Government in ‘civil war’ over rivers

Where do government agencies stand on clearing river banks of trees? In Herefordshire in 2021, the Environment Agency held an investigation into a farmer that did it. In Somerset in 2022, the Environment Agency did it 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:. 

Meanwhile, a farmer was still under investigation by the Environment Agency two months after he carried out similar works on a river that, he says, the Environment Agency ordered.

The case in 2021 to wider questions over who has responsibility for England’s rivers, and whether environmental activists appointed to government positions such as Tony Juniper and the Goldsmith brothers, Ben and Zac, will use the civil service vacuum to make a ‘land grab’ for control.

Farmer John Price cleared undergrowth and bankside trees from the River Lugg in Herefordshire in the autumn of 2020, drawing condemnation from both Natural England and the Environment Agency. Two months down the line, both the Environment Agency and Natural England are still investigating the case and considering prosecution.

Mr Price in front of the River Lugg

Photographs of the levelled bank 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. 

Emma Johnson at Natural England says: “Natural England and the Environment Agency are currently investigating the full circumstances of this significant incident on the River Lugg. This is a live investigation, which may lead to legal action and as such further details cannot be shared at this time.”

A spokeswoman for the Environment Agency adds: “We can’t add anymore at this stage while the investigation is live and ongoing.”

The issue they are investigating is Mr Price’s permission on the SSSI-registered bankside. 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’. It refuses to say whether or not it gave Mr Price verbal permission to carry out the works. It points 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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