Jan Royall on ensuring the plight of people in the Somerset Levels doesn’t slip off the government's agenda
Three months after the floods began, the Somerset Levels are now moving from emergency to recovery but the situation is still deeply shocking.
Filthy water is still being pumped off the land and gushing out of huge pipes into the River Parrett. People are battling with insurance companies, even if some firms are acting honourably. Householders are worried about how long it’s going to take to get their homes decontaminated and dried out before building work can begin, while others are desperate to move but their equity has collapsed. A car transporter stuck loaded with cars, debris deposited by the water strewn all over people's gardens, and the village hall – the centre of the community – still out of action.
But the community is strong and its people resilient, unlike the flood defences. And there are extraordinary volunteers, who have made such a difference over the past few months; removing the sandbags they put down weeks ago, moving furniture, and doing whatever else needs doing. Local churches run a refreshment point for all those working on the recovery, including council staff and the brilliant employees of the Environment Agency (EA) who have worked unstintingly.
I saw all of this last Friday, on a visit to the Levels with Clare Moody who is heading our MEP candidate list in the South West. We met with Parish, Town and District Councillors. All are now focused on the future, anxious to ensure that the necessary preventative measures are taken to avoid a repeat of the devastation that has which has caused suffering for families, farmers and the local economy. The land is compacted and it will take many months for the soil to recover for agriculture to recover. That means food will cost more.
Defra swiftly drew up plans for the long term. But welcome though this was, questions over the funding remain unanswered. Following the visit by the Prime Minister, an extra £10million was made available, but the total cost of the measures envisaged is £250million.
So where will that extra money come from?
Contrary to what Mr Cameron said, money is an object. Perhaps not in the short term, but unless additional funds are made available Somerset will continue to be vulnerable. The recent announcement leaves funding more than £60million below what it was in 2010. And the costs of inaction will be great. It is also essential that all involved organisations – local drainage boards, councils, Network Rail and, of course, the EA – work together to achieve the maximum long term benefit.
Our last meeting on Friday was with the EA which once conditions are right will begin to dredge a stretch of the River Parrett. This is terrific but in itself will not be enough to prevent future floods. Rising sea levels, as a result of climate change, mean that a barrier on the Parrett at Bridgewater is essential. The impressive incident room has been running 24/7 since the start of December, providing not just engineers but essential warnings and information by text and phone to individuals as well as those managing the flows of water.
In the rush to find a scapegoat, the EA was much maligned. I now trust that decisions relating to its funding will be reassessed because to do otherwise would be in no one's interests, including those in government who claim to be acting in the long term interests of the country.
Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of the Lords. She tweets @LabourRoyall
Published 10th March 2014