'Worse than useless': Flood-affected locals on the Somerset Levels blame plight on Environmental Agency

A visit from avowed country sympathist Prince Charles lifted the spirits, but the area is still suffering

Jamie Merrill
Tuesday 04 February 2014 20:02 GMT
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson at Northmoor Pumping Station near Bridgwater
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson at Northmoor Pumping Station near Bridgwater (Getty Images)

Like most of the residents of Muchelney, farmer Graham Walker has had enough of the floods that have left his fields underwater and his sheep scattered for six weeks.

The village in the middle of the Somerset Levels has been cut off from the “mainland” since the New Year and, like most of his fellow residents, Mr Walker puts the blame squarely with the Environment Agency (EA) for its “failure to dredge... local rivers”.

“[It] has been worse than useless,” he said. “We’ve told them for years that the rivers need dredging. Of course this area is going to flood in winter, but it shouldn’t be this bad.”

This local water management debate has gone national in recent weeks, but the residents of Muchelney and Thorney haven’t yet seen the benefits of all the attention.

Referring to Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, who had a hostile reception in the area last week, he added: “At least with the Government we can put a tick in another box at the next election to get rid of them, but what can we do about [the EA] other than try to make a lot of noise?”

On Monday the EA’s head Lord Smith was forced to explain why he had yet to visit the area this year. In comments which angered Somerset farmers, he said: “Town or county, front rooms or farmland... There’s no bottomless purse.” This hasn’t gone down well on the Somerset Levels, where even seemingly mild-mannered villagers described him as “useless” and “feckless”.

Other locals complained about the stream of politicians and members of the media who have descended on the area to observe their suffering at first hand. The latest of these was Prince Charles, who today toured the flood-hit region by boat, 4x4 and tractor, sitting on a makeshift wooden throne.

“There’s nothing like a jolly good disaster to get people to start doing something,” he said. “The tragedy is that nothing happened for so long.”

As soon as he left his royal vehicle in Stoke St Gregory, the Prince was handed a letter outlining the issues facing Somerset by a farmer.

“I’ve now got an idea how awful it is,” he mused.

Earlier he had pledged £50,000 to the clear-up operation from his Countryside Fund – a sum that will be matched by the Duke of Westminster – which went down well with locals. Alistair Mullineux said the visit was a “terrific morale booster”.

Anita Vaughan Johnson compared him favourably with Lord Smith, pointing out that the Prince “wasn’t the sort” to “weigh the difference between the countryside and towns; he’s a country man and understands our troubles”.

However, Nigel Smith decided to give the royal visit a miss, catching the last boat out of the village before it was locked down for the event.

“We’ve been flooded by media and to be honest the media is more of a bother than the water,” he complained.

This feeling is shared by many locals, who are keen to thank the media for bringing their plight to national attention – but are now increasingly keen to be left alone.

Mr Walker is quick to point out that the disaster tourists and journalists from the “mainland” are ignoring other flood-hit communities in Somerset, including hundreds of isolated farms and the nearby villages of Northmoor and Oath.

“Really it’s been overkill of emergency vehicles and political hot air in the last few weeks, thanks to all the media attention,” he said.

“All we really needed was a boat service and the council to collect rubbish, but now we’ve got all sorts of 4x4s and boats running around.”

As the Met Office issued yet another weather warning, the residents of the Somerset Levels could be forgiven for wondering just how much longer their struggles will go on.

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