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Somerset Levels flood recovery plan unveiled by Owen Paterson

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: March 07, 2014

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"A new beginning for the Somerset Levels", that was the verdict of Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger yesterday, minutes after personally handing in the new Somerset Levels and Moors Flood Action Plan to Number 10.

Full delivery over 20 years would cost more than £100 million. The Government has so far put £20.5 million in place, including £10 million announced yesterday by the Department for Transport, and £500,000 from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Now the decisions – and options – are down in black and white the people of Somerset will hold the Government accountable for their delivery.

Some of the cash is set to come from other sources, including other agencies and through landowner contributions to drainage boards etc, and from a fund launched by the Royal Bath & West Society. Somerset authorities and partners have raised £1.5 million.

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"There is nothing here that is surprising, but it will need political will to put the changes in place," said Mr Liddell-Grainger. "We have the sixth largest economy and we have the ability to do what we have to do. There has to be local input. There is some of that already but now we need to put this together as quickly as possible and get on with it.

"I will be writing to the Prime Minister to say my view on the report is that it is good. We have concerns about the long-term funding and maintenance but it is a new beginning for the Somerset Levels."

There is widespread support for the plan in Somerset. It has been drawn up in the six weeks stipulated by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson when he visited the Levels in January. Agencies and groups as disparate as landowners, the RSPB, councils, Defra, the Environment Agency and internal drainage board came together for the good of all. Local MPs, who have been fighting for action for years, also played an important part and the wider public also had an input.

Prevention rather than cure is at the heart of the plan. Preventing water reaching the levels which have caused such havoc to infrastructure, communities and business may be the preferred alternative to raising roads.

Mr Paterson said: "The plan we have received today includes some immediate actions that will help do this and I'm pleased that dredging will start as soon as it is safe to do. We will continue to work with local partners on other proposals to ensure we secure a sustainable future for communities on the Somerset Levels."

Somerset County Council leader John Osman added: "This is a big step forward, bringing hope to our flood-hit communities. We have worked with Government and other partners to find solutions in the short, medium and long term, for what we can do now and what we need to plan for in the future."

But flood victim and local Labour councillor Julian Taylor, who had to leave his home at Fordgate, said: "Among the victims there is little faith in the Government's promises. There is a funding gap. £10 million has been promised for the simple plan, but £100 million is needed for the full plan and, including roads and rail lines, over £280 million is required. I think the timetable is too long and most of these monies will have to come from local sources and nobody will say how.

"One thing that is missing is putting a financial responsibility on to the upper catchment area, where most of the water comes from. We have had numerous previous reports, in 2002, 2009 and 2013, and none of those reports were acted on. Dredging should be from the whole of the river from Taunton and Langport to the mouth and this needs to include the improvements to the centre of Bridgwater."

Floods on the Levels Action Group chairman Heather Venn said the group was "cautiously optimistic".

"We need to keep a careful eye on this, and it is absolutely crucial that the funding is there, but it is a very positive first step and we welcome much that is in it," she said.

Councillor Mick Lerry, leader of the Labour Group on Sedgemoor District Council, and Prospective Parliamentary Labour candidate for Bridgwater, said: "In the past the Government has said that more funding has been spent on flood protection, when this has not been true. This Government has spent less on flood protection than the previous Government, and at the same time money coming in from other bodies for flood protection has not materialised and even the Government has acknowledged this point. Ian Liddell-Grainger MP must now convince the Government to fund the action plan."

The winter of 2013-2014 may have had record-breaking rainfall but the plan acknowledges that there will be an increasing challenge as weather patterns change.

There will still be tough decisions on agreeing an "acceptable" level of risk and "reasonable" standards of protection, but there is a pledge to better involve the local community, and better understand what that means for investment choices – in Somerset and across the country.

In some areas the most cost-effective mix of measures is not yet clear, not what the entire mix should be, but they must "result in real action and changes on the ground".

Local management of delivery is likely, at last those who know the land and water so well will play a much bigger role. The dredging of a total of eight kilometres of the Tone and Parrett will take place as soon as possible. That will eat up £5.7 million of the £10 million the Government has given Defra for immediate work.

Raising river banks, changing where water is stored, is one proposal. The better use and increase in the capacity of the Sowy and King Sedgemoor Drain is another. Permanent pumps at Beer Wall and Dunball are others. Making temporary protection for some villagers permanent is another proposal.

But there is a warning that changing land use and buying out properties must also be considered as part of the overall assessment. Future maintenance of any capital schemes will also need to be planned for.

The £25 million tidal sluice at Bridgwater is a long-term project but a review of designs for a barrier will be carried out by this summer. Holding back water in the upper catchments by brushwood dams and other devices is proposed, and Wessex Water is to undertake £16 million of work by 2022 to improve storm water overflows to reduce spill by 50 per cent.

Immediate help includes £250,000 to support local tourism and marketing to tell the world that Somerset is a great place for business and holidays. Also, an army of local "rhynesmen" could inspect the waterways and do smallscale work. Somerset County Council says it is committed to leading further development and implementation of the plan with partners.

Somerset Wildlife Trust welcomed the plan as a step in the right direction, as did the RSPB, which manages 1,750 acres of land in the flood-affected area.

Mark Robins, speaking for the RSPB in the South West, said: "This is a unique opportunity to build a brighter future for this special place and its communities, by putting nature as a key element at the heart of its recovery.

"There is a growing consensus around a common vision for the Levels. One that by 2030 sees the area as a thriving, nature-rich wetland landscape, with grassland farming taking place on the majority of the land. One where the impact of extreme weather events is being reduced by land and water management in both the upper catchments and the flood plain and by greater community resilience. The plan published today is a step in this direction. However, we need to make sure good words translate into real change, as a matter of urgency."

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