Residents rage at peer they accuse of PR exercise while Somerset drowns as Environment Agency’s Lord Smith wins few hearts with belated visit

Local Tory MP calls EA chairman a 'coward' and a 'git'

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The Independent Online

Holding a crisis meeting with angry farmers and flood-hit homeowners at a farm and wildlife centre that makes willow coffins probably isn’t the best political symbolism. But the flooded residents and struggling farmers of the Somerset Levels – and a local MP – were too angry with the Environment Agency (EA) chairman Lord Smith to see the funny side of the venue for the hastily arranged visit.

The peer, a former Labour minister who is due to step down this summer, was visiting the area for the first time on Friday. He will have known better than to expect a warm welcome from Ian Liddell-Grainger, but the local Tory MP was in a blistering mood.

“He should go, he should walk,” said Mr Liddell-Grainger. “I’m livid. This little git has never even been on the telephone to me. “When I find out where he is, I will give it to him. He has not told the local MPs, the local council or the local press where he is going to be. He’s a coward.”


Told later of the comments, Lord Smith refused to bite back. “Mr Liddell-Grainger uses very colourful language and I’m not going to play silly games like that. There is more serious work to be done,” he said. The destination of Lord Smith’s visit was kept confidential at first, but it did not take long for the press to learn the location, assemble and wait for his arrival.

Long-time Levels resident Keith Abraham travelled to the Willows and Wetlands Visitor Centre in Stoke St Gregory, hoping to add to the pressure building up on the embattled EA chief to resign.

“He’s obviously not down the road in Moorland or visiting Muchelney because there are actual homes that have been flooded there, not just fields. People have been trapped for weeks and I imagine he’d get a pretty hostile reception there. In fact, I think he’d probably be lynched and almost certainly he’d be dunked in the flood water.”

Meanwhile Jonathan Coate, the farmer who runs the visitor centre Lord Smith visited, was resigned rather than visibly angry – describing the visit as a “PR exercise”.

“There’s no point him resigning or apologising really, it’s all just too late,” said Mr Coate. “If only the Environment Agency had dredged the rivers like we’d asked we wouldn’t be here now.”

The farmer grows willow for baskets and coffins, but out of his 250 acres almost 190 acres are underwater, and his crop may be ruined. After giving the EA chief a tour, he said: “Lord Smith is only here because he has been politically embarrassed and needs to say he’s been here and seen the situation and reassured locals. He had no choice but to come.”

One key aspect of a successful PR exercise, however, was Lord Smith’s insistence that he would not apologise for any EA failings.

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“I have no intention of resigning,” he told journalists. “I’m very proud of the work of the Environment Agency and its staff in the face of the most extreme weather.” He added: “Local people have made very clear the distress they’ve experienced and the difficulties they’ve been facing.”

Alistair Mullineux, who represents some of the residents of nearby Muchelney, which has been separated from the “mainland” by flood water for more than six weeks, agreed that a meeting he attended with Lord Smith provided a “useful discussion”.

“The most important thing to come out of it was that Lord Smith announced to us that there was a change of policy, and that dredging would begin as soon as possible on the Somerset Levels, taking into account the specifics of the situation and environment here,” said Mr Mullineux.

Local politicians also described their meeting as “constructive”. But farmer Jim Winkworth, a member of the Flooding on the Levels Action Group, said he was “bloody mad” about the lack of the word “sorry” after Lord Smith refused to apologise to him personally.

“We thought that’s the least he could do today and he’s not apologising or admitting any liability.”