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The Spectator's Notes

What medieval farmers knew – and the Environment Agency doesn't

Plus: The trouble with John Biffen, and a tip for Ed Balls

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

Our neighbour Philip Merricks is a farmer on Romney Marsh, 90 per cent of whose land is below sea level. The marsh would not exist without the medieval ingenuity which ‘inned’ it from the sea. Phil is therefore well placed to understand the interests of farmers on the Somerset Levels who have now been inundated for a month. But he is also a conservationist, owning and running two bird reserves, so is pro-farming and pro-wildlife, which too few are. Last week, he went to the Somerset Levels as chairman of the Hawk and Owl Trust, which has a reserve down there. He tells me that while the usual winter waterlogging is good for wildlife, what is happening in Somerset now is as terrible for wildlife as it is for farmers — too deep, too widespread, too prolonged. The half-blocked rivers have become like clogged arteries: the whole system has had a heart attack. Routine annual dredging of the Tone and the Parrett kept the balance right, but the Environment Agency stopped dredging when it came into being in 1996. The current disaster is the accumulated result of nearly 20 years of false doctrine. This also explains the EA’s reluctance to maintain coastal defences. On 6 December last year, the sea overtopped its walls in Sheppey and spread on to Phil’s Elmley National Nature Reserve. Erosion of the seawall was much worse wherever, on the landward face, the EA had not mown the grass. Strange that a government body of the 21st century understands less about the effects of water than the local farms and corporations of the 14th.

The Environment Agency’s opposition to dredging is reported, but not explained. Poor Chris Smith, the current chairman, gurgles inarticulately as if the floods were closing over his head.  The answer, as with so much in the management of the environment, is ideological. Especially under its former chief executive, Lady Young of Old Scone and New Labour (I have made only half of that title up), the EA has seen human activity as the enemy. Lady Young has been quoted in Parliament as saying that she would like to place limpet mines on all the old pumping stations to get rid of them. If people are the problem, you wonder why the EA employs more than 11,000 of them. Without human intervention, the Somerset Levels would become an inland sea. Perhaps that is what the EA wants.


As the owner of a bit of ‘river frontage’ (normally a thin stream, but flooded as I write), I pay what is called a ‘scut’. (I believe the word is the origin of the phrase ‘scot-free.’) This tax takes £8.48 a year from me for the Romney Marsh Internal Drainage Board. This sensible body, which has local representation, now has only low-level responsibilities for small watercourses, because, in 1996, power tried to defy gravity and drained upwards to the EA. It is time for it to start trickling down once more.

When, in 1996, Tony Blair promised, if elected, to hold the top rate of income tax at 40 per cent, he at last broke through to all the media. One should never ignore the basely obvious: almost all top ‘opinion-formers’ were then, and are now, top-rate taxpayers. Once Mr Blair had made his promise, we could set our hearts at ease about encouraging people to vote Labour. By the same token, you can trace the media’s terminal disenchantment with the Brown government to April 2009 when it raised the top rate to 50 per cent. And when Ed Balls promised last week to put the rate back up to 50 per cent, behind all the shrieks about the ‘politics of envy’ were some very sore editors, chief executives and possibly directors-general. They will now devote their considerable destructive powers to tearing Labour apart. How could it compensate for this tactical error? Only, I would suggest, by quickly promising to raise the scandalously low threshold of £41,451 per annum at which the higher (as opposed to top) rate of 40 per cent nowadays starts. More than four million people are caught by a level of tax originally designed for the genuinely rich. They are the upper reaches of the Middle England for whose custom the media fight. If Labour helped them, the opinion-formers would have to grin and bear their 50 per cent quietly.

Everyone who knew John Biffen loved him. He was a shy, charming, honest and thoughtful politician, who understood the House of Commons, eschewed dreary partisanship and represented all his constituents in best Burkean manner. He was also a dedicated Eurosceptic (with one important deviation when, as Leader of the House, he pushed through the Single European Act). In Semi-Detached (Biteback), which is part posthumous memoir and part diaries, he records voting in the 1984 European elections (when a cabinet minister) and spoiling his paper by writing ‘Stuff Brussels’ on it. After reading the book, however, and studying reaction to it, I think Biffen is being turned into a misleading role model. It is not always the finest thing for an MP to say what he thinks, annoy his whips and distance himself from the party whose ticket keeps him his seat. No one writes in praise of lobby fodder and loyal ministers, but we do need them. The current cult of the independent Member above all else is creating a generation of boring, solipsistic show-offs. John Biffen was none of these, but if you read this book, you will be struck by how little light it sheds on the titanic battles of the 1980s. It is as if he wasn’t quite there. You can see why Bernard Ingham got annoyed with him and invented the famous epithet from which the book takes its title. We need only a couple of Biffens at any one time, not 500 pseudo-ones.

I recently pointed out that the BBC News website has led, for years, with a victory picture of Barack Obama. Now it has changed, and actually shows something British — James Bond and the Queen leaving Buckingham Palace for the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Can this column claim a small victory?


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