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Tories laid the ground for Britain’s flood crisis

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Services cut by politicians would have protected tens of thousands of people, writes Dave Sewell
Issue 2390
Flood water covering plains laps close to homes on the Somerset Levels
Flood water covering plains laps close to homes on the Somerset Levels (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Tory politicians have been struggling to appear in control of a flood situation that threatened to engulf them.

Arrogant politicians have reaped a storm of anger from Somerset in particular. 

Environment secretary Owen Paterson is out of action with a retina problem, so most of the fire has been directed at Environment Agency (EA) boss Chris Smith.

Smith is a Labour peer on a six figure salary heading an organisation that spent more than £2.4 million on public relations.

His callous response to flooding last week was to say that “flood defences cost money” and “there’s no bottomless purse”.

But it’s the Tories who have slashed the funding. They have already cut £800 million from the flood defence budget. 

They cut the money for managing the effects of climate change by 40 percent. This is the money that is supposed to cover things like moving or strengthening rail infrastructure such as that which was destroyed last week.

They have culled jobs at the EA and plan to cut another 15 percent—or up to 1,700 workers.

Fire brigades have been denied the statutory responsibility for flood relief that would have allowed them extra funding. 

This means their flood rescue efforts have to come out of their main budget—which has been cut. The army was called in to make up the difference.

David Cameron has now authorised large sums of money for flood relief in Somerset in a bid to stem the sense of political crisis. 


But initial requests for extra funding by Somerset County Council were refused. Much of the anger in Somerset has focused on the question of dredging the rivers. This was carried out regularly until the 1990s.

The Somerset Levels are a unique environment, below sea level in the shadow of an estuary with a huge tidal range. Keeping them above water requires constant intervention.

This is especially true since the peat and willow trees that once absorbed most of the area’s water have been removed, sinking the land even lower.

The government has tried to direct the anger away from itself towards the EA. But it was the Treasury that refused to let the EA spend any more than £400,000 on dredging the Levels rivers. 

Now the Tories are pledging to dredge again, and making it seem like this would solve the problem.But dredging alone would have done little to stop these floods. 

And to have any effect it would need to be repeated every year. In the long run this could increase 

erosion and make the situation worse.

And the Tories are avoiding talking about the much bigger operations that could retain water upstream and have a real effect on flooding.

Rivers such as the Yeo have been made straighter and emptier to move water faster. 

This should urgently be reversed.

Ponds should be dug and trees planted across the flood catchment areas. More flood defences should be built at the sea and the mouths of rivers to stop high tides locking water in.

Scientists have recommended these things for over a decade. Yet despite mounting evidence that wetter weather was on the way, the Tories refused to prepare.

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