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.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

Day In a Page

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash