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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