Lord Smith says agency right to prioritise ‘front rooms’ over farmland from flood damage after agency budget cuts
Britain cannot offer flood protection to both town and countryside from the kind of “extraordinary” weather it has endured in the past two months and so would have to choose between the two, the head of the Environment Agency has warned.
Lord Smith said some properties and land in low-lying rural areas would always remain vulnerable to flooding, even if all the measures for which flood victims have been campaigning were implemented, including dredging rivers in the stricken Somerset Levels.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Smith defended the agency’s “proud” record in defending more than 1m homes from flooding this winter. And he suggested it was right to prioritise “front rooms” over farmland after budget cuts to the agency.
Lord Smith, a former Labour cabinet minister, wrote: “Yes, agricultural land matters and we do whatever we can with what we have to make sure it is protected. Rules from successive governments give the highest priority to lives and homes; and I think most people would agree that this is the right approach.
“But this involves tricky issues of policy and priority: town or country, front rooms or farmland?”
He warned that resources for flood protection were limited. His agency is facing 1,400 job cuts after a 10% reduction to the budget of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in the last spending round.
“Flood defences cost money,” Lord Smith wrote, “and how much should the taxpayer be prepared to spend on different places, communities and livelihoods – in Somerset, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, or East Anglia?
“There’s no bottomless purse, and we need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect.”We need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect.”
Smith also repeated the agency’s wary approach to dredging rivers in the Somerset Levels in the face of continued calls from marooned communities for better river maintenance. He said dredging would provide only “some benefit”, adding that “there are no quick fixes in the face of this kind of extreme rainfall”.
Last week, local campaigners welcomed a 10-point plan by the Somerset Drainage Boards for tackling the flooding. First on its list was dredging the rivers Parrett and Tone, but it also included a tidal sluice barrier on the Parrett.
Smith noted: “[The drainage boards] have also warned that, even if all possible measures are taken, some homes, businesses and farms may always remain vulnerable to the sort of rainfall experienced this winter.”
The Met Office is warning the weather pattern that has caused flooding across swaths of the UK may continue for the rest of the month. The Environment Agency has issued three severe flood warnings – meaning dangers to life – in the Midlands and the south-west, and a further 99 flood warnings across the country.
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