Environment chief praises the 'Dunkirk spirit'

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The Independent Online

They might be Britain's worst floods for 50 years, but one man has stayed resolutely afloat throughout, at least in political terms: the chairman of the Environment Agency, Sir John Harman.

They might be Britain's worst floods for 50 years, but one man has stayed resolutely afloat throughout, at least in political terms: the chairman of the Environment Agency, Sir John Harman.

The 50-year-old former maths lecturer has been visible and audible for much of last month's misery, making sure that the national flood warning system his agency introduced six weeks ago is working.

Yesterday he was visiting Bewdley, Worcestershire, praising the "Dunkirk spirit" of the residents who watched the rising waters of the river Severn engulf their homes. "It's important to see what's going on, on the ground - it's no good pontificating from an office in London," he said.

It is an attitude diametrically opposed to that of Sir John's predecessor Lord De Ramsey, whose apparent lack of concern over the disastrous inundation of Northampton in 1998 led to his early retirement.

Lord De Ramsey was appointed in 1995 as the agency's first chairman by John Major, who was Prime Minister at the time. Concern about his appointment was not lessened by revelations that he had allowed some of his land to be used for growing GM crops. His non-appearance at the launch of the Northampton report in October 1998 was the last straw, and he left office early, at the start of this year.

In Sir John Harman, his deputy, he was succeeded by a shrewder politician. His 1997 knighthood hides the reality of the man: Sir John is a product of Yorkshire Labour politics, who ran Kirklees Metropolitan District Council from 1986 until he took over as agency chairman on 1 January.

Now overall head of Britain's biggest quango he has started to make his mark, and in September he launched the agency's high-profile flood action week.

The agency's performance over the current floods was praised yesterday by Britain's leading flood expert, Professor Edmund Penning-Rowsell, head of the Flood Hazard Research Centre at the University of Middlesex: "Our view is that the performance of the Environment Agency has changed out of all recognition. It might not seem so to the bloke standing in a pool of water, but they have done a really good job."

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