Environment Agency can ‘only save homes or farms from floods’

Britain must choose between protecting homes or farmland from floods, the head of the Environment Agency has warned.

Limited resources meant “difficult decisions” had to be made when it came to flood defences to protect town and country, said Lord Smith of Finsbury.

The peer spoke out following accusations that the agency’s refusal to dredge rivers has exacerbated flooding of homes and farmland in Somerset.

Some 11,500ha remain under water on the Somerset moors and levels. Roads remain impassable and much of the land has been flooded since Christmas.

See also: OPINION: Action needed now to help flooded farms

More rain is expected this week after a weekend storms, heavy winds and a tidal surge saw the River Parrett once again burst its banks. It comes after the wettest January on record for parts of southern Britain.

There were no quick fixes in the face of extreme rainfall, Lord Smith wrote in an article for the Daily Telegraph.

“For us, this will involve difficult decisions about where we prioritise our spending,” he said.

“Government lays down clear rules and the principle is that central government, through the Environment Agency, funds national benefits, and local people fund local benefits.

“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?”

Flood defences cost money; and how much should the taxpayer be prepared to spend on different places, communities and livelihoods – in Somerset, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, or East Anglia?

“But this involves tricky issues of policy and priority: town or country, front rooms or farmland?”
Lord Smith

“There’s no bottomless purse, and we need to make difficult but sensible choices about where and what we try to protect,” said Lord Smith.

“More than a million homes have been defended, up and down the country, over the past couple of months – in the face of everything that nature could throw at us.

“I’m proud of what the Environment Agency and its staff have done. We now need to try to do even better, especially for Somerset.”

Met Office statistics show that January was the fifth wettest on record in southwest England and south Wales, with 222.6mm of rainfall falling up to the 28 January 2014.

The wettest January on record in the region was 1948 when 244.3mm of rain was recorded.

Meanwhile, southeast and central southern England had its wettest January since records started in 1910.

A large area of southern England from East Devon to Kent and inland across parts of the Midlands had seen twice the average rainfall for the month, the Met Office said.

Southeast and central southern England received more than twice its average rainfall with 175.2mm falling from 1-28 January. This beats the previous record of 158.2mm set in January 1988.