The Environment Agency has insufficient manpower to manage the drainage network and flood defences on the Somerset Levels, a report by a team of Dutch experts has said.
The inspectors said the current system was simply not able to cope with the conditions and recommended a full analysis of the entire catchment, along with a new long-term strategy and realistic guarantees of public safety.
A team of four arrived in Somerset on February 14 and were taken to the River Brue and to Weymouth to see the defences in normal circumstances. They used this, in conjunction with a helicopter flight over the area, to identify the relatively few points of interest that still remained accessible.
Their main conclusion was not one of defence but of water management and the assessment that "more rain fell than could be drained" appears to back up the dredging that is now being carried out. Read the report in full here.
The report also criticises the number of EA inspectors based at Bridgwater, which the report says is "not nearly enough" to manage the 500sq km network of rhynes and embankments.
But while taking aim at the organisation, it does not question the capability and drive of the inspectors on the ground, who remained "very committed", despite the "negative reactions they received".
It cites the example of the inspectors employed by the Dutch water boards, who are deemed to have "a higher standard of civil engineering training" than their UK counterparts, which makes them "better able to complete routine and emergency inspections".
Combined with a "consequence-based" approach to using resources, the EA's inspectors are therefore "not able to cover the 500+km of maintained channel as regularly as might be undertaken in the Netherlands".
The report also passes comment on the structure of the defences, noting the presence of badger setts, damage from cattle and vehicles.
Badgers are pointed to as a major risk, with one sett found to have entrances in both sides of a bank, allowing water to flow through.
The report ends by noting that the visit to Somerset reinforced the inspectors' confidence in the Dutch system of "good legislation" at national and regional level, which "helps maintain flood defences at a good level".
It compares this situation to the UK, where the EA "has insufficient resources" to deal with its responsibilities for flood defences. The authors recommend that the agency gets full management of defences and power to enforce rules.
"We welcome the report carried out by our Dutch colleagues following their inspections of our assets during the winter floods, and are very grateful for their assistance and professionalism in what were exceptional circumstances. Many of their findings echo our own best practice, and their insight and expertise has helped us in our preparation of a 20-year plan for the Somerset Moors and Levels,’ said Paul Gainey for the Environment Agency.
"As the report says, most of these structures are well-designed and built, so to replace all of them would be very expensive and unnecessary. Where we improve or replace our structures they meet modern design standards and we have an ongoing monitoring programme to identify any issues as early as possible. We already have appropriate target conditions for all of our assets and use the results to plan any future investment and works to make sure we are carrying out works where we need to.’
"As far as the inspections are concerned, where we could gain access safely to carry out inspections we did during the winter, but many of our assets were underwater for several weeks. Inspections were made of these places as soon as it was safe to do so. We already work closely with local communities through flood wardens and will investigate how we can widen their role to enable them to assist us with embankment inspections."