South put on flood alert after storms: Nicholas Schoon and Esther Oxford on the clear-up operations as rivers overflow

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The Independent Online
FLOOD ALERTS have been issued on rivers in Hampshire, Kent and Sussex after storms topped up water levels from last week's downpours. Four hundred homes were pumped out and 16 horses led to safety when the rivers Medway, Teise and Stour overflowed. The London Weather Centre said the rain was set to continue.

At Singleton, near Chichester, West Sussex, the village centre was flooded after the river Lavant burst its banks. Fireman battled to pump the water away as villagers armed with brooms and wheelbarrows helped the clear-up operation - the second in a week.

An underwater search for a missing pensioner has been held up because the speed of the floodwater is making the river Thames too dangerous for police frogmen.

Raymond Legg, 72, went missing on Christmas Eve after he tried to cross the Thames in a dinghy from his houseboat at Henley- on-Thames, Oxfordshire, to collect Christmas mail. His wife spotted the empty boat floating downstream later that day and her husband has not been seen since.

But Colin Thorn, Professor of Physical Geography at Nottingham University, believes that the rivers must be allowed to flood more frequently for the sake of the environment and the public purse. Instead of spending millions of pounds defending riverside farmland from flooding, the money should be given to farmers to compensate them for taking their bankside fields out of production, he said. The arable land would then become a more natural flood plain with wetland meadows and woodland rich in wildlife.

Draining rivers caused environmental damage, he said.' What we want from our rivers now is paths and cycle routes, recreation and wildlife protection. We have to work with nature, not against it.'

With growing recognition of the need to tackle crop surpluses, the time was ripe for restoring intensively farmed riverside fields to regularly flooded wetlands, Professor Thorn said.

In the worst cases of house building on hard-to-defend floodplains the homes should be gradually abandoned, with the Government buying out home-owners then demolishing the properties.

'There are places where it so expensive to defend the houses from flooding every few decades that you could probably save money by buying out the householders.' Professor Thorn will present his views today at the Institute of British Geographers Conference in Nottingham.

The Meteorological Office in Bracknell said total rainfall in England and Wales for the autumn months - September to November - had been 34 per cent above the long-term average. December was wetter still - 57 per cent above the average for the month in England and Wales. Scotland has also had a wet autumn and winter.

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