UK weather: Fury rises with the flood waters causing havoc and evacuations across Britain

More than 5,000 properties affected in past two months, with 150 flood warnings still in place as misplaced subsidies, cost-cutting and official complacency blamed for exacerbating problem

Apart from the occasional hedgerow poking above murky waters, and an isolated farmhouse standing in defiance of the floods, there is little to suggest that large tracts of Somerset contain anything but lakes. The farmland, villages and rural roads are submerged, and the waters are still rising. So is the rage.

Gill Slattery, a local councillor, spoke for many when she said: “It’s hard to imagine how those poor people of Moorland will have felt as they saw the flood water creep up bit by bit into their homes. People are suffering from psychological trauma and sleepless nights, so it’s no surprise they are getting angry.”

Yet life here is only about to get harder. The chaos and anguish in Somerset, caused by weather that has produced the wettest January and February in England and Wales for 130 years, shows no sign of abating this weekend.

Nationwide, around 5,000 homes have been affected by the flooding, including 40 in Somerset, where a further 80 homes were evacuated overnight in anticipation of a renewed rise in water levels as fresh storms batter the south coast.

Last night there were two severe flood warnings – meaning “danger to life” – in the Somerset Levels, with a further 150 flood warnings and 300 flood alerts in England and Wales.

Flooding also hit parts of Surrey, London, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Kent yesterday, where the village of Bridge, near Canterbury, was inundated for the second time in a week, causing spring water and sewage to seep up through floorboards.

Royal Marines and soldiers were deployed to help with sandbagging in Essex and the Somerset Levels, where police arrested three men overnight suspected of looting heating oil from evacuated homes.

Rail engineers were also trying to shore up damaged infrastructure, in particular the embankment at Dawlish in Devon, where work was being undertaken to prevent a further collapse of the sea wall carrying the main west coast line into Cornwall.

The Somerset Levels are a unique environment – even locals will admit they are prone to flooding. Yet as the repair and resistance work continued, experts said last night that Britain was paying the price for a catalogue of failures to manage the built and natural environment, to reduce the effects of flooding considered inevitable in the face of climate change and the intensive use of land in both town and country.

Fiona Howie, head of planning for the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “We must expect to experience warmer, wetter winters, so it is not sufficient to dismiss flooding as the natural order of things. The Environment Agency and the Government need to develop a coherent national approach to dealing with this crisis.”

Rob Cunningham, head of water policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: “There is a wealth of evidence that our soils are in a terrible state. They are heavily compacted, which means water just pours off.”

The effects of the single farm payment, an EU subsidy which encourages the clearance of vegetation from river banks, has also exacerbated the run-off of water from the hills. This is in stark contrast to advice that more needs to be done to trap water at higher levels as well as dredging rivers on lower ground, a key factor in the Somerset flooding.

Bob Ward, policy director at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Institute, which studies the impact of climate change, criticised the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson for failing to secure the necessary investment in flood protection.

He said: “Much of the debate has focused on the perceived shortcomings of the Environment Agency but a more important issue is why the Environment Secretary is failing to make the country more resilient to the risk of flooding made worse by global warming.”

Building in areas at high risk of flooding, which rose last year as a result of pressure to provide new housing, has also been highlighted as an example of flood prevention policy going backwards. It emerged last week that local authorities in England and Wales allowed 87 developments – comprising 560 homes – to proceed in the last year despite advice from the Environment Agency (EA) that they were in areas at high risk of flooding.

David Cameron promised last night to do “everything that can be done” to help Somerset as he toured swamped sites and met families forced by record water levels to abandon their homes.

After arriving by helicopter for a hastily arranged visit to the county, Mr Cameron said: “It’s a biblical scene. The scale of it here in Somerset is immense. Clearly people here have faced a very tough time and continue to face a tough time, and that’s why we have got to do everything we can to help.”

He repeated criticism of the EA – whose chairman Lord Smith of Finsbury visited Somerset yesterday for the first time since the crisis began – for stopping dredging rivers in the 1990s.

Lord Smith is due to retire in the summer. His departure will be welcomed by Government figures as an opportunity to give fresh direction to the EA. But while ministerial sources acknowledged there had been “some disgruntlement” with his performance, they said there was little pressure for him to step down before his term ends in July.

Another Whitehall source said the Government was broadly happy with the EA’s response to this winter’s unprecedented weather conditions. He said: “Chris Smith believes it is coming under unfair attack. That is why he went to Somerset.”

Privately, however, ministers admitted last night that they had been slow to respond to the scale of the damage in the West Country. One said: “This hasn’t been our finest hour – there’s no disguising that. It comes to something when the Prince of Wales is more sympathetic to the public mood.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones