A minister has come under fire from farmers over the UK government’s response to flooding, insisting it did not matter that the prime minister had not visited flood-hit areas.
George Eustice, recently appointed minister for the environment, food and rural affairs, told the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference on Wednesday he had seen waterlogged areas himself “on the train.”
Eustice got a frosty reception from farmers in his first appearance at the annual conference. He faced impassioned demands from the audience for more flood defences, looser immigration rules and commitments to protect food standards in future trade deals.
He told farmers he could not “do anything about the weather,” but said record amounts were being spent on flood defences. He also resisted calls from the audience for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the floods in the wake of Storms Ciara and Dennis.
Flood warnings remained in force in some areas on Wednesday, with the River Severn breaching emergency defences overnight and the Worcestershire town of Bewdley evacuated.
Asked by journalists if a visit by Johnson affected areas would help the minister, Eustice told journalists it would not make “any difference at all.” Eustice himself visited York earlier this month, but was urged to visit more affected areas.
The NFU president Minette Batters, alongside him on stage, urged Eustice to put some of the £100bn ($130bn) Johnson has promised for infrastructure into flood defences. “Half the country’s under water,” she said.
Farmers also voiced their fears flooding could threaten their access to government support. Eustice admitted current EU funding rules were “bonkers,” as farmers can only receive key state subsidies if they plant at least three different crops every year.
Some fear the flooding will prevent them planting new crops, or force them to plant crops in poor conditions simply to access funds. Britain remains under the EU rules until at least 2021 as part of the Brexit transition.
Eustice drew laughter and groans from the audience when he said farmers would “be okay” as long as crops were in the ground by July. “These farmers might be the best in the world, but I doubt they will be sowing crops in July,” Batters replied.
Eustice later said farmers had “misunderstood” his point. Last year the government asked the EU to relax the rules, but Eustice made no commitment to making a request this year.
The NFU’s president also drew a round of applause when she told him the government’s proposals for nature-based solutions “don’t mean anything” for areas hit by a month’s rain in a day. Eustice had set out plans for more tree planting, natural dams and water storage upstream.
The minister added that it was “entirely right” that he led the government’s response on flooding when asked by one reporter if the prime minister should give up “hiding” for Lent. Johnson had faced criticism for not visiting areas suffering from flooding that he had visited during the election campaign in December.
Eustice highlighted the £2.5bn spent by government on flood defences over the past five years, with more than £4bn planned over the next five years. He said current floods were a “tragedy,” but told farmers existing new defences had protected 50,000 homes that a decade ago would have flooded.
“The truth is with climate change we are getting more frequent extreme weather events,” he added.