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Chris Rundle: Anger on Somerset Levels Environment Agency 'inaction' over flooding

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 15, 2014

  • After a brief respite for the early part of this week, heavy rain and strong winds are forecast to return today, bringing little joy to farmers and homeowners who are already angry at the Environment Agency

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Muchelney: Do about nothing

It's likely that most of the nation now has at least a vague idea of where Muchelney is. Thanks to the extensive media coverage of the last couple of weeks, the village has been plucked from obscurity to become celebrated as its inhabitants have done their best to carry on as normal while marooned by floodwaters.

On the other hand, Thorney has failed to achieve similar celebrity. For those of you who don't know it, Thorney is the next settlement along the road from Muchelney. And it hasn't been marooned, it has been drowned.

Not a single house has escaped. Families have had to move out. Not merely gardens have disappeared beneath the floods, so have garden walls. Foul, contaminated water four feet deep has invaded homes which were only just starting to recover from the lesser floods of a year ago and which, until that occurrence, hadn't experienced flooding for 80 years or more.

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The locals in Thorney know exactly why they have been affected again. The River Parrett runs through the hamlet but thanks to 20 years of almost total neglect by the Environment Agency, it can now only drain around 40 per cent of the water it used to. A lack of dredging has enabled the naturally sluggish river to deposit thousands of tonnes of silt along its course so here, as elsewhere, there is nowhere for flood water to go, except over the top of the embankment.

That's bad enough. But worse was what was discovered when the waters started to recede – slightly – so that some attempt could be made to start pumping away the lake surrounding Thorney. Everything from here up to Hambridge is normally drained by three pumps sited at Midelney. But only one is working. One of the others has been out of action for several years and the third broke down last year and has not been fixed.

This despite hundreds of thousands of pounds the Environment Agency has been extracting annually from local drainage boards for "maintenance": money which, it is increasingly being suggested, has been used to maintain fleets of shiny new vehicles, maintain smart offices, maintain handsome salaries and even more handsome bonuses – but not maintain the rivers and the equipment so vital to keeping this landscape dry in times of flood.

Local farmer Chris Aplin is just one of hundreds of local people who can do nothing but watch while the slowly receding waters reveal the mess that has been created by the Environment Agency's incompetence, inefficiency and plain bungling, all of it on a scale which is breathtaking. A ghastly mess which will take months, if not years to put right.

"They've done nothing about the dredging for years and now they have got themselves into a real corner," he said.

"Because the river is pretty well 60 per cent silted up. Where are they going to put all that material when they do start taking it out?

"They talk about pumping but until the river goes down there will be nowhere to pump the water into; when they start it's going to take three times longer than it should to clear; and because the river is so choked with silt it's going to take even longer.

"And meanwhile, we have got to sit here and watch all our vegetation being killed off."

It's losses on that scale which are going to add up to a gargantuan bill from the 2014 floods. And every community will have suffered them.

Over at Burrowbridge, Environment Agency chairman Lord Chris Smith stood atop Burrow Mump a year ago and promised that a dredging programme would be launched to prevent a repeat of the floods. Today Jim Winkworth, landlord of the King Alfred Inn, finds his takings 60 per cent down as a result of the village being cut off on one side as floodwaters pour across the A361 onto Northmoor.

He has nothing but contempt for the Environment Agency's response to the crisis.

"They missed the first big tide completely," he said. "We were shouting that the river was going to flood, that we needed help but they clearly had bigger fish to fry elsewhere.

"It was only when we started sandbagging the bank ourselves to protect the four houses that were at risk that they actually realised the situation was serious and turned out and did something.

"But the problem is that the older staff who knew about flooding and how to manage the water levels have all been got rid of.

"I don't blame the blokes on the ground because they can only do what they are told. It's the ones in charge who are the problem. These days you've got university graduates in charge who know how to read a graph on a computer screen but who are absolutely useless when it comes to managing a flood.

"The worst of it is that despite Lord Smith coming here a year ago and saying 'we will dredge' all they've done is a token bit of work on what they called a pinch point. And they didn't even start that until November, by which time the river was already in flood."

The Environment Agency and its few remaining apologists are still in denial over claims that it's a lack of dredging which has led to two catastrophic flood events in as many years.

As far as locals are concerned, however, it's abundantly clear that 20 years of total neglect do, indeed, lie behind the disaster.

And farmer John Lang, now surrounded by a lake for the second time in 12 months in Moorland, near Bridgwater, says the agency is repeatedly annoying local people by trotting out reason after spurious reason as to why it can't dredge the river – everything from claiming the silt would be contaminated to suggesting the operation would upset the local birdlife.

"I have lived by the river for 60 years and we have never, ever seen anything like this before," he says.

"There is only one reason for it: it's complete and utter neglect by the Environment Agency.

"It's worse than ever this winter and I've got most of my land under water. But it's not just the land; it's what it's doing to people's lives. We've got a young couple in the village who've only been back in their bungalow for eight months after the last floods and now they've had to get out again.

"And the worst thing is nobody seems to care any more. There are plenty of words. Everybody comes down here and looks at it from the Environment Agency to the council and the MP. But nobody actually does anything.

"But people are starting to get very angry indeed now. They have had enough of their lives being disrupted and it's not surprising. Take the A361. It's the main arterial route through the middle of Somerset and it's just going to be closed for two months. The cost that's going to mean in terms of longer journeys alone is going to be huge. But no-one cares.

"And it's all down to dredging – or no dredging, really. When the old water boards ran things they had a team of draglines and dredging was part of the routine. It went on all the time because they knew that unless the river was kept clear it would flood.

"Now you get the pitiful sight of Environment Agency blokes driving about in brand-new four-wheel-drive vehicles just looking at it all when they have done nothing all summer to prevent this happening again.

"There is real anger down here. Last winter it was just an inconvenience but this time round the mood is totally different and I can see trouble coming.

"People are watching their properties being devalued and becoming uninsurable – all because of the Environment Agency. And they're not going to put up with it any longer."

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