26 Jun 2014

Was Lord Smith’s Environment Agency to blame for the floods?

It was a sorry scene – the London-based former culture secretary showing up far too late to commiserate the people of the Somerset levels, weeks after their homes had disappeared under water.

The Environment Agency Chairman Lord Smith was ringed by furious residents wanting to know precisely what his agency had been up to since he slipped out of loafers and into wellies to head the quango back in 2008.

No wonder they were angry with Chris Smith. Under his leadership the Environment Agency had cut back on maintenance of flood schemes and failed to dredge channels that drain the levels.

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Not only that, Lord Smith was blamed for the formula the Environment Agency uses to prioritise flood spending. It strongly favours the protection of homes and businesses over agricultural land. To the people of the levels that said only one thing: you are worth less.

But was Chris Smith to blame for the winter flooding of the levels, or the rest of last winter’s deluge from Hull to Land’s End?

The lack of investment in maintenance was made obvious by the floods.

Homes on the levels that had not known to have flooded for two centuries or more were under water. A century-old railway in Devon ended up in the sea. But the reality is, the Environment Agency didn’t have the maintenance money to spend.

The agency suffered some of the greatest cuts under the coalition’s austerity package. With budgets tightening and the risk of flooding events rising – due to increases in sea-level and potentially more stormy weather in response to climate change – priorities had to shift too.

One of the main reasons dredging was stopped in the levels was because it is extremely expensive and would primarily have protected farmland, not homes. But the formula to protect homes and businesses over agricultural land makes both economic and practical sense, given the capacity of open land to store excess water.

Despite fierce criticism by the likes of Eric Pickles, once the flooding crisis was upon us, that formula is in fact calculated by accountants at the Treasury, not the Environment Agency.

And while on-the-ground spending is the job of the agency, many flood experts defended its prioritising. Many supported the decision not to dredge the levels.

In fact, throughout the flooding, the only real criticism of the Environment Agency’s management came from those with no expertise in flooding – most of it from those with the most to gain from deflecting the criticism away from themselves.

The Environment Secretary Owen Patterson had the excuse of an eye operation for being entirely absent from the recent flooding. But the only political appearances made in the flooded levels were to blame Lord Smith for his failures.

Lord Smith’s arrival in the levels was too little, too late. But it’s important to remember he’d hung up his political spurs when he took charge of the Environment Agency.

The man who was previously most famous for opening the nation’s museums for free was perhaps an odd choice to lead the environment quango. But the reason for his long tenure was his skill – honed at the cabinet table of the Blair administration – of running the agency without courting the interference of ministers and choosing to fight his battles with them out of the public  eye.

If it’s anyone’s job to face the wrath of angry citizens after a nation’s infrastructure is proved grossly inadequate, it is the ministers who have ultimate oversight and budgetary control of the infrastructure at fault.

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11 reader comments

  1. Tyler MacMillan says:

    Maybe the Environment Agency would have more money to spend on flood defence if they didn’t waste millions on a pointless badger cull………………

    1. issy says:

      The environment agency did not carry out the badger cull, it was done by landowners under licences from natural england. Get your facts straight you idiot!

    2. Philip says:

      The EA didn’t and hasn’t carried out the badger culling.

  2. Philip says:

    Quite so. Political cowardice and scapegoating at a new low.

  3. SCT says:

    Funny that the Environment Agency found 20 MILLION pounds to build a bird sanctuary on the edge of the Somerset Levels! Apparently if you let the sea water IN that will help to reduce flooding! The whole country has suffered through lack of maintenance, not just the Levels. MANY water courses are in desperate need of clearing. We have been told for 20 YEARS that our rivers do not need dredging………It took a whole village to be submerged by over 4 feet of flood water for a month to get the message through!

  4. Rhona Light says:

    tidal, each tide brings in silt and, because the ebb flow is not as strong, leaves some of it in the river. What happened this year was – that after nearly 20 years of not dredging – the tipping point was reached and the heavy rain pushed the area into a crisis.

    Lord Smith is an easy target but what about the decision makers 20 years ago? What about the current Executive Members of the EA and its Chief Executive Paul Leinster? The recent EFRA report pointed out the lunancy of favouring capital projects rather than maintenance by budget allocation decisions. Surely something that the Executives of the EA should have been trying to persuade Defra to change? Water control on the Somerset Levels is highly complex but the signs are that there is the will to adopt a whole catchment approach in which dredging will play a part.

  5. john woodward says:

    Smith and his predecessor , Young, another socialist ex-cabinet minister were obsessed at the E-A with the RSPB agenda , including spending over 20 million pounds on the bird-Disneyland at Steart Point. No wonder there wasn’t any money to protect people from flooding.
    The E-A under Smith have also slavishly followed crackpot EU directives with regard to nonsense like ‘rewilding’ of watercourses and encouraging flooding onto land .

    1. jb says:

      The Steart project was entirely funded by the EA to increase habitat for wading birds; money not available for any other project. The project was designed in such a way as to also have some flood alleviation benefit. Land was purchased at above commercial rate for the project, this land was reguarly indudated by the tides and would continue to flood. Win, win.

  6. jb says:

    I thought this was to be another EA / Chris Smith bashing but it actually contains some truths. Funding formula and cuts are ministers responsibility and the reason why the strategic dredging of pinch points identified as necessary by the EA after 2012/13 did not take place. Finally a blog that is relatiely balanced!

    There are still inaccuracies though a) Change in policy to river maintenance pre-dates Smith’s appointment BUT regular clearing of bridges, sluices and pinch points takes place ANNUALY. (btw Many of the landowners receive EU funding to have raised water levels on the very fields they are now saying were “deiberately flooded”)
    b) Owen P was not absent throughout the entire flooding simply absent after DC decided to annouce “dredging will happen” in the commons.
    c) Dredging was not reduced “simply to save money” but as part of a long term, strategic plan to manage this unique landscape. This was based on sound research, best practise form other countrries (including Holland) and following public consultation with landowners in the areas
    d) Chris Smith did not “make museums free” he simply reversed the cahrges imposed by Thatcher and Major

    I applaud the tone of this blog but please get the facts correct. Part of the mediahype about the flooding has been down to poor reporting and research o the issues.

    Tyler; It was DEFRA and the govt that were responsible for badger cull, nothing to do with EA

  7. Alan says:

    Maybe the 2007 EU directive on flood plains which British lawmakers signed up to has more bearing. A context which appears to be avoided.

  8. Andrew Dundas says:

    When folks chose to live in an area that’s very low-lying, they are taking a risk that’s probably reflected in their housing and agricultural costs. Moreover, this crisis reflects the fast changing weather patterns that are probably provoked by global warming.
    That global warming is accelerated by the methane gases burped by the cattle grazing on meadows of those levels.
    Maybe residents of the levels should stay in homes built on stilts? Maybe we should all take more precautions to protect ourselves from the consequences of global warming and climate change?

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