7 Feb 2014

Into the eye of the storm: Cameron heads to Somerset

Waterlogged Somerset gets two illustrious guests – the prime minister and Environment Agency boss Chris Smith. But what took them so long to visit a county that has been underwater for a month?

– 80 homes evacuated overnight in Moorland, Somerset.
There are two severe flood warnings in place across England and Wales, 154 flood warnings, and 301 flood alerts, (at noon on Friday).
– Environment Agency Chairman Lord Smith faces criticism as he arrives at Moorland, Somerset.
– Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin is on his way to Devon to see for himself the damage at Dawlish.

There was anger tonight from the waterlogged citizens of Somerset as they received not one but two illutrious guests who have so far been conspicuous by their absence.

The peer, who heads the Environment Agency. got doused with words and the prime minister looked uncomfortable. He was there to reassure residents that everything possible was being done, but such was the bitterness hurled at him that a subsequent visit by David Cameron, who arrived by helicopter, passed off almost unnoticed.

Lord Smith said he had “no intention of resigning” and that he was “very proud” of EA staff.

The visit follows another night of heavy rain which overwhelmed local flood defences in the village of Moorland, as water level began to rise. Residents from nearby Northmoor, Fordgate and Saltmoor on the Levels had already been warned to evacuate on Thursday night.

A spokesman for Avon and Somerset Police added that around 80 homes in Moorland were evacuated, but police said that around 30 residents had chosen to remain in their homes.

Phil and Lana Smithen, who have lived in Moorland for 39 years, had resisted leaving their home and piled sandbags at the entrance of their house on Thursday. But they were finally forced to leave on Friday morning after their village, and house, was flooded – and amid warnings of more to come.

Severe weather alerts remained place for south east England, the south west and Wales as further torrential downpours arrived, with more wet weather forecast.

Across England, more than 150 flood warnings which require “immediate action”, had been issued by the EA at Friday lunchtime, and a further 301 flood alerts were in place.

Mounting criticism

EA Chairman Lord Smith is expected to face criticism during his visit, amid claims that the EA could have done more to prevent the effects of the flooding: some residents believe river dredging would have helped.

Details of Lord Smith’s visit to Somerset, which comes a week after Environment Secretary Owen Paterson was heckled by local residents, have not been released.

The prime minister, who chaired a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee on Thursday night, has insisted he would visit Somerset himself “when the time is right”.

Around 5,000 properties have been affected by flooding across the country in recent weeks, including 40 in Somerset. On Wednesday, the seawall at Dawlish, Devon collapsed after heavy storms, demolishing part of the railway line.

A spokesman for Avon and Somerset Police said: “Earlier this morning (Friday) local flood defences were breached and the water level in Moorland began rising.

“We are have been informing local residents and strongly advising them to leave the area. The Royal Marines and search and rescue volunteers are assisting us with this.”

Video: Home Affairs Correspondent Andy Davies reports from Moorland, Somerset, where one man has taken a stand against the evacuations by building a giant wall out of clay around his house in an attempt to stem the flooding.

Photo: Moorland resident Phil Smithen looks out at the rising flood waters surrounding his house that he has lived in for 39 years.

Photo: Rising flood waters surround a house in the village of Moorland on the Somerset Levels near Bridgwater.