9 Feb 2014

More storms, more floods and politicians blaming each other

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles says the government “made a mistake” and should have dredged the flood-hit Somerset Levels.

  • At the moment, there aren’t any signs of storms as vicious as the past few days, but uncertainty is high, so this could change as the week progresses, writes Liam Dutton.
  • Monday will offer a welcome lull in the stormy weather, with light winds for all. There’ll be sunshine and showers for most, although thicker cloud will give some rain for East Anglia and south east England.
  • From Tuesday onwards, it’s going to turn more unsettled, with further rain and brisk winds moving in off the Atlantic. In addition, with the air a little colder, there’s likely to be some snow at times – mainly in the north and over the hills.
  • This week is likely to see an increase in river flooding, as recent rain enters the rivers gradually, causing water levels to rise. The Environment Agency is most concerned about rivers in the Midlands and southern parts of England during the next few days.

Mr Pickles , who has taken temporary charge of the response to the crisis, issued an unreserved apology to those affected in the Somerset Levels.

Repeated calls for dredging were made to Downing Street and other Whitehall departments by farmers and others in the region from at least six months ago but funding was declined.

“We made a mistake, there’s no doubt about that and we perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency’s advice,” Mr Pickles told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.

“We recognise that we should have dredged and I think it is important now that we get on the process of getting those people back into their houses once we are able to really do some serious pumping.”

Mr Pickles has criticised under-fire Agency chairman Lord Smith for refusing to say sorry for the failures when he was besieged by angry locals on visit to the area.

‘I’ll apologise’

Asked if Prime Minister David Cameron should also apologise, Mr Pickles said: “I’ll apologise. I’ll apologise unreservedly.

“I am really sorry that we took the advice… we thought we were dealing with experts.”

The agency was “fit for purpose” and its staff were doing a fantastic job on the ground dealing with the floods but there were serious questions about parts of its leadership, he said.

Mr Cameron is to chair the latest meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee on Sunday afternoon as forecasters warn of another week of storms.

Heavy rain and winds of more than 60mph will die down throughout Sunday but the brief respite will be broken by another storm arriving tomorrow night.

And more storms will continue to batter Britain until the weekend, weather forecasters MeteoGroup predicted.

‘A success story’

The Environment Agency faced fresh anger after a senior official hailed its performance as a “success story”.

Director of operations David Jordan told a press briefing that the 5,000 homes flooded during the winter storms were “individual tragedies”.

“But also we need to recognise that 1.3 million other properties would have flooded if these flood defences had not been built.

“That is the success story, if you like, that we are talking about.”

Mr Pickles said: “Of course it is fit for purpose. It may have made some misjudgements but right now the men and women of the Environment Agency are working around the clock doing some fantastic jobs shoring up our flood defences and are offering advice.”

‘Riddled with political correctness’

He once again declined to give his backing to Labour peer Lord Smith, who faces calls to quit ahead of the end of his present term in July.

“I don’t see myself becoming the advocate of the ‘Save Chris Smith’ campaign or printing ‘Save The Environment Agency One’ T-shirts,” he told the Mail on Sunday.

The agency had “become riddled with political correctness” which had led it to halt vital drainage work such as dredging the Parrett and Tone rivers to take water away from the Levels.

It worries me that in a politically correct attempt to be more environmentally sound than the next person, something as basic as this has been forgotten,” he said.

Mr Pickles – who has taken the lead while Environment Secretary Owen Paterson recovers from eye surgery – said the Agency needed to revisit its priorities.

It was the biggest such agency in Europe – and bigger than the American version, he pointed out.

Should Lord Smith go?

“Roughly half its budget goes on staffing and I think they only spent about £20m on cleaning culverts and the like. I’m sure now they’ll be reassessing.”

Asked if Lord Smith should fall on his sword, he told the Andrew Marr Show: “That’s a matter for him. I don’t think I should nudge him out.”

Two severe flood warnings remain place in the crisis-hit Somerset Levels – where many residents have already been forced from their homes after weeks of heavy rain.

There are around 270 low-level flood alerts and 179 medium-risk warnings in place across Wales and central and southern England.

After a brief respite, storms will continue to batter Britain until the weekend, weather forecasters MeteoGroup predicted.

The Met Office warned that river levels are expected to continue rising along the Thames, the Severn and the Dorset Stour from Monday.