It’s like living in a ‘third-world country,’ flood-hit residents tell Environment Secretary Owen Paterson on his flying visit to Somerset Levels

Visit of the Environment Secretary to the Somerset Levels lambasted as a ‘publicity stunt’ by angry campaigners

The Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, has been angrily rebuked by the people of Somerset, who accused the Government of running a “third-world country” as parts of the county remained under water nearly a month after flooding began.

The day got off to a bad start when the Conservative MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, Ian Liddell-Grainger, lambasted Mr Paterson and his Environment Agency on the BBC over their failure to dredge local rivers.

But matters took a considerable turn for the worse when a hastily convened appearance by the Environment Secretary, designed to soothe the concerns of local residents, succeeded only in angering them further.

Bryony Sadler, a member of Flooding on the Somerset Levels Action Group, dismissed Mr Paterson’s flying visit as “a publicity stunt”.

“It was a waste of taxpayers’ money,” she said. “He hasn’t told the community what’s going on. We needed a glimmer of hope and he has just driven off. We are here, we have lived like this – like a third-world country – for three weeks.”

 

Resident Sue Crocker, of nearby Fordgate, also drew a comparison with the developing world. “The term third-world country comes to mind. We have one portable toilet, we have no septic tanks, or overflowing ones and there is a lot of sewage running around the roads. It’s like Chinese torture,” she said.

“Homes have been flooded and we’re frustrated and we feel abandoned. We’re human beings and this is the 21st century and we’re not feeling part of it any more,” she added.

Mr Paterson visited the Northmoor Pumping Station yesterday lunchtime, where he held a press conference for the BBC, ITV and Sky News – but was reluctant to talk to local media or residents, who were asked not to approach the minister as he left the site.

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During the press conference, the Environment Secretary promised to draw up a plan within six weeks to deal with the flood-stricken Somerset Levels. However, he did not pledge any immediate action.

The moors host rivers such as the Tone and Parrett and are prone to flooding because around 100 square miles are below sea level. But locals argue that the problems have been exacerbated due to a lack of proper dredging over the past two decades.

Mr Paterson did not go into details, but said his plan would “almost certainly” involve a project to “clear” the two rivers. A spokesman for the Environment Secretary said it was too early to say what method would be used, but the options include fully fledged dredging involving a widening and deepening of the river, to “desilting” (removing a layer of mud from the river bed) and other “maintenance activities”.

It has not yet been decided whether the Government will make additional funds available for the project.

John Osman, the leader of Somerset County Council, said: “Although I am hugely disappointed that central government has not announced any additional funding, we will continue to keep the pressure on to secure a fair deal for Somerset’s residents.”

Defra concedes flood defence figures were inaccurate: Spending falls from £2.37bn to £2.34bn under the Coalition despite repeated claims to the contrary  

Councillor Julian Taylor, of Sedgemoor District Council, called the lack of dredging a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, adding: “We’ve had conspicuous neglect for 20 years where they have not maintained the rivers properly. If you do not maintain the rivers properly, you’ll get water more quickly off the moors.”

The village of Muchelney and the nearby hamlet of Thorney have become “islands” separated from the “mainland” by flood waters as deep as 4m (13ft) since 2 January.

Mr Liddell-Graigner dismissed as the Environment Agency’s claims that the rain would have overwhelmed the river system even if it had dredged the waterways as “pathetic”.

He said: “It’s an absolutely ridiculous excuse. Once it’s dredged we can then maintain it but the Environment Agency has to stop this mucking around and get on with it.”

Mr Paterson said he understood the strength of feeling in the area. “It is absolutely shocking and horrifying to people’s private lives, to their business lives. It is incredibly disruptive,” he said.

“They are quite right to be angry, it’s absolutely legitimate and that’s how our political system works.”

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