Scientists rounded on the Government on Monday over its “kneejerk” handling of the flooding emergency following stinging criticism by Eric Pickles of the Environment Agency’s performance.
Water specialists condemned ministers for aggravating the crisis by cutting spending on environmental work and warned that dredging overflowing rivers in the Somerset Levels, which is now advocated by the Government, would make little difference to the problem.
The comments by Mr Pickles, the Communities Secretary, also provoked a Cabinet rift with Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, who complained to Downing Street over his Tory colleague’s “grandstanding”.
He protested after Mr Pickles attacked the Agency for providing poor advice on dredging and making clear he believed its chairman, Lord Smith, should resign.
The angry peer hit back in a series of interviews, insisting the Agency’s staff knew “one hundred times more about flood management than any politician ever does”.
David Cameron, who visited communities in the South West affected by flooding on Monday, has ordered that dredging – the removal of silt from the riverbed to speed the flow of water – begins as soon as floodwaters recede.
However, scientists said Monday there was no evidence that dredging would provide a long-term solution to flooding or would have prevented the disaster in Somerset.
Hannah Cloke, associate professor in hydrology at the University of Reading, said: “Ministers’ continuing kneejerk reaction is worrying.
“It’s crazy to be trying to command-and-control very local dredging operations from Whitehall without any consideration of the scientific evidence of flood risk or value for money.
“The idea that dredging on its own would have made the critical difference over the last month is fanciful.”
Richard Ashley of Sheffield University, who wrote a report on flooding risk in 2004 for the Blair government, said its findings had been ignored by “short-term politicians who don’t take notice of the science”.
He said: “The current government, especially the Department for Communities and Local Government, is obsessed with deregulation.
“They are also obsessed with cutting the [Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] budget at great risk to people in communities at risk of flooding. For them to rubbish the Environment Agency is frankly disingenuous and frankly stupid.”
Roger Falconer, professor of water management at Cardiff University, said he believed dredging would have only a marginal effect in Somerset as its rivers had only slight gradients.
He argued it was more important to speed the flow of water by increasing the gradient – possibly by building a lagoon off the coast where water levels could be kept low at times of flooding.
“There are rivers where dredging would be a big help, but I can’t see how dredging without other steps is going to solve the problems in the Somerset Levels,” he said.
The Government moved Monday to cool its internal battle over the crisis as well as end the “blame game” with the Environment Agency (EA).
Mr Cameron rejected calls for Lord Smith, who is due to step down in July, to be sacked immediately and said everyone, including different government departments, should “get on with their jobs” of helping the flood’s victims.
He said: “Right now everybody’s got to focus on the job in hand. That is the EA, every department in government. And let's not forget the emergency services and the army, who are doing a brilliant job.”
In the Commons, Mr Pickles sought to play down his clash with Mr Paterson, describing the Environment Secretary as his “brother from a different mother”. He also insisted: “My admiration for the work of the Environment Agency exceeds no one.”
But Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said: “It is a disgrace you have Government ministers pointing the finger at each other when they should be rolling their sleeves up and helping those who are affected.
“The Government needs to explain why their response to the flooding has been so slow to help the victims and why their planning has been so inadequate.”