A new plan to deal with a flood-hit area of South West England will be drawn up within six weeks, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson announced as he was confronted by residents angry about the perceived lack of action from officials to tackle the problem.
On a visit to Somerset Mr Paterson acknowledged that there was legitimate anger felt among politicians, farmers and residents on the Somerset Levels, who have claimed the lack of dredging of local rivers by the Environment Agency has exacerbated the problems they have faced.
Mr Paterson said the Environment Agency and local councils would produce a new plan, which would “almost certainly” involve a project to clear the Parrett and Tone rivers.
He acknowledged that national guidelines on dredging were not appropriate for the Somerset Levels, large parts of which are below sea level.
Mr Paterson told Sky News he understood the strength of feeling in the area: “They are quite right to be angry, it’s absolutely legitimate and that’s how our political system works and that’s why the two local MPs have brought this to my attention, that’s why I convened the meeting of the experts last night, that’s why I led the meeting this morning with the local councils and that’s why I hope we will have a very clear action plan presented to me in six weeks time so that I can make a categoric decision once and for all.”
Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger criticised the Environment Agency over the lack of dredging on the river system.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “Once it’s dredged we can then maintain it but the Environment Agency has to stop this mucking around and get on with it.”
He dismissed as “pathetic” the Environment Agency’s claims that the rain would have overwhelmed the river system even if it had dredged the waterways.
“It is an absolutely ridiculous excuse,” he said. “This never flooded to this level ever in living memory, and we’ve got people who have been here for a long time. If you look back into the mists of time you don’t have this.
“What galls my constituents... is they found £31 million to build a bird sanctuary at the mouth of the Parrett river, yet they cannot and will not find £5 million to dredge this river.”
But David Cameron defended the agency, saying it had done “excellent work on helping to deal with the flooding and helping with communities”.
But he told Today the Environment Agency had to listen to the concerns raised in Somerset.
“Obviously the Environment Agency has to listen to these concerns – you do get quite widespread concerns that river levels have risen.
“We have got to address those and give some clear answers.”
On a visit to Northmoor Green, Mr Paterson set out the new measures: "I had a very constructive meeting this morning with the local councils and the Environment Agency. What I have asked them to do is come up with a very clear action plan within six weeks.
“That will almost certainly involve a project to clear the Parrett and the Tone.
“But then long term look to see how, with partnership funding, local agencies such as the internal drainage boards, the county council, the four district councils can work together – and with the NGOs, people like the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, who play a real role in this – to see how we can hold water back further up in the hills, how we can do more with sustainable urban drainage systems (Suds), get more water soaked into the ground before it gets into the river systems and also long-term planting.”
Another option being considered was a sluice near Bridgwater to keep the sea tides out of the river network on the Levels.
He said: “All that together is a long-term serious plan which I hope will give us satisfactory results here over the next 20 years.”
On the decision to stop regular dredging of the Parrett and the Tone, Mr Paterson said: “Quite clearly the national guidelines do not appear to me to be appropriate for this very particular part of England, where you have got about 100 square miles well below sea level, which was cleared by the Dutch way back under Charles I and where very active management of the waterways is required.
“So I’m very clear that once the water is in these waterways the purpose of these waterways, which are entirely man made, is to get the water away.
“I want to see that done, but I want to see that combined with holding water back – so more Suds, more planting, more wetland way back to slow the water.
“But once it’s in the waterways, emphatically, I’m quite clear that the current guidelines are inappropriate for an area like the levels.”