Britain's floods: We can save the town or the country, but not both, says Environment Agency boss

Lord Smith said 'difficult choices' would have to be made over what to protect because 'there is no bottomless purse'

As severe flooding continues to wreak havoc across the country, Britain must decide whether to protect "town or country" because it is too costly to safeguard both, the chairman of the Environment Agency has said.

Lord Chris Smith said "difficult choices" lie ahead because "there's no bottomless purse" to pay for flood defences.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Lord Smith acknowledged the "extraordinary combination of weather conditions over the past eight weeks" and defended the EA after a week in which it has come in for heavy criticism over its handling of the crisis.

In the Somerset Levels, large swathes of land have been underwater for more than a month. But Lord Smith emphasised that the situation has been much worse in previous years.

Drawing comparisons with similar floods in 1953, he said that, while the conditions in Somerset have caused "terrible distress for the 40 homeowners who have been flooded", there has not been the "tragic loss of life" seen more than 60 years ago when 300 people died.

"Advances in flood warning and flood-risk management have made a difference," he said.

However, Lord Smith added: "There are no quick fixes in the face of this kind of extreme rainfall, and the solutions are not just for the Environment Agency to find. We all need to work together if we're to solve the problem."

His comments will stoke fears that the Government is considering which parts of the country it can sacrifice to the flood waters.

"Yes, agricultural land matters and we do whatever we can with what we have to make sure it is protected. 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," he said.

"But this involves tricky issues of policy and priority: town or country, front rooms or farmland?"

Underwater Britain: Scenes from a flood-ravaged countryside

 

Lord Smith has been criticised for his agency's decision not to dredge rivers in Somerset.

But he added: "Flood defences cost money; and how much should the taxpayer be prepared to spend on different places, communities and livelihoods - in Somerset, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, or East Anglia? There's no bottomless purse, and we need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect."

Meanwhile, householders have been told to brace themselves as further wind and rain threatens to bring more chaos to waterlogged communities across Britain.

Around 180 homes were flooded during a busy weekend for the emergency services and EA workers up and down the country.

Following a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergencies committee yesterday, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said that 73,000 homes in England had been protected from flooding since Friday, and that the EA continued to protect communities by deploying demountable flood defences, sandbags and clearing waterways.

He said: "I have enormous sympathy for those who have been affected again this weekend and the government is working with all local councils to help communities recover. All requests for assistance have been met."

EA staff have been working around the clock to alleviate the flooding hell that people in the county have endured for five weeks, pumping 1.5 million tonnes of water a day off the Levels.

Two specialist all-terrain vehicles have been sent to the county along with extra pumping equipment.

But with further rain expected following the wettest January on record in some places, saturated ground and high river levels could lead to further river flooding this week.

Weather forecasters are expecting winds of up to 70mph today, and up to 30mm (1.2in) of rain.

Officials say fresh flooding could affect the south coasts of Devon and Cornwall today as well as Somerset, Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

As of this morning the EA had three severe flood warnings in place, one covering large parts of Cornwall and Devon, and two for the River Severn in the Midlands. There are also 95 flood warnings and 233 less severe flood alerts.

On Saturday, a 67-year-old woman died after being swept out to sea near the mouth of the River Arun at Littlehampton Pier, West Sussex.

And in Newgale, west Wales, 10 people had to be plucked from a bus in the dark after a large wave swept it on to the seafront.

Additional reporting by Press Association

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
News
peopleWarning - contains a lot of swearing
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Investigo: Finance Business Partner

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in providing ...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - West London

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: WEST LONDON - An excellent new opportunity wit...

Recruitment Genius: Florist Shop Manager

£8 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A Florist Shop Manager is required to m...

Recruitment Genius: Appointment Maker / Telesales

£15000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading supplie...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project