River dredging plea for Somerset Levels flood crisis during Commons debate
He intoned a stark list of flood devastation, he quoted the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, he even mentioned the Black Death, and Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger left MPs in no doubt yesterday of the horrors suffered on the Somerset Levels.
During a Commons debate on the future of the Environment Agency he told MPs the people of Somerset had lost faith in the organisation which should be their protector. He called for money for river dredging and pump upgrades, and he invited the Secretary of State to come to Somerset to meet the victims for himself.
“There is not time today to highlight every human tragedy or highlight all the appalling damage that has been done,” he said. “Nor is it yet possible to accurately count the total cost of the floods.
“But it is plainly ridiculous to put it all down to a quirk of nature or an overdose of ‘the wrong type of rain’ as Lord Smith, the agency’s chairman, so ineptly described it the other day.
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“Much of the overflow was and is manageable – if not preventable. Floods are no stranger to my part of Somerset. Flood prevention has been a high priority since Roman times.
“Even in the Middle Ages, a period of history better noted for the Black Death than engineering excellence, they managed to drain a large part of the moors by building elaborate embankments and causeways.
“For hundreds of years we’ve been fighting battles with floods – and holding our own against the enemy.
"And for hundreds of years, whatever Lord Smith may think, we’ve had this stuff called convective rain.
“Down the A39 at Williton the highway turned into an impassable river. Out at Blue Anchor there was more havoc, and up on Exmoor itself serious flooding in Dulverton – with the ancient stepping-stone bridge at Tarr Steps... a beautiful place sometimes known as the Devil’s Sunbathing Spot… swept away in the torrent.
“The rivers overflowed. And down on the Levels the consequences are still visible today.
“I don’t blame the Environment Agency for the rain. But I wonder what they failed to do before the clouds burst?
“It is surely the essential task of a body like this to keep waterways running freely. Rivers have a nasty habit of silting up. That’s why you dredge them.
“But the Environment Agency no longer dredges rivers like the Tone and the Parrett, because it says it can’t afford to. This is something that needs urgent forensic scrutiny by my Honourable Friend’s department."
He said the Environment Agency’s own calculation of the costs of emergency pumping and road closures during this year’s floods alone is very close to £4 million and the price of flooding over 20 years has been worked out at over £15 million for the county.
Mr Liddell-Grainger has been backing calls by farmers and local businesses for some time for pinch points of the rivers Tone and Parrett to be dredged to prevent a repeat of the catastrophic flooding of recent weeks.
This flooding has left farmland under water for months, and left some homes and businesses waterlogged three times last year, as well as closing the A361 Glastonbury to Taunton road for weeks, forcing drivers to make lengthy detours.
“We’ve been fighting for more funding for a range of things which will improve the way the Somerset Levels deals with flooding and the Environment Agency says it has no money, and then it spends £31million on a realignment project at Steart Point,” the MP said earlier this week.
He has also called for pumps and pumping stations to be upgraded, and it is not the first time he has accused Environment Agency chairman Lord Smith of “insulting” those battling the floods by blaming the waters on a ‘new type’ of rain.
The agency has repeatedly insisted that these were not the chairman’s remarks.
Last Saturday in the Western Daily Press, Mr Liddell-Grainger wrote: “I understand that evidence is still being gathered from all and sundry as part of the review into the workings of the Environment Agency and Natural England which was announced in December and I am certain that among the submissions so far made there will be many of the view that the EA only listens to its own experts, rather than the farmers who have been looking after the Levels for years; doesn’t attach any importance to their opinions; and is quite content to continue pouring ludicrous amounts of money into grandiose new schemes while pleading poverty when it comes to routine maintenance on the existing infrastructure.”