests that, "all flooding will stop now we’ve left", while another (one of several) resorts to invective, declaring: "Proof if needed that there is nothing thicker than a Brexshitter".

As to the putative involvement of the EU in our flooding crisis, and its impact on dredging, the claim emerged well before the referendum, gaining currency in late 2015 in the aftermath of the Cockermouth floods which had swamped this Cumbrian market town in the early December, and following the flooding of the Somerset Levels which had captured the headlines over the winter of 2013-14.

The charge in 2015 came from author and former sheep farmer Philip Walling who, in his local paper, wrote that there had been an "almost complete cessation of dredging of our rivers since we were required to accept the European Water Framework Directive (EWF) into UK law in 2000".

No longer were the authorities charged with a duty to prevent flooding, he claimed. Instead, the emphasis shifted, in an astonishing reversal of policy, to a primary obligation to achieve "good ecological status" for our national rivers. This is defined as being as close as possible to "undisturbed natural conditions".

By the end of December 2015, this had been picked up by the Mail. It paraded the headline: "Britain's flooding crisis 'made worse by the EU': Green Brussels bureaucrats have 'banned' river dredging that allows water to drain faster, say farmers", from which point the culpability of "Brussels" became firmly lodged in the Eurosceptic narrative.

What sums up the current state of the art, therefore, is that we have two camps. One asserts that the EU is at the root of all evil, while the other denies any culpability on the part of the EU, and resorts to insult and denigration when confronted with those who disagree.

But what really typifies the "debate", in common with discussions about many aspects of the EU and Brexit, is that neither camp seems to be in the least concerned to bolster their arguments with facts. They are content, from positions of hazy ignorance and denial, to hurl brickbats at each other, never to resolve the issues.

Yet, as we were to see from an article in the Irish Times, days after the Mail had published, the UK was not the only country contemplating the effects of EU directives on flood defences.

In Ireland, Minister of State Simon Harris was concerned that plans to dredge the Shannon would breach not the Water Framework Directive, but the Habitats directive. However, he did observe that, with a humanitarian crisis in some areas, "in those instances protecting those communities may trump any EU directive that is in force".

Harris was not wrong and, in developing his point, I wrote a long piece adding detail to his argument. In so doing, I was able to point out that both the Framework and the Habitat Directives had derogations which allowed works to be carried out to prevent flooding.

As a matter of law, I wrote, the EU did not require the dredging of our rivers to be abandoned. And, in the real world, we had an Environment Agency spokesman saying that: "… over the past two years we have spent £21 million on dredging". In theory and practice, Walling was wrong.

In its own defence, the Commission told the Irish Times, that it was not to blame, its spokeswoman stating that the directives left scope for Member States to decide their own rules on how to manage their water courses.

Our government, in any case, argued through its chosen expert that dredging was not necessarily the answer to flood control and, in certain circumstances, could speed more water towards downstream communities even faster, potentially putting them at greater risk.

That was not the situation with the Somerset Levels flooding though, where proper maintenance of the entire drainage system, from ditches to rivers, could – in theory - have vastly increased the storage capacity of the system and held back the worst of the floods, allowing the excess to be discharged to sea.

However, in the autumn of 2013, Booker and I found, the Levels had been deliberately flooded, the background to which was charted on this blog and in more detail in my report of the floods.

What comes over is the complexity of the system, involving international conventions, EU law, national law and procedures, and local rules. And here, the EU cannot completely (or at all) escape responsibility for the flooding of the Somerset Levels.

It was the EU's insistence that Member States should meet quotas on restoring wetlands that set off the chain of events which led to the flooding of much of the area. The government, with the willing assistance of the Environment Agency and the complicity of the RSPB, decided that areas of the Levels should be allowed to revert to wetland in the autumn of 2014.   

It is far too simplistic, therefore, to assert that the EU "stopped dredging the rivers". Much more to the point, it has over many decades shaped water management policies in the UK and other Member States and which, in the UK and elsewhere, have increased flooding.

Nor can any single measure be relied upon. As this report on progress on flood defences in Somerset illustrates, protection comes from the combined effects of many different solutions.

Despite that, Owen Paterson – who was environment minister at the time of the 2014 Somerset flooding – asserted in 2016 that dredging had saved Somerset from being hit by flooding again.

David Hall, Chairman, Somerset Rivers Authority, was to make the same claim more recently, with a repeat performance by Paterson who last week asserted that: "Leaving the EU is a chance to rethink our disastrous flooding policy".

All this demonstrates, though, is how little Paterson learned while he was environment secretary – and what little attention he gave to the reports I wrote for him. As I explained with some care, underpinning the EU's Habitats Directive are the 1971 Ramsar Convention and the 1979 Berne Convention, both of which will continue to apply even though we have left the EU.

The real point about the EU, therefore - I wrote in 2016 - is that it is unnecessary. It simply adds another layer of government and adds to the confusion and lack of accountability in areas where clarity and certainty are required.

What leaving the EU won't do is change the essential direction of our water management policy – which is determined by international agreements - and nor, when one judges the way Brexit has been handled, will it necessarily lead to any improvement in its execution.

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