Environment Agency chairman Lord Smith blasted for saying Britain must choose between protecting town and country from floods


Environment Editor

The chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith, was publicly rebuked today for suggesting that Britain should favour the town over the country when it came to flood defence spending.

Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, took issue with Lord Smith’s comments in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday that Britain must choose between “front rooms or farmland” because there wasn’t enough money to defend the whole country against flooding.

Standing in for Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who is having emergency eye surgery, Mr Pickles said the government would spend an extra £130m to repair flood defences – an increase on the £100m pledged by David Cameron on Wednesday. He also promised to “work to defend both town and country”.

“For the record, I do not agree with the comments of Lord Smith who implied there is a choice between the two,” Mr Pickles said.

His comments echo those of the Prime Minister and add to the pressure on the Environment Agency, who has been heavily criticised for failing to visit the Somerset Levels in the month since floods began and for overseeing a policy of opposition to river dredging, which many critics say would have relieved the flooding. Lord Smith will visit Somerset today as he seeks to claw back some goodwill from residents, while David Cameron said yesterday he would visit “at the appropriate opportunity”.

The government also announced 42 new flood defences schemes, including one in the village of Willerby near Hull, to protect 8,000 properties, although these will be financed with existing funds.

The coalition came under further fire for its handling of the floods yesterday.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said: “I think the government has been slack in its planning and slow to help the people affected. The priority is now to get all of the help possible to those who have been affected by the flooding and the storms.”

Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh suggests the extra funding was relatively small when set against the costs of inadequate defences.

The damaged railway line on the coastal town of Dawlish in South Devon, which collapsed after huge waves whipped up by high winds smashed a 100ft section of sea wall, is costing the regional economy “tens of millions of pounds” every week, Ms Creagh said, and will take six weeks to repair.

Visit Devon, the tourist lobby group, said it was concerned for tourism, and that the poor weather has seriously affected the livelihoods of some in the industry.

Meanwhile, in the Somerset village of Fordgate, resident Maria Mae told Sky News she had moved out of her house after she and her husband woke up at 2am to find their cottage under three feet of water, with human faeces coming up from the septic tank.

“We couldn’t do it anymore, so we just decided to move out. It’s terrible. We moved to this beautiful place to retire, because we love Somerset.”

“It’s so devastating to see it going underwater. I am living like a refugee at the moment out of five bags,” she added.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage waded into the political debate yesterday, condemning the government’s “lethargic and inadequate” response to the flood and calling on it to immediately suspend its £11bn foreign aid budget.

Insisting that “charity begins at home”, Mr Farage argued that the budget should be diverted instead to help areas in the UK that have been devastated by the floods.

“The amount of damaged caused by the floods and storms across a large swathe of the south west and other regions too is colossal… People would be forgiven for thinking that the government don’t really care and that ordinary families are not their priority,” Mr Farage said.

Heavy rain and gale force winds continue to batter much of southern Britain yesterday, with the Environment Agency warned of “severe weather and continuing flood risk” over the next few days.

John Curtin, the agency’s head of incident management said: “We urge people to stay safe and not to walk or drive through flood water which can be dangerous and to take care near coastal paths and promenades for fear of being swept away.”

The Met Office is also warning of strong winds and heavy rains as yet more storms are forecast to hit England and Wales. Provisional figures out yesterday suggest it has been the wettest December and January combined for more than 100 years, the Met Office said – and that regional statistics suggested that southern England had experienced “one of, if not the most, exceptional periods of winter rainfall in at least 248 years.”

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