Environment Agency chief Lord Smith under fire in Somerset as he admits: I’ve not visited flood areas

 

Environment Editor

The chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith, was condemned by farmers and politicians on Monday after admitting he hasn’t visited Somerset since large areas of the county disappeared underwater a month ago.

He alienated rural Britain further by suggesting that it doesn’t make financial sense to spend money protecting some agricultural land from floods, saying “Town or country, front rooms or farmland…There’s no bottomless purse and we need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect”.

Lord Smith went on to apologise for the first time for not doing more to tackle flooding in Somerset, a move which helped to appease some locals but still left many angry.

“It is not until you get on the ground that you realise what it’s like – it’s disappointing that Lord Smith hasn’t visited since last year, it would have been nice,” said Duncan McGinty, head of Sedgemoor District Council.

Anthony Gothard, a dairy farmer near Thornton, near Somerset, added: “It makes me angry and fed up. Does he [Lord Smith] not know about rural life – if you take the industry out of rural areas, what are people going to do?”

“It partly comes down to whether we want food security or not. If we are not fussed about producing food then let the floods come – except that by taking away the farmland, you are taking away jobs and the village life. Our farm supports 12 families, so that’s 12 families that wouldn’t be living in the area and spending money locally,” he added.

Local MPs were also unimpressed by the implication of Lord Smith’s comment that “rules from successive governments give the highest priority to lives and homes; and I think most people would agree that this is the right approach”.

Ian Liddell-Grainger, the Conservative MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, said: “It is utterly insensitive to think of choosing between households and farms. This is really upsetting and beggar’s belief. I would ask Lord Smith to resign but he does not have that kind of decency.”

David Heath, Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome, said: “We are increasingly bemused by the number of armchair experts from hundreds of miles away who seem to know more than we do. People in rural areas are as entitle to consideration as anybody else.”

Lord Smith, who earned £97,365 last year for his three-day a week chairmanship of the Environment Agency, insisted on Monday that he was doing a good job and had the full support of the government.

He strongly refuted concerns that his 10 other roles, including chairmanships of the Advertising Standards Authority, the Donmar Warehouse Theatre and the Wordsworth Trust, left him too little time to concentrate on the Environment Agency. He said he had carried out his work at the agency “assiduously”, pointing out that his other roles were relatively small, and said he was “very proud” of the work he and the agency had done.

However, he did admit that more could have been done to tackle flooding in Somerset, where dredging of the rivers Parrett and Tone on the Somerset Levels, has been extremely rare in recent years – despite sustained pressure to do more.

“We probably haven’t done as much as we should have done and I regret that,” Lord Smith said.

Although people queued up to criticise Lord Smith on Monday, he was praised in some quarters for being realistic that, with flooding set to intensify in the coming years, it will not be possible to protect the entire country.

Furthermore, they said his hands were “tied” because he was operating at a time when the Treasury had slashed the agency’s budget, significantly reducing the funds at its disposal for dredging.

Julian Taylor, a councillor for Eastover Ward in Bridgwater, said: “I am disappointed that the Treasury mandarins are pulling the strings. Lord Smith clearly has his hands tied.”

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson also stood behind the Environment Agency and Lord Smith, saying both had done a “great job” – pointing out that while 7,500 properties had floods since the start of December, they existing flood defences had protected 1.2m properties.

The Met Office confirmed Monday that January was the wettest month the UK has seen since records began in 1910 – while figures from the Radcliffe Meteorological Station at Oxford University went even further, saying it was the wettest winter month since its records began – in 1767. The Met Office also warned that parts of Britain should brace itself for winds of up to 80mph on Tuesday and Wednesday and heavy rain on Thursday.

Sport
Australia vs New Zealand live
cricket Follow over-by-over coverage as rivals New Zealand and Australia face off
Sport
Hamilton runs down the back straight in the rain
F1
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing