Did The Environment Agency Deliberately Increase Flooding?

  • Date: 09/02/14
  • David Rose, Mail on Sunday

In a 250-page document on flood risk the Environment Agency set out how it plans to deliberately increase flooding in the areas now worst affected, and appears to prioritise animals above people

The Environment Agency put water voles, greater water parsnips, silver diving beetles and large marsh grasshoppers ahead of people in the flood-ravaged Somerset Levels, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.

A 250-page agency document issued in 2008 shows that years of neglecting vital dredging which used to let water drain away much faster is part of a deliberate policy to increase flooding in the areas now worst affected.

The policy was revealed as agency director of operations David Jordan angered residents yesterday by calling the flood defences a ‘success story’. 

The 250-page document seen by the Mail on Sunday
In a 250-page document on flood risk (above) the Environment Agency sets out how it plans to deliberately increase flooding in the areas now worst affected, and appears to prioritise animals above people  

He said: ‘We need to recognise that 1.3 million other properties would have flooded if these flood defences had not been built. That is the success story, if you like, that we are talking about.’

Tory MP Ian Liddell-Grainger, whose Bridgwater & West Somerset constituency has been among the worst affected areas said: ‘What a stupid man – this is absolute stupidity and arrogance. This is a tragedy and disaster.’

The 2008 agency document shows the objective for the Levels was to ‘take action to increase the frequency of flooding to deliver benefits locally or elsewhere’. 

The agency claimed this might ‘constitute an overall flood risk reduction’.

But it added: ‘This policy option involves a strategic increase in flooding in allocated areas [the area of the Levels on the Rivers Tone and Parrett now underwater], but is not intended to affect the risk to individual properties.’

From an environmental point of view, the document says, flooding on the Levels ‘is not in itself a major problem’, because it is beneficial to wildlife.

Among the species it listed as expected to thrive were the voles, parsnips (a type of flower) and insects, as well as various birds.

Under European Union directives, the policy document says, ‘we  have obligations to protect the habitats that have developed hand in hand with the man-made flood-risk infrastructure’.

‘From an economic point of view, a lot of money is required to protect relatively little when considered at a £ per square kilometre point of view,’ it says, adding that farming and housing, first established 250 years ago when the Levels were drained, might suffer from what it called the ‘redistribution’ of future floods.

However, the use of the land by humans was ‘based on historical practice which should be challenged in the future’.

‘This will have social and financial implications which will have to be considered carefully . . . We are aware that challenging centuries of drainage operations may be difficult, and it requires good communication and co-operation between various authorities.’

The document says the agency might have to close pumping stations built to move floodwater from the fields into the rivers and aqueducts: ‘It is likely that there  are some pumping stations that are not economic.

‘Many pumping stations are relatively old and in some cases difficult to maintain . . . Redistributing floodwater, while logical in some areas, may be difficult to promote because individual farms will be affected in different ways. 

Residents on the Somerset Levels have been angered by the Environment Agency describing the flood defences in their area as a 'success story'

Residents on the Somerset Levels have been angered by the Environment Agency describing the flood defences in their area as a ‘success story’

‘From an agricultural perspective, some may gain financially but some may also lose.’

The document, the Parrett Catchment Flood Management Plan, went through five successive drafts, the last in March 2008, shortly before the agency’s then chairman, Baroness Barbara Young, stepped down.

Last Friday, her successor, former Labour MP Lord Smith, was given a hostile reception when he toured the flood-affected area.

As he tried to address the TV cameras at Stoke St Gregory, a village on the shores of what has become a vast inland sea, one heckler told him he was ‘toast’.

On the ground – what is left of it – the reasons for the bitterness were readily visible.

Lord Smith had claimed that all the pumping stations were working flat-out, but on the Tone and Parrett, they are deserted and not functioning – because the silt which has clogged the rivers means there is nowhere for pumped water to flow.

In the document the Agency says that flooding on the Levels isn't a problem as it is beneficial to wildlife

In the document the Agency says that flooding on the Levels isn’t a problem as it is beneficial to wildlife

 Lord Smith promised residents after flooding last year that there would be dredging in 2013
Lord Smith promised residents after flooding last year that there would be dredging in 2013

The last dredging took place in 2003, and since that time, an agency spokesman admitted, the rivers’ water-carrying capacity has declined by almost half.

Even in mid-stream, clumps of weeds and islands of willow mark the areas now clogged with mud.

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