We have flooding crisis under control, minister tells struggling farmers | Environment

The government has rejected calls for a public inquiry into the flooding disaster, arguing it has the crisis under control.

The environment secretary, George Eustice, came under sustained attack at the National Farmers’ Union annual conference but said the government had already saved thousands of homes from flooding and would be spending “record” amounts on future defences.

“I don’t think we need an inquiry, because there have been a number over the last decade,” Eustice said.

He also rejected demands that Boris Johnson visit flooded communities himself to learn firsthand what farmers, businesses and homeowners are facing following Storms Ciara and Dennis.

“I don’t think it would make any difference at all. We’ve had a grip of this situation and we’ve been having daily conference calls with the flood response centre, I’ve been in close contact, we’ve had 1,000 staff on the ground responding to this crisis.

“A visit from the prime minister would not have affected the way we’ve approached this crisis. We’ve taken all the decisions necessary in a very, very timely way,” he said.

He faced a hostile reception from farmers, who gasped at some of his answers and applauded sharp interventions from the NFU president, Minette Batters.

One farmer shouted “rubbish” when Eustice suggested they would have to wait until August to see if they would get their farm payments this year, prompting Batters to point out that the “winter crop is lost” already.

Eustice later said his answer on the complicated crops payments rules had been “misunderstood”.

Batters said she accepted that Johnson was not going to visit any flood sites, but in a sideswipe said: “Unless cabinet ministers get out and see this issue for themselves it’s very hard [to understand the level of ruin].”

“They are clearly not going to have an inquiry. This is only going to get worse. We are going to see more of this,” she added, saying that the “nature-based solutions” the government is considering for future defences were not enough.

Batters said a “seismic investment” was needed in infrastructure. She said farmers were “in a crisis situation”, which needed a more urgent response from the government than they were getting.

The conference heard how some farms had been flooded since November, with winter crops destroyed and little prospect of a spring crop being planted.

Eustice said the government had spent £2.5bn on flood defences, some of which were “soft defences” upstream but much of which were hard defences in urban areas. “But we do recognise there is more to do, because climate change is here to stay – we are seeing more of this extreme weather.”

He said more than £4bn would be spent over the next five years, and a “big part of our focus is going to be nature-based solutions upstream”. These could include planting more trees and using natural floodplains and dams to protect lowland areas, he added.

The NFU says much more is needed, with a new network of reservoirs and a national pipeline that would move water from areas where it is stored in the winter to areas such as Lincolnshire, where it is short in the summer.

Eustice said the reality was that the money invested in flood defences in the past five years was working and “protecting over 200,000 homes”.

One farmer told how his godson’s farm in Lincolnshire was still flooded from November’s storms. “We’ve got the title of this conference: ‘Farming Without Barriers’ … one of the biggest barriers is government policy regarding agriculture,” Andrew Ward told Eustice.

“We cannot carry on like this as an industry, we cannot afford for it to carry on,” he added.

Batters described Eustice’s visit to the NFU conference as “challenging” but said his passion for agriculture was unquestioned as he grew up on a farm and understood the issues. The question was whether he was enough of a heavyweight to persuade the Treasury and Home Office to act on farmers’ needs, she said.

Eustice also heard that the new points-based immigration policy would leave farming with a shortfall of 65,000 workers. He hinted that he would push to get numbers of seasonal workers up or put farming on a protected shortage occupation list like nursing.

He said his department was “looking at those sectors, those jobs where there is really a shortage” and would be feeding back to the Home Office.

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