A catchment wide ‘silt survey’ could be carried out in a bid to reduce flooding problems that farmers claim has left 300 to 400 acres of once top rate Sussex arable land uncroppable.

The possible step forward in the long-running campaign to tackle an issue that has frustrated farmers to the north east of Bognor Regis for some time came during a high level meeting co-ordinated by the NFU and including representatives from the Environment Agency and Southern Water, along with Bognor Regis and Littlehampton MP Nick Gibb.

While the proposal was welcomed, it was a rare positive. The notes of the meeting reveal that the Environment Agency’s (EA) Area Flood and Coastal Risk Manager Claire Francis admitted that the economic benefit of clearing out local rifes that regularly caused the land to flood was not sufficient to justify the costs involved.

The meeting heard from South East Farmer’s own correspondent Nick Adames, who said silted up rifes meant water was unable to flow out to sea via the outfall at Felpham. He said that after two recent flood events his ditches had filled with sewage from the Lidsey treatment works and been “left coated in semi-treated excrement and toilet paper after the waters had receded”. 

He later told South East Farmer: “The white scum has been here constantly since last autumn and never gets away because the rifes are always full.”

The meeting was held at Bognor Regis Golf Club, which also suffers from flooding caused by what farmers see as the EA’s inaction to tackle the drainage issues. 

The club’s Norman Lee said the window of opportunity for members to use the course was being shortened by flooding events and that addressing the issue was significant to the future of the club on the current site.  Although the club was protected, in theory, by two tidal flaps, they were not maintained, allowing water from the rifes to come back through them, he told the meeting.

With the EA effectively admitting that under current funding rules the situation is unlikely to be resolved, the NFU’s South East Regional Director William White is planning to draft a letter that Nick Gibb will forward to government ministers seeking a change in legislation.

Meanwhile the MP told those present that despite being told at the end of a previous meeting that the EA, Southern Water and West Sussex County Council would look for a way forward and keep the group informed, he had heard nothing.

Landowner Peter Fuente reinforced the view expressed by Nick Adames and said that he had been left with more than 60 acres of land that was now uncroppable. He said the situation was serious and needed to be addressed “with great urgency”.

Another landowner, Robert Eggins, told the meeting there had been a noticeable deterioration in the flow of the rifes and said water that backed up onto his land did not go away even in periods of dry weather.  He said attempts to improve the situation by cutting one side of the banks were effectively a waste of time.

Andy Adams from Southern Water told the meeting that while the company was responsible for the treatment works at Lidsey, it was not responsible for maintaining the rifes. He said the company’s focus was directed at major investment in the sewage treatment facility at Lidsey via its five-year spill reduction programme.

The meeting was told that investigations had shown that clearing a 750 metre stretch of rife would cost between £350,000 and £800,000, depending on what work needed to be done, and that it was not economically viable to carry out the work within the EA’s budget constraints. Damage to agricultural land did not warrant such a high level of spending, those present were told.

The meeting notes reveal that Nick Gibb told the meeting that while he could lobby Ministers to act, “the decision to abandon such acres of agricultural land had been taken”.

Another local farmer, Emma Maclaren, suggested that a more cost-effective use of EA funds would be to identify ‘hot spot’ problem areas within the rifes which could then be tackled, a suggestion which prompted Claire Francis to agree to look into the possibility of a catchment wide silt survey along with silt sampling in identified problem areas.

Following the meeting, an Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We attended the meeting in May to discuss the ongoing concerns of local landowners regarding the flooding of agricultural land in the floodplain around Bognor Regis in West Sussex. 

 “As part of the discussions we focused on the benefits, limitations and challenges with undertaking actions to desilt the local watercourses. 

 “We will continue to support the landowners to understand the scale of the issues. We were encouraged by the progress of these discussions toward seeking wider collaboration with landowners and businesses in the catchment.”