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Somerset Levels Flooding: Prime Minister David Cameron was warned twice of the need to dredge rivers

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: February 10, 2014

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The small community at Burrowbridge on the banks of the River Parrett is completely surrounded by water, on the Somerset Levels, pictured yesterday (Photo: SWNS)

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David Cameron was made aware of the urgent need to dredge the rivers Parrett and Tone twice last year.

The Western Daily Press alerted him in April in an interview when he came to Somerset on the election trail. The Prime Minister said he was “happy to look at how we set out the Environment Agency’s priorities”.

Then in August with no more money forthcoming from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Royal Bath & West Society decided to launch an appeal fund, and shame the Government into match- funding.

But first Edwin White, former chairman of the Royal Bath & West Society, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister. Here was a local farming expert pointing out the facts.

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Mr White recalled: “I wrote to the Prime Minister back in August, pleading with him, and he replied with a covering note saying: ‘I will pass this on to the appropriate minister. Then I had three pages from Richard Benyon (then Defra minister with responsibility for water) who told me that basically within the processes and criteria, we did not qualify.”

So the Save the Somerset Levels Relief Fund was launched to support a 20-year action plan, and today those campaigning are stepping up their appeal to raise between £2 million and £3 million.

The society and the landowners who back it say it is still the only way of ensuring that the plan goes ahead.

Although the Government has now finally woken up to the seriousness of the situation and the Prime Minster pledged recently to make £10million available for tackling flood-related issues, the money comes with certain conditions.

Before providing financial support for a 20-year plan the Government has called for “partnership funding” .

The total plan includes dredging through the Levels and Moors; on-going maintenance; pumps and sluice gates – and ensuring that other flood defences are up to standard.

Work in the upper catchment area to slow run-off is needed, as well as a tidal sluice near the mouth of the Parrett to prevent silt being forced back into the watercourse.

The need for extra money makes the success of the Somerset Levels Relief Fund even more important, as it is the only available way at present of raising the money needed to trigger the essential match funding from the Government.

“We managed to raise a significant sum from our own Bath & West members in the first three weeks and now we are promoting this appeal to the people of Somerset and friends beyond – and a committee is already drawing up the action plan,” said a spokesman for the Royal Bath & West Society.

“We are aiming to raise between £2 million and £3 million by the end of this year and a group of trustees has been appointed to administer the fund.

“They have been charged with allocating the money where it is most needed, with an emphasis on practical actions to reduce flood risk.

“This combination of short-term Government action and our long-term plan means Somerset now has the best opportunity it has had for many years to beat the menace of flooding and the damage it causes on the Levels – but we need the help of all the people in Somerset to help us raise the necessary cash and ensure the success of this project.”

Donations can be sent to Just Giving on the Royal Bath & West website – www.bathandwest.com

Eric Pickles has admitted the Government made a mistake in not dredging rivers to prevent flooding but blamed the Environment Agency for providing poor advice.

The Communities Secretary, who has taken temporary charge of the response to the crisis, issued an unreserved apology to those affected in the Somerset Levels.

Repeated calls for dredging were made to Downing Street and other Whitehall departments by farmers and others in the region from at least six months ago but funding was declined.

“We made a mistake, there’s no doubt about that, and we perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency’s advice,” Mr Pickles told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show. “We recognise that we should have dredged and I think it is important now that we get on with the process of getting those people back into their houses once we are able to really do some serious pumping.”

Mr Pickles has criticised under-fire Environment Agency chairman Lord Smith for refusing to say sorry for the failures when he was besieged by angry locals on a visit to the area on Friday.

Asked if Prime Minister David Cameron should also apologise, Mr Pickles said: “I’ll apologise. I’ll apologise unreservedly. I am really sorry that we took the advice... we thought we were dealing with experts.”

The agency was “fit for purpose” and its staff were doing a fantastic job on the ground dealing with the floods but there were serious questions about parts of its leadership, he said.

Mr Cameron chaired the latest meeting of the Government’s emergency Cobra committee yesterday afternoon as forecasters warned of another week of storms. Heavy rain and winds of more than 60mph died down throughout the day but the brief respite will be broken by another storm arriving tonight.

And more storms will continue to batter Britain until the weekend, weather forecasters MeteoGroup predicted.

Mr Pickles – who has taken the lead while Environment Secretary Owen Paterson recovers from eye surgery – said the agency needed to revisit its priorities.

It was the biggest such agency in Europe – and bigger than the American version, he pointed out.

“Roughly half its budget goes on staffing and I think they only spent about £20 million on cleaning culverts and the like. I’m sure now they’ll be reassessing.”

Asked if Lord Smith should fall on his sword, he told the Andrew Marr Show: “That’s a matter for him. I don’t think I should nudge him out.”

Two severe flood warnings remain in place in the crisis-hit Somerset Levels – where many residents have already been forced from their homes after weeks of heavy rain.

There are around 270 low-level flood alerts and 179 medium-risk warnings in place across Wales and central and southern England.

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