The Environment Agency was on the end of a backlash yesterday after its chairman said much of the flooding problems still facing the West were because of a ‘new type’ of rain.
Furious West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger said the comment from former Labour minister Chris Smith, now Lord Smith the chairman of the Environment Agency, was ‘an insult’ to those battling floods and calling for investment in flood defences and action from the agency on the Somerset Levels. Lord Smith was speaking after attending a 60th anniversary memorial service to those who died in the 1953 floods of East Anglia, and said Britain was much better prepared now for such an event.
But he said that many of the problems facing places like the Somerset Levels now were because of a changing climate and a new type of rain.
“We are experiencing a new kind of rain,” said Lord Smith. “Instead of rain sweeping in a curtain across the country, we are getting convective rain, which sits in one place and just dumps itself in a deluge over a long period of time. From the point of view of filling up the rivers and the drains, that is quite severe.”
Lord Smith spoke as water levels across the region remain high, many parts of the Somerset Levels are still under water and river levels from the Cotswolds to Dorset are just a few days of rain away from bursting their banks again, just nine weeks after they did so twice in a fortnight at the end of November.
Right now, a period of reasonably dry weather is allowing homes flooded then to continue to dry out. “We are off the hook, for the time being,” said Lord Smith. “Groundwater levels are now, for much of the country, too high. If there was not another drop of rain for the whole of the rest of this year we would survive, but we would be seriously worried.”
“Last year taught us that weather patterns are getting more extreme,” says Lord Smith.
“If you’d said to me a decade ago that we’d have a year in which the first three months would be facing a serious prospect of very severe drought, but we’d then have nine months of the wettest period since records began, I’d have just said, ‘No, that sort of extreme weather does not happen here in Britain.’ Increasingly, it does.
“Virtually every weekend in June and July there was a major flooding event somewhere around the country. I think people everywhere began to recognise this is serious.”
He added that he hoped the flooding problems of the past 12 months – since a drought was called in many parts of the country last spring – have acted as a wake-up call for the Government. “I think it will help to focus minds. It has probably helped to make sure that flood defence is up there along with transport,” he added.
But Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger said he “refused to be lectured” by Lord Smith, and said that the Environment Agency needed to do its job better, or it should be taken away.
“The comment that it’s the wrong type of rain, or a new type of rain is frankly an insult to the intelligence of people right across Somerset who have struggled with flooding in the past few months. It’s like a railway company complaining of the wrong type of leaves and it’s absolutely scandalous,” he said.
“We’ve been fighting for more funding for a range of things which will improve the way the Somerset Levels deals with flooding and the Environment Agency says it has no money, and then it spends £31million on a realignment project at Steart Point.
“What the EA staff do on the ground is great, but in strategic flood defence terms it is not fit for purpose and it is failing.
He added: “Everyone agrees that the [rivers] Parrett and the Tone need to be dredged, and there is a long list of pumps and pumping stations and equipment that need upgrading and improving but it isn’t being done.
“The bigger picture is where the problem is and Lord Smith should listen to someone like Nick Gupta, the EA’s man down here, who knows what needs doing but is denied the money to do it.”