A group of local farmers, including me, is about to have its first meeting with interested parties and Environment Agency (EA) officials for almost two years, as we attempt a local resolution to the appalling state of river drainage in our corner of West Sussex.

A group of local farmers was being taken to task for the state of our ditches; ditches that were designed to drain into our local drainage channel, or rife, as it is known in West Sussex.

This system, in existence since the early 16th century, worked well in the days when the River Board or the old, farmer-backed, Internal Drainage Boards (IDB) took responsibility, ensuring local rifes were regularly cleared of silt, debris and weeds. Since the EA was given responsibility, however, the work has been progressively ignored. Today these waterways have become neglected to such a degree that the water regularly flows upstream instead of downstream, in places silted up to a depth of more than four feet.

Instead of the EA carrying out any maintenance to these channels, local farmers were told to “clear our own ditches to improve drainage”! As a group we objected, since the more we cleared our ditches the more the bottled up, ‘sewage polluted’ water in the rife (see photo) flowed back ‘uphill’ onto our fields rather than away to the sea.
We managed to gather all the interested parties for two meetings in 2018 and 2019 and had the feeling we were making the laws of gravity understood by the ‘experts’. Then came Covid-19 and everything has been at a standstill, rather like the water, ever since.

One of the main complaints we have with Southern Water and the EA is the sheer volume of sewage, raw or partly treated, being released to flow freely into the rife and pollute our land, a point recently highlighted by a £90 million fine imposed on Southern Water for doing just that in another discharge area along the south coast.

This is surely a problem that’s going to get worse as development inevitably increases. But if these authorities are allowed to get away with such behaviour, one must ask: “Why they should then seek to pass the blame onto private landowners?” Folk who, as in this case, have absolutely no say in the matter.

If landowners were found to be discharging pollutants into waterways they should pay a penalty but, as these key water courses have been neglected by the EA, our point is that they must first be returned to the well-maintained state they were in when the EA was given responsibility for their maintenance many years ago.

If the bordering private landowners, farmers and property owners are then required to pay a fair proportion of annual maintenance costs, based on fairly assessed contributions, it might be acceptable, but this would have to include all owners, houses, shops, factories, farms and sewage companies. Stockfarms would obviously need assessing on all livestock units they kept, as well as acres.

Then it’s a matter of funding. The feeling in our group of farmers ‘appears’ to favour ending any involvement by the EA, preferring a return to the area-based IDBs that worked well until political intervention wreaked havoc with the system, as it does to so many things.

This work has been almost totally neglected by the EA for too long. Our position is that we expect them to put the whole system back to where it was when they took over the job, allowing a new ‘IDB-type body’ free of EA interference, to undertake responsibility. It will be an interesting meeting.

On the subject of drainage and the EA, we have another long-running related issue with the EA on some land in the Arun Valley. A similar situation has been ‘rumbling on’ for some two years regarding the EA’s poor management on the whole of the River Arun, from above Pulborough down to the sea at Littlehampton.

Again with the river banks, which form such an integral part of the drainage of the area, farmers and landowners have for some time been resisting the EAs pressure to do the costly work for them. Finally the agency agreed to undertake critical repairs to the banks, but again it has been delayed.

The problem has been that they don’t seem to have any idea of organising anything themselves. They spend so much time searching for a possible water vole or crested newt that the actual work is forgotten. Their contractors recently damaged an underground power line to a pumping station and, when it was repaired, they replaced it incorrectly but, instead of redoing the job properly, they insisted the farmer then did the work himself. Naturally he refused on the grounds of safety and inadequate compensation. It’s an ongoing shambles.

After more emails they decided they were going to repair our long-neglected riverbanks. Carefully agreed EA plans were drawn up regarding access and work areas, and then one day the contractors turned up and, ‘off their own bat’, set up on another site, totally ignoring the terms of the arrangement.

Words were, not unexpectedly, exchanged; their apologies were profuse. Sadly the EA appears one stage worse than ‘incompetent’, however much “total respect” Boris Johnson purports to hold for them. He needs to give some of us in Sussex a call! Their contractors have since walked off the site.