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Somerset floods: Cameron orders end to petty squabbles in Cabinet

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: February 11, 2014

By JEFF WELLS

  • David Cameron has told ministers to act on a untied front in response to the Somerset floods

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David Cameron, who has been visiting the weather-beaten South West, has ordered ministers to focus on dealing with devastating floods amid signs of government infighting and a "blame game" with the Environment Agency.

The Prime Minister rejected calls for agency chairman Lord Smith to be sacked immediately – and said everyone should "get on with their jobs" of helping those affected.

The comments, as Mr Cameron visited the region, followed reports of a bitter clash between Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles. Mr Paterson is said to have complained to Downing Street after his Tory colleague issued a barbed apology for relying on the agency's advice, saying he had "thought we were dealing with experts".

Both ministers have played down the apparent rift, insisting they are "working closely" to respond to the crisis.

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As politicians and officials traded blows, the number of severe flood warnings in the south of England swelled to 16.

Although southern England and Wales saw a quieter day with light showers, the latest storm arrived yesterday evening, with heavy rain of up to 0.78ins (20mm), weather forecasters MeteoGroup said.

Meanwhile, in a Guardian article, Lord Smith accused ministers of "getting in the way" of vital work to deal with devastating floods by turning the crisis into a political row.

"In a lifetime in public life, I've never seen the same sort of storm of background briefing, personal sniping and media frenzy getting in the way of decent people doing a valiant job trying to cope with unprecedented natural forces," he wrote. "Repeated calls for dredging were made to Downing Street and other Whitehall departments by farmers and others in the Somerset region from at least six months ago but funding was declined."

Mr Pickles has blamed faulty agency advice for the scale of the damage to the Somerset Levels and implied that Lord Smith should resign – joking that he would not wear a "save Chris Smith T-shirt".

"We made a mistake, there's no doubt about that and we perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency's advice," Mr Pickles told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show.

Energy Secretary Ed Davey insisted "blame games" were not the right focus for ministers, telling Today: "The Government is focused on helping the people, the communities, the businesses who are struggling because of this weather, these floods. That has got to be our focus. Blame games, I'm afraid, are really not the focus."

In the South West, a further two severe flood warnings remain in force at Saltmoor and Northmoor, including Moorland, and for the A361, East Lyng to Burrowbridge, as flooding continues on the Somerset Levels.

Over the past week, more than 600 homes have flooded, although some 180,000 properties have been protected from flooding and 138,000 properties have been sent a free flood warning, the EA said.

Flooding has also disrupted services between Oxford and Radley and services are unable to run between Bridgwater and Taunton. Services from London to the South West remain disrupted after days of severe weather and the rough seas that caused damage to parts of the track and a sea wall at Dawlish.

Unison national officer Matthew Lay said: "Continued funding cuts will see staff levels at the agency reduced by a quarter since the coalition came to power in 2010. This sort of reduction compromises the ability of the Environment Agency to respond to emergencies as there is simply not enough staff on the ground to manage a prolonged incident.

"Environment Agency staff have been working around the clock in difficult circumstances for more than seven weeks now, only to be attacked by Conservative politicians covering up their own reckless decision-making which has brought these matters to a head. We need to see long-term investment in the Environment Agency, and staff should be left to get on with the job without the interference of politicians who are all too keen to jump on a bandwagon of blame instead of accepting responsibility."

Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said: "The fact is that David Cameron approved a reckless slashing of Britain's flood defence capacity after the election, and the Environment Secretary has repeatedly ignored warnings from experts that a failure to dredge had left the Somerset Levels vulnerable to extreme flooding. Instead of blaming officials for their decisions and now turning on each other like ferrets in a sack, ministers must get a grip on this worsening situation."

Responding to the Met Office's assertion that climate change almost certainly lies behind the storms, Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Guy Shrubsole said Britain needed to burn less gas, coal and oil.

He said: "With thousands of households still stricken by flooding, this fresh assessment of Britain's changing climate is a warning siren that cannot be ignored. The Met Office is emphatic that a warming world will lead to more intense downpours, that storminess has increased and that rising sea levels will climb still further in the years ahead."

More Dutch pumps are helping the Environment Agency step up pumping operations on the Somerset Levels and Moors.

Working in close partnership with Somerset County Council, local authorities and emergency services, the pumps will increase the flow of floodwater down the river Sowy, and pumping at both Beer Wall and Dunball. Five temporary pumps will be installed at Beer Wall on the A372, while eight are being installed at Dunball.

Outlying properties at Bridgwater are no longer under threat following the building of a temporary earth bank.

"Increasing the volume of floodwater passing down the Sowy will assist in reducing river levels in the Rivers Parrett and Tone. This operation will involve additional pumping on both the Sowy and the King's Sedgemoor Drain," said John Rowlands for the Environment Agency.

For the first couple of days only the pumps at Dunball will run, to reduce water levels in the King's Sedgemoor system first. Monks Leaze Clyce will then be opened gradually and more flow diverted down the Sowy, over pumping at Beer Wall Sluice and pumping out on all states of the tide at Dunball.

If people need more information, they can call the Environment Agency hotline number on 0800 80 70 60.

A senior clergyman has called for prayers for the victims of the floods as he spoke of the "living nightmare" faced by severely affected communities.

The Venerable Andrew Piggott, Archdeacon of Bath, said rat infestation had risen by a quarter and many flood-hit households within the Bath and Wells diocese have been forced to use buckets as toilets.

"Business contracts have been lost, farmers and others who work hard on the land or care for animals have seen their livelihoods threatened," he told the General Synod of the Church of England in London. Rat infestation has increased by an estimated 25 per cent and for more than a month in some communities no arrangements were made for the sanitary disposal of waste. The normal daily routines, things we all take for granted, such as going to school, the doctor or local shop have become a living nightmare. If I can be really basic, many households have had to use buckets and black bags in which to defecate and with no sanitary waste disposal. As somebody said to our bishop the other day 'what do you do with it then?"'

He said Christians had provided practical support and care for those affected by the floods in the diocese, which includes the Somerset Levels. "Although Prince Charles and the Prime Minister have visited our county in the last few days there is now a real feeling that it is too little and too late," he said.

News and weather reports from flooding on the Somerset Levels, where the worst floods for 100 years have followed the wettest January in 248 years

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51 comments

  • Charlespk  |  February 15 2014, 8:18AM

    Oops; Rob I'm sorry.

    |   2
  • Charlespk  |  February 15 2014, 8:16AM

    I do hope you feel better soon Bob. . It must be very hard for you. http://tinyurl.com/qxgaggo

    |   2
  • RobOldfield  |  February 15 2014, 1:23AM

    What colour is the sky in your world Charles?

    |   -2
  • Charlespk  |  February 14 2014, 1:13PM

    It's already done. . He always listens to us. New Strategy. https://http://tinyurl.com/oh6sbo2

    |   2
  • DaveBathwick  |  February 14 2014, 12:42PM

    I trust you are aware of this, charlespk, and are making some positive input. http://tinyurl.com/nc2bexe

    |   -2
  • Charlespk  |  February 14 2014, 10:19AM

    Quote:- "This has to be the way forward. We have to put the Levels back under the control of people who know what they are doing, know what needs to be done and who have a vested interest in doing it properly. We've heard and seen enough of the Environment Agency's "experts" their efforts have contributed to the biggest mess the Levels have experienced in decades. Now it's time for the real experts to take over." . . . Derek Mead http://tinyurl.com/payah85 (open in a new window)

    |   3
  • Charlespk  |  February 14 2014, 10:12AM

    Quote:- "This has to be the way forward. We have to put the Levels back under the control of people who know what they are doing, know what needs to be done and who have a vested interest in doing it properly. We've heard and seen enough of the Environment Agency's "experts" their efforts have contributed to the biggest mess the Levels have experienced in decades. Now it's time for the real experts to take over." http://tinyurl.com/payah85 (open in a new window)

    |   3
  • Charlespk  |  February 13 2014, 10:08PM

    Somerset has been flooded for two months.. The Thames basin for less than a week. "There are none so blind."

    |   3
  • Charlespk  |  February 13 2014, 9:55PM

    It's often the people that have no land or animals of their own, and know nothing of good husbandry that are the worst culprits when it comes to caring for the environment.

    |   3
  • Charlespk  |  February 13 2014, 9:24PM

    Most of our problems can be laid squarely at the feet of flaky 'environmentalists' many of whom work for the EA and other wildlife Quangos and encouraged by Left Wing Governments who have reversed the centuries of intelligent land management that always required hard work and endeavour, qualities that are now increasingly in short supply. . Quango lead outfits like Natural England, the RSPB and the Regional Development Agencies have just slowly neutered all that has kept this country green, properly drained and well fed and watered over the generations. . . . The Parrett's main tributaries include the Rivers Tone, Isle, and Yeo, and the River Cary via the King's Sedgemoor Drain. The 37-mile long river is tidal for 27 miles up to Oath. . But because the fall of the river between Langport and Bridgwater is only about 1 foot per mile, it is prone to flooding in winter and during high tides. . Many approaches have been tried since at least the medieval period to reduce the incidence and effect of floods and to drain the surrounding fields, but it must be kept regularly dredged to enable enough flow of water out to sea.

    |   3

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