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The Environment Agency requires scrutiny

Lord Smith has conceded that “some dredging” will have to be done after this year’s disaster

As the residents of the waterlogged Somerset Levels watched the boats go by yesterday along what used to be dry land, they will not have been much cheered by the latest comments from the chairman of the Environment Agency. “There is no bottomless purse,” Chris Smith pointed out, in an article in Monday’s Daily Telegraph.

The former Labour cabinet minister was at pains to praise the work of his agency’s staff, emphasising that flood defences are very much better than they were 60 years ago – as if anyone would expect them not to be – but implied that some people’s homes, businesses or farms would always be vulnerable to flooding when there was heavy rain.

He did throw in one piece of good news. It was assumed that the agency was wholly opposed to spending what it regards as its scarce funds on dredging rivers.

But Lord Smith has conceded that “some dredging” will have to be done after this year’s disaster, while insisting that it is not the whole answer. Possibly not, but when the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, visited the Northmoor pumping station in Somerset the other day, he may have been told that its original outlet, constructed in the 1840s, is now said to be seven feet below the river bed, a measure of how much flotsam has piled up over the years.

The Environment Agency is an enormous quango, with an enormous budget. It employs 11,177 staff directly, and another 1,075 on temporary contracts. In 2012-13, its running costs were £1.2bn. Its capital works budget for that year was £219m, of which less than a tenth –£20.3m – went on improving channels for the free flow of water.

Large sums went on other forms of flood management, but the figure illustrates how little dredging rivers features on the agency’s priorities.

The purse may not be “bottomless” but if the agency does not want public anger directed at its own huge establishment, it will need to have more convincing answers next time there is rain like there has been this year.