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Leading article

Floods of incompetence - why Chris Smith should resign from the Environment Agency

Most floods are an act of nature. This one belongs to the Environment Agency

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

When Prince Charles arrived in Somerset to meet some of those caught up in the disaster which in five weeks has drowned 50 square miles of that county in floodwater, a reporter asked him whether he blamed the Environment Agency. Judiciously, he replied, ‘You may well think that — I couldn’t possibly comment.’ Later, having spoken to several of those intimately involved in this crisis, he hinted rather more plainly at his own view by saying, ‘The tragedy is that nothing happened for so long.’

With the third flood disaster to hit the Somerset Levels in three years, the Environment Agency has been horribly caught out by a catastrophe largely of its own making. As local experts have been trying to point out since last year’s flood (and as some hammered home to the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, when he recently made an emergency visit to Somerset), the unprecedented scale of this mess is not just due to nature. It is a disaster that has resulted from a deliberate policy followed by the Environment Agency since, 18 years ago, it was given overall responsibility for river management and flood defences throughout England.

For centuries the Somerset Levels — covering a fifth of all that large county’s farmland — had been kept efficiently drained, ever since they were first transformed from a marshy swamp into productive farmland by Dutch engineers in the reign of Charles I. They had been expertly managed by farmers and engineers, through more than a thousand miles of drains and ditches that were regularly cleaned, and since the 19th century by scores of pumping stations.

Many of our cherished ancient habitats are, of course, created and managed by man. It has been a long time since nature was self-regulating in this country in the way that some in the Environment Agency seem to wish it to be. The British have been living on reclaimed land for hundreds of years — which is what makes it so bizarre that quangocrats seem to think such areas should no longer enjoy proper protection.

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The key to the Somerset Levels lies in its rivers, kept dredged to provide all that water pumped off the land with an escape route down to the sea. From the moment the Environment Agency took over, however, it began to neglect its responsibility for keeping those rivers clear. From 2000 onwards, under the leadership of a Labour peeress, Baroness Young of Old Scone, this reluctance to dredge and to maintain the pumping stations became a deliberate ideology, designed to give priority to the interests of ‘habitat’ and ‘biodiversity’ over those of protecting the Levels as farmland. Lady Young is famously said to have remarked that she wanted to see ‘a limpet mine attached to every pumping station’.

The undredged rivers gradually become clogged with silt, drastically reducing their ability to take floodwater away. The Somerset farmers and engineers who run the local ‘drainage boards’, responsible for cleaning the ditches or ‘rhynes’, also found that the Environment Agency was forever on their backs, imposing every kind of restriction on what needed to be done; such as how they could dispose of the resulting silt and vegetation, now classified as rigorously ‘controlled waste’.

The inevitable result has been the shambles which those who live on the Levels have now had to endure for years. They have always been accustomed to winter flooding of the vast area that is below sea level. But this is worse than anything in memory — not just more extensive but lasting for months rather than weeks. The cost this year may be in excess of £100 million. Dredging the rivers would cost £4.5 million, which the Agency found to be excessive. (Although it cheerfully footed the £31 million bill for a bird sanctuary.)

Steadily, the Environment Agency has become a law unto itself. The idea behind its creation was to allow it to operate free from political interference. But, as Dennis Sewell argues on pages 18 and 19, the reverse has been true. They now form a deeply politicised government in exile, with an incompetent but self-revering hierarchy that voters cannot dislodge.

Nothing has more vividly conveyed the failure of the Environment Agency during this crisis than the lamentable public performances of its current chairman, the former Labour culture secretary Lord (Chris) Smith. His weak, half-shifty, half-arrogant interviews have shown him up to be a man wholly out of touch with the reality of the havoc his agency’s policies have wreaked. His blatherings about a choice between protecting ‘front rooms or farmland’ sums up his failure to understand the countryside, and the fact that most people have looked after both for generations.

He is due to step down shortly, which is a shame: he ought to be fired for rank incompetence. But the reckoning should not stop there. It is now clear that the Environment Agency has become a threat to the countryside it was set up to serve. It ought to be dismantled, and its responsibilities shared out among smaller bodies which are much more obviously fit for purpose.

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