Flood victims turn on Paterson

This Is Local London: Members of the Avon and Somerset Police Underwater Search Unit inspect a submerged car near Muchelney in Somerset Members of the Avon and Somerset Police Underwater Search Unit inspect a submerged car near Muchelney in Somerset

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson was criticised by furious residents during a visit to the flood-hit Somerset Levels today.

Locals from the area said they were living in "third world" conditions - with "overflowing" septic tanks and water in their homes.

Mr Paterson promised that a new plan to deal with flooding in the region would be drawn up within six weeks, "almost certainly" involving a project to clear the Parrett and Tone rivers.

He acknowledged national guidelines on dredging were not appropriate for the Somerset Levels, around 100 square miles of which are below sea level.

His announcement was made during a press conference held only with the BBC, ITV and Sky News - which local reporters and residents were refused entry to.

Bryony Sadler, of Flooding on the Somerset Levels Action Group (FLAG), branded Mr Paterson's 30 minute visit a "publicity stunt".

"It was a waste of taxpayers' money," the hairdresser said. "He hasn't told the local community what's going on.

"We are here, we have lived like this - like a third world country - for three weeks. We have just pushed and pushed and pushed.

"It is all just a great show for the cameras, isn't it? No-one is listening to what we want to say. It is very depressing, it is very negative."

During the visit, Mr Paterson spoke to local politicians and workers at the Northmoor Pumping Site, near Bridgwater, in Somerset, before the press conference.

Angry farmers and locals were asked not to approach the minister as he left the site.

"We needed a glimmer of hope and he has just driven off," Mrs Sadler added.

In the press conference, Mr Paterson acknowledged there was legitimate anger felt among politicians, farmers and residents on the Somerset Levels, who claim the lack of dredging of local rivers by the Environment Agency has exacerbated the problems they have faced.

"They are quite right to be angry," Mr Paterson told Sky News. "I t's absolutely legitimate and that's how our political system works and that's why the two local MPs have brought this to my attention, that's why I convened the meeting of the experts last night, that's why I led the meeting this morning with the local councils and that's why I hope we will have a very clear action plan presented to me in six weeks' time so that I can make a categoric decision once and for all.

"But then long term look to see how, with partnership funding, local agencies such as the internal drainage boards, the county council, the four district councils can work together - and with the NGOs, people like the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, who play a real role in this - to see how we can hold water back further up in the hills, how we can do more with sustainable urban drainage systems (Suds), get more water soaked into the ground before it gets into the river systems and also long-term planting."

Another option being considered was a sluice near Bridgwater to keep the sea tides out of the river network on the Levels.

"All that together is a long-term serious plan which I hope will give us satisfactory results here over the next 20 years," Mr Paterson said.

The Environment Agency was criticised by Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddel-Grainger over the lack of dredging on the river system.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "Once it's dredged we can then maintain it but the Environment Agency has to stop this mucking around and get on with it."

Speaking at Northmoor Pumping Station, Councillor Julian Taylor, of Sedgemoor District Council, called the lack of dredging a "self-fulfilling prophesy".

"We've been having a lot of concern for at least 20 years saying the river should be dredged and put back to its original condition," Cllr Taylor said.

"We've had conspicuous neglect for 20 years where they have not maintained the rivers properly. If you do not maintain the rivers properly, you'll get water more quickly off the moors.

"It's a self-fulfilling prophesy. We are asking the minister to invest now for the future so that this doesn't happen again."

Local resident Sue Crocker, of nearby Fordgate, said dredging was not the complete solution but a vital part of it.

"The term third world country comes to mind," Mrs Crocker said. "We have one portaloo, we have no septic tanks or overflowing, there is a lot of sewerage running around the roads and it's like Chinese torture.

"Homes have been flooded and we're frustrated and we feel abandoned. We're human beings and this is the 21st century and we're not feeling like we're part of it anymore.

"Dredging is not the answer, it is part of the answer. I think its important that them up in London with their computers listen to the real people."

Speaking after Mr Paterson's visit, the leader of Somerset County Council said he was disappointed there would be no immediate extra funding to protect flood-hit communities.

John Osman said: "Although I am hugely disappointed that central Government have not announced any additional funding, we will continue to keep the pressure on to secure a fair deal for Somerset's residents.

"We are happy to work with Government and other agencies to draw up a long-term plan to protect our communities against flooding but I want to be clear that this is not the end of our fight to lobby Government to support our flood-hit communities."

Matthew Lay, national officer of Unison added: "Far from offering any comfort to residents affected by flooding, Owen Patterson is a major part of the problem.

"He is overseeing massive cuts to the Environment Agency despite all the scientific evidence showing that climate change is a major reason for a rise in the number of floods.

"The Government must put in place an Environment Secretary who accepts that the risk of flooding is increasing year-on-year.

"Communities up and down the country will remain in danger until the Environment Agency is given adequate resources and funding to prevent and handle disasters caused by floods."

The Met Office said the counties of Hampshire, Dorset and Somerset remain at medium risk of flooding as another day of rain hits the regions.

Meanwhile, snow will fall across high ground throughout the UK, particularly across Wales, Scotland and northern England, with some hail storms and thunder predicted.

Temperatures will fall to around freezing, resulting in a risk of icy stretches on roads and the potential for travel disruption, the Met Office added.

The Environment Agency has issued more than 140 flood alerts and 10 more serious flood warnings in the south west, which mean flooding is expected and immediate action is required.

The "biggest pumping operation ever undertaken in the county" is continuing, the Environment Agency said.

The agency also said increased dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels would not have prevented the flooding.

With the ground already saturated, rivers and groundwater levels remain very responsive to rainfall, particularly on the Somerset Levels and Moors - which are experiencing the most significant flood for 20 years.

Agency teams continue to operate up to 62 pumps, 24 hours a day, to drain an estimated 1.5 million tonnes of water (equivalent to 600 Olympic-sized swimming pools) off an area of the Levels spanning 65 square kilometres.

The Somerset Levels has a history of flooding dating back centuries. The tidal range in the Bristol Channel is the second highest in the world - with high tides causing flood water to back up along the rivers across the Levels and Moors, the agency said.

Kate Marks, agency flood risk manager, said: "We are doing everything we can to pump water off the Somerset Levels and have 65 pumps working 24-7 in the biggest pumping operation ever undertaken in the county.

"Nationally we spent £45m in the last financial year on river clearance, including dredging and weed removal, and de-silting work was last carried out on pinch points on the Parrett and Tone rivers in November.

"However, dredging is often not the best long term or economic solution and increased dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels would not have prevented the recent widespread flooding."

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