UK weather: Marines drafted in to evacuate Somerset residents as Environment Agency chief visits flood-hit areas

Under-fire Lord Smith will visit the region after claiming that Britain may have to choose whether to save 'town or country' in future

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The Independent Online

The chairman of the Environment Agency has visited the stricken Somerset Levels for the first time since it was hit by floods, as another night of heavy rain overwhelmed local defences.

Royal Marines building sandbag defences in the area were this morning drafted in to assist with the evacuation of residents in the village of Moorland, after more residents were warned to leave their homes overnight.

Last night, residents of Northmoor, Fordgate and Saltmoor, also on the Levels, had already been urged to evacuate.

Speaking from the Willows and Wetlands Visitor Centre in Stoke St Gregory, Lord Smith, Environment Agency chairman said: “I am very proud of the work that the Environment Agency staff have been doing up and down the country over the course of the last two months.

“We have been faced with the most extreme weather that we have seen for years, we have had the wettest January since records began, this has been a major, major challenge for everyone up and down the country.

“The Environment Agency staff have been working their socks off to try and sort this out for everyone.”

Asked why he had not apologised to residents, he said: “I have said to the people here what we did last year, what we've been preparing now, the work we're currently doing, and I think the important thing now is to work out what we can do for the future of Somerset, what can now happen, and that's what I'm primarily talking about with the local people here.”

Lord Smith denied making the controversial comment that Britain may have to choose whether it wants to save “town or country” from future flooding because it is too costly to defend both.

He said: “I have never said it is a choice between saving the town and saving the country.

“What I have said is that the clear priorities that have been set for us by successive governments is: our top priority is protecting lives; our second priority is protecting people's homes and people's businesses; our third priority is protecting as much agricultural land as we can.

“That's the order of priority, that happens in both the town and the country.”

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Severe weather alerts were in place for south east England, the South West and Wales as further torrential downpours arrived overnight, with more wet weather forecast.

A spokesman for Avon and Somerset Police said: “Earlier this morning local flood defences were breached and the water level in Moorland began rising.

“We are have been informing local residents and strongly advising them to leave the area.

Two severe flood warnings - meaning a danger to life - have been issued by the Environment Agency, both in the South West.

In Kent, areas of which were badly affected by floods over Christmas, police and council officials warned of more problems, including possible localised flooding in Yalding, Tonbridge, Hildenborough and Paddock Wood.

The Prime Minister, who chaired a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergency committee last night, has claimed he will visit Somerset himself “when the time is right”.

David Cameron said he wanted to reassure people affected by the floods that the Government was keeping up its “urgent response”.

Liberal Democrat MEP for South West England Sir Graham Watson and two colleagues have written to Mr Paterson urging him to apply for support from the European Union's Solidarity Fund, which provides resources for member states to deal with the aftermath of large-scale natural disasters.

The MEP said he had already spoken to the EU's regional policy commissioner Johannes Hahn, who told him that the UK “might well” qualify for support from the fund.

Sir Graham told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: “If our taxpayers are helping to establish this fund, we should be drawing down from it when we need it. And the need is certainly there.

"It doesn't have to be a national emergency. It can be a regional emergency, and it certainly is here in the South-West peninsula."

The Met Office confirmed it has been the wettest December and January combined for more than 100 years, with rain falling on 23 out of 31 days in January across the UK.

Met Office spokeswoman Laura Young warned that the whole of the UK will tonight be “engulfed” by heavy rain.

Severe winds are expected across the UK tomorrow, with some areas of exposed coastline potentially seeing gusts of wind of more than 80 mph.

Additional reporting from PA