Magazine article The Spectator

Floods of Incompetence

Magazine article The Spectator

Floods of Incompetence

Article excerpt

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 selfregulating 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.

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. …

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