As if it were not bad enough for the Somerset Levels to be underwater for weeks on end, for Royal Marines to be needed to help evacuate flooded villages, for the South-west to be – even for a single day – unreachable by rail from London. Now we face the unedifying spectacle of politicians taking time off from dealing with the situation to sling mud at each other instead.
First, the Communities Secretary (standing in for the Environment Secretary, who is in hospital) appeared on Sunday television to point the finger squarely at the Environment Agency (EA). Ever a master of the not-so-hidden barb, Eric Pickles’s apology not only poured scorn on the quango’s advice – “we thought we were dealing with experts” – it also lambasted its chief, all but calling for the Labour peer’s resignation.
In response, Lord Smith took to the airwaves yesterday to defend “the expertise and professionalism” of EA staff “who know a hundred times more about flood management than any politician ever does”. He also pointed out that “the agency is bound by rules laid down by government”, specifically the Treasury.
All of which, while meat and drink to Westminster-watchers, is of scant benefit to the thousands whose homes are either underwater already or might soon be so. Indeed, the worst may not yet be over. With more heavy rain forecast, Somerset was subject to another two severe flood warnings yesterday, 14 more were in force along the Thames in Berkshire and Surrey, and a further 300-plus less serious alerts were issued across southern England and the Midlands.
Tempting as it is to look for scapegoats, it is as well to remember that last month was the wettest since daily recording began in Oxford in 1767. There may be any number of criticisms levelled at the response to the crisis, but neither the Government nor the Environment Agency can be fairly blamed for the weather.
What is abundantly clear, however, is that Britain needs to be better prepared. As the Met Office’s chief scientist noted last weekend, while we cannot be certain what caused the recent spate of storms, a link to climate change is more than likely. Not only must we avoid a repeat of the current devastation, then, but we must assume that the extreme weather that caused it will become more common.
It is therefore not enough to argue over the specifics of dredging the rivers that drain the Levels. Contrary to the now-received wisdom, dredging would only have delayed the present inundation, perhaps by just a few days; it also brings environmental risks of its own, including flooding. More importantly, though, the Somerset flood plain is only part of the issue. Contingency planning across the country as a whole has been revealed to be insufficient.
More money is no doubt needed. Equally, there will always be a judgement about where it is spent. Thus, while some of the recent criticisms of the Environment Agency may be justified, it is the fundamentals of the way the organisation prioritises its investments, and the rules – set by the Government – by which these decisions are made, that need to be reconsidered.
With swathes of the country underwater, there is neither the time, nor the public appetite, for political bickering. Never mind the blame game. There is serious work to be done.Reuse content