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Agency chairman misses the point

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 29, 2014

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Those residents of the Somerset Levels who had the misfortune to be listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 yesterday morning would have had their intelligence insulted by a former minister.

Lord Chris Smith – now chairman of the Environment Agency – is the former Labour environment secretary and culture secretary who, lest we forget, infamously blamed last year's extremely serious flooding on a what he called a "new type of rain".

Defending his agency's performance during the current emergency – particularly on the Somerset Levels – he dismissed the wishes of local residents to substantially dredge the rivers Parrett and Tone.

He did acknowledge that the Levels had suffered a "terrible impact" from the recent floods but insisted dredging was not a significant factor.

"It would not have solved the problems that we are facing at the moment," he said.

"Dredging would probably make a small difference. It is not the comprehensive answer that some people have been claiming it is.

"We began back in October/November last year to dredge some of the particular choke points on the River Tone and the River Parrett because it can, I believe, make a contribution to solving some of these problems."

He is being disingenuous. The works the agency carried out last year were little more than a token gesture – not the wholesale project needed to clear the rivers of the silt that is reducing their capacity.

It is hardly surprising that work had little impact – how could a few weeks of low-key work make up for 20 years of neglect?

This is not something the Western Daily Press and local farmers, residents and drainage experts are just saying now. In the past dozen years we have carried in excess of 150 articles where the people on the ground have called for the resumption of dredging.

They were ignored and are rightly angry about it.

Lord Smith also took a swipe at critics of the response to the emergency, saying staff had been "working their socks off night and day right the way through Christmas and New Year" – including protecting 3,500 properties in Somerset.

Again he misses the point. Critics have largely praised the significant efforts of the frontline staff working extremely hard in trying circumstance. It is their bosses who have left them to do the job with at least one hand tied behind their back that have been the targets of justified criticism.

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