What now for the Somerset Levels?

As Somerset faces new floods, Julie Harding reports on what preventative measures have been taken.

Almost a year after the floods that hit the Somerset Levels, residents of this low-lying region are again looking out of their windows with trepidation. Water levels are rising after the past week’s rain and more is forecast. Last Christmas and into the spring the area resembled an ugly, mud-coloured Venice.

The Rivers Tone and Parrett poured onto farmland and into 182 homes and an outdated pumping system was found wanting when it came to siphoning off 100 million cubic metres of water. The Prince of Wales, visiting on February 4, termed it ‘a tragedy’; three days later, the Prime Minister described the affected 27,000 acres as ‘a Biblical scene’ and promised his Government would ‘do everything that can be done’. So, as the rain starts to fall again, what has been achieved?

Three weeks ago, Land & Water Contracting Services completed the dredging of five miles of the Rivers Tone and Parrett, removing 130,000 cubic metres (4.5 million cubic feet) of silt at a cost of £5.7 million and increasing the rivers’ capacity by almost 30%.

This was part of the 20-year action plan announced in January by the then Defra Secretary Owen Paterson, with a fund of £10 million. Those coffers are now empty, due to additional spending on elements such as overhauling pumping stations and platforms to house 100 emergency portable pumps.

For Roger Forgan and his partner, Linda Maudsley, the purchase of a boat following the summer floods of 2012 turned out to be fortuitous, because, last winter, their tenanted farm in Muchelney was cut off. They’re still living in a mobile home and hope to move back into their farmhouse by Christmas. Ninety people are still waiting to return to their homes and Mr Forgan’s landlord, John Burbidge, feels that the dredging work so far is ‘purely cosmetic’.

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Jane Pine’s family runs a dairy farm near Stoke St Gregory that was also flooded in 2012, as well as last winter. Mrs Pine likens the dredging to ‘putting a dozen new tiles onto a roof that you have neglected for 25 years’, although she believes the contractor did an ‘excellent, professional job. However, they only dredged a couple of miles around pinch points. The rivers should be dredged all the way to where they meet the sea’.

Mrs Pine believes that the floods were not due solely to rain, but also to political and Environment Agency (EA) inertia, which allowed rivers to silt up and pumping stations to become outmoded. She also feels that strong lobbying by wildlife groups diverted funding away from anti-flood schemes and urban developments exacerbated the problem. ‘There are legal obligations to protect wildlife, but if it’s a case of the Levels versus Liverpool or Manchester, Government money tends to follow the houses,’ explains Rachel Burden, the EA’s Flood Action Plan Manager for the area.

The Pines and other local farmers feel they’ve been abandoned. A large portion of their 400-acre farm required reseeding twice in a year at vast expense. However, the cost was also psychological. ‘Being surrounded by water day after day gets you down,’ says Mrs Pine. Bryony Sadler of Flooding on the Levels Action Group (FLAG) recently moved back to her home in Moorland after nine months in a rental property. ‘But I’m wondering if I’m going to have to start packing again,’ she says. ‘I can understand anyone who says that they want to put a gun to their head. It’s been hell.’

Mrs Sadler, whose 1892 house had never previously flooded, said insurance companies took up to eight weeks to answer queries and she’s wary that recently redecorated homes will be burgled. She’s also critical of the red tape that she believes exacerbated the disaster. ‘No one has the speed to help people if it happens again. The Levels want to self-fund. If we’re left for another five years with no river maintenance, we’ll be right back to square one.’

Dr Burden counters that things have moved forward: Local Growth Funding of £13 million has already been pledged for vital work although other, bigger schemes will need further funding. ‘You can never say that it won’t happen again, but I feel confident, thanks to the work that has been undertaken this summer,’ she says.

Local factions continue to wrangle, however. Just last week, the CLA slammed Somerset County Council’s proposal to create a new Somerset Rivers Authority (see below) that it claims is founded on ‘political expediency’. The CLA also believes that riparian landowners’ rights and duties in relation to river management have been forgotten. ‘Over time, those responsibilities have been absorbed into the immense bureaucracy of the EA,’ says South-West director John Mortimer.

Bridgewater MP Ian Liddell-Grainger says the Government is sympathetic to some interim funding and is confident that money will be found for a barrage. ‘But, in the future, it may well be that everyone in Somerset will be expected to contribute to the cost via some form of levy. It may not be wholly popular, but is probably vital.

The Levels are always going to be liable to some flooding much of it is below sea level. But they’ve been managed successfully since Roman times by the intelligent use of drains, ditches and regular dredging.’ He promises that the EA has ‘got the message’ and that ‘there’s not a chance that Westminster will be allowed to forget the floods. I do not intend to keep my mouth shut!’.


Eight ideas to keep the Levels dry

  • Improve the capacity of the Sowy/Kings Sedgemore drainage system: cost £8 million
  • Build the Parrett Barrier in Bridgwater—funding has been secured via Somerset partners for appraisal/design, but £25 million–£30 million is needed for construction
  • Carry out additional dredging: £2.5 million of Local Growth Funding is available for 2015–17
  • Create permanent earth ring banks
  • Establish Somerset Rivers Authority by April 2015, a local body to raise additional money for maintenance
  • Build Taunton Superpond, with the potential to hold back 1.8 million cubic metres (395 million gallons) of water: at feasibility stage
  • Establish advisory groups to work with farmers to improve practices
  • Raise roads to protect infrastructure