Government in ‘civil war’ over rivers

Countryside campaigners are angry that a farmer who cleared a river bank to prevent erosion and flooding to local homes has been jailed.

With some DEFRA agencies including Natural England and the Environment Agency condemning tree work on river banks and others such as the Rural Payments Agency footing the bill for it, John Price was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he dredged a section of the River Lugg in Herefordshire and stabilised the river banks. Mr Price, of Day House Farm, previously pleaded guilty to seven charges connected to the work that he carried out between November 1 and December 3 in 2020. The 68 year old was sentenced to 12 months in prison, ordered to pay prosecution costs of £600,000, disqualified from being a director for three years, and ordered to carry out restoration works on about a mile of river.

Where do government agencies stand on clearing river banks of trees? In Herefordshire in 2021, the Environment Agency held an investigation into John Price. In Somerset in 2022, the Environment Agency carried out similar works itself. And there are grants available for clearing trees if they affect river flooding.

Following one recent tree clearance, anglers condemned the Environment Agency for removing trees and plants from the River Tone in Somerset, which – the government department told the Independent newspaper – it did to prevent nearby homes flooding. 

Fisherman Dominic Garnett says he wants to speak up for nature to stop the government wreaking havoc on river banks.

'I was looking after land like my father and grandfather'

Photographs of the levelled bank on the Lugg provoked outrage in the media from environmental activists. This kind of work is not unusual and can even attract a Countryside Stewardship grant. However, the River Lugg stretch includes a SSSI, which has special protection. Consent is required before works are carried out within a SSSI, to the river or to the felling of particular trees.

Natural England is responsible for ensuring protection of SSSI areas and the Environment Agency is responsible for flood risk management, fish and spawning and the way rivers function.

Natural England has regulatory powers to prevent damage taking place to SSSIs and to take appropriate enforcement action, including prosecuting offenders where damage occurs. The Environment Agency has powers to prosecute under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016; Water Resources Act 1991 and; the Salmon and Fresh Water Fisheries Act 1975.

The Environment Agency says it  had discussions with Mr Price’s local parish council and, it says ‘local landowners’ about flooding and pollution and it claims it has offered ‘advice and guidance’. When the story broke, it refused to say whether or not it gave Mr Price verbal permission to carry out the works. It pointed out that the works undertaken would require a permit under the Environmental Permitting Regulations and it did not issue this permit.

While the civil servants argue over whose fault it was, environmental activists in and around government have made political capital out of condemning Mr Price. Herefordshire Wildlife Trust says he committed a “crime against the environment”.

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