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EAW pulls plug on farm drainage bills; UNION VICTORY OVER MARSH MAINTENANCE.

Byline: ANDREW FORGRAVE

MARSHLAND farmers have heaved a sigh of relief after Environment Agency Wales (EAW) binned bills for drainage work.

Landowners in parts of Anglesey, Meirionnydd and the Conwy Valley were thrown into panic after receiving demands for work they claim was never undertaken.

In some cases the bills - back-dated six years - ran into thousands of pounds.

Adding to the confusion was the claim that many invoices were riddled with mistakes, often showing out-of-date land ownership and occupation details.

Now EAW, under pressure from farm unions, has backed down due to "practical difficulties".

It is cancelling all invoices issued in April 2011 for outstanding charges up to March 31, 2012.

The agency also pledged to reimburse farmers who had already paid.

"It's a victory for commonsense," said Malltraeth farmer Iolo Owen, of Glantraeth, Bodorgan, who had been facing arrears of pounds 17,000.

"It just goes to show you should never take bad decisions lying down.

"The situation was handled very badly from the start. They had no idea who they were billing, or what for - they were demanding payments from people who had sold their land a long time ago.

"It was a pity some people did pay up despite agreeing to stand together."

In response to concerns over its database, EA Wales last year appointed land agent Iwan Foulkes, of Farmers Marts auctioneers, Dolgellau, to examine the land ownership details of 600 farmers within the North Wales Internal Drainage Districts (IDD).

However the farm unions launched their own challenges and these have now borne fruit.

The FUW asked Davis Meade Property Consultants to dispute the invoices, while NFU Cymru instructed NFU Legal Assistance firm JRL Law, Llanrwst, to seek a barrister's opinion.

Most of the ditch clearance work in the Marshes stopped in 2000, after responsibilities under the Land Drainage Act 1991 transferred to EAW from the National Rivers Authority.

Maintenance work continued on major waterways but smaller tributaries and ditches were allowed to silt up to re-wet the marshes and encourage birds.

Amid concerns the land was becoming too boggy, farmers met the CCW, EAW and RSPB Cymru to discuss the lack of maintenance.

According to Heidi Williams, FUW Anglesey county executive officer, it was verbally agreed that farmers could carry out the work themselves, when needed.

"Farmers knew the marshes and they could do the work for half the cost of what the EAW was charging," she said.

EAW insisted it had never reached a final decision on whether to transfer responsibility for drainage work to landowners.

Meirionnydd NFU county chairman Trefor Hughes said Robert Laing, senior partner at JRL Law, had acted on the union's behalf.

He said: "We welcome the agency's commitment to resolving issues regarding land ownership in the districts and updating their records.

"It's just a pity it took so long." Although the slate has been wiped clean, uncertainty still exists over the responsibility for future work.

Unions hope to set up a new North Wales IDD board to ensure necessary work is carried out. Details have yet to be sorted.

Heidi Williams added: "Farmers need to know what's going to happen in the future - who will have responsibility for the work and who will pay.

"The last thing they need is to be receiving more unnecessary bills."
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Mar 27, 2012
Words:547
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