Farmers and landowners should clear their own rivers to fight flooding which devastated parts of the South West, according to environment secretary Owen Paterson.
The Secretary of State said handing back responsibility for “low-key waterways” to people that “understand their own areas best” would be more effective than relying on the cash-strapped Environment Agency.
Mr Paterson was speaking during a Commons grilling on the winter floods that hit 7,000 homes and damaged thousands of acres of farmland.
The Environment Agency has been repeatedly criticised for failing to dredge blocked rivers in Somerset to halt flooding on the Levels.
During the session, its chairman, former Labour MP Chris Smith, was criticised for trying to “hide behind Treasury rules” for not underwriting dredging of the Tone and Parrett rivers earlier. Work began on Monday after funding restrictions were lifted.
But Mr Paterson argued letting riparian landowners clear brooks and streams was preferable to “shouting” at Lord Smith’s quango, and that he has the support of rural landowners.
He told MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee: “(Clearing watercourses) should go back to farmers and landowners who understand their own areas best, with minimum interference from the Environment Agency, just supervising.
“It’s no good looking at the Environment Agency, this big national quango, and shouting at it. It’s not going to do anything.”
He added farmers already clean out their own ditches so “it’s right they should be clearing out their own brooks and streams”. “Wherever I have been across rural England people are fed up with being held back,” the Shropshire MP continued. “They want to get on with it.”
Devon and Cornwall were battered by storms and floods at the start of the year, underlined by the paralysis of the rail network after the Dawlish sea wall in Devon collapsed. The Somerset Levels were underwater for weeks.
To the committee, Lord Smith conceded he should have “pushed a bit harder” for more funding from ministers to maintain flood defences and clear rivers.
But he argued the Treasury’s so-called benefit-to-cost ratio model meant that a reduced pot of flood defence cash could not be spent on dredging the Tone and Parrett, as not enough homes faced being damaged by flooding in the sparse rural area.
Lord Smith claimed that after the 2012 floods he argued “we had to embark on some dredging” on the Levels, but the Environment Agency was limited to spending £360,000.
He added: “The regional coast and flooding committee put in a further £300,000 on the table, Somerset County Council put on a further £200,000 on the table. But that combined total was not sufficient to undertake the dredging we are now doing.”
Lord Smith said the typical project it could fund more generously would generate £15 to every £1 spent. By contrast, the ratio on the Levels was a meagre 1.9-to-1.
He said: “That severely limits, under normal rules, to put money on the table. That position has been transformed by the Government saying this is effectively a special case.”
But Richard Drax, Tory MP for South Dorset, said the quango boss was attempting to “hide behind Treasury rules” and his conversion to dredging has “only come about because of the disaster that beset places like Somerset”.
“You have been warned for many years (rivers) should have been (dredged), but nothing was done,” the MP said.