It will not surprise you to know that down on the Somerset Levels they haven’t got a good word to say about the Environment Agency.
Well, that’s not strictly true. They have plenty of good words. Excellent words. Almost a thesaurus full. But very few which bear repeating here without causing offence to those whom the BBC used to refer to of being “of a nervous disposition” before every episode of Quatermass.
Most are concerned with the failings of the agency which have visited total devastation on thousands of acres of countryside, while others are reserved for how people would like to deal with the officials whose decisions and policies have been responsible for the mess.
It is a long time since I heard the term “horse-whipped” employed in anger but such is the fury of farmers whose land and livelihoods have been drowned that that is the mildest treatment that is currently being favoured.
Even the normally mild-mannered are being driven to extreme language by what they regard – with a good deal of justification – as incompetence and neglect on an industrial scale.
It’s not hard to understand why. Talk to any of those who have had close encounters with the floods and the stories soon start bobbing to the surface.
Take the case of Neil Craddock, a businessman whose wood flooring factory alongside the A361 (or the former A361: it no longer functions as a road) near Burrowbridge lost 22 weeks production as a result of the floods last year.
He brought contractors in to surround the works with a fairly solid bund, hoping it would keep at bay any repeat inundation – which it did for a month. Then last week, after days of sustained pressure it failed. Everything now has gone: machinery, stock, the lot. And even when the waters subside it will be weeks before the place can be readied to start production again.
Neil has had plenty of chances to observe the Environment Agency at work in and around Burrowbridge, one of the crucial points in the whole area, standing at the confluence of the Parrett and the Tone. The response of the staff, he says, has made the behaviour of a headless chicken appear rational and composed.
“It’s been utter panic,” he said. “We had two massive lorry loads of crushed stone arrive to be laid so they could take extra pumps down to Northmoor. The drivers needed some kind of assurance that it was safe to drive down the road and they tried and tried to get hold of someone at the Environment Agency to tell them they would be OK.
“They couldn’t find anybody who could or would. So in the end they turned round and took the stone back to the quarry. That’s the kind of thing that has been going on almost every day.”
Jim Winkworth, landlord of the King Alfred Inn in Burrowbridge, was on the picket line when farmers carried out a blockade of the Environment Agency offices in Bridgwater last Friday – the day an emergency was eventually called by Sedgemoor District Council.
He’s had floodwater lapping all around him for weeks but, he says, what’s made things even worse is being kept in the dark by the Environment Agency as to what it is doing, or planning to do. Getting information has, he says, been “ridiculously difficult”.
“We have tried on lots of different occasions but they won’t say anything. The guys on the ground running around putting the sandbags out are doing a great job and we are very pleased with them.
“It’s further up the chain of command where the problem is. No information is being passed through to us. I had a meeting this morning with the fire brigade and they said the same thing: they can’t get any information from the Environment Agency.
“The agency had admitted that dredging needed doing when they were working at these so-called pinch points back in the autumn. But the machine was on hire for two weeks and it did about four hours’ work in that time. It beggars belief how an agency can be run this way, throwing money away.
“It’s simple enough. The river hasn’t been cleaned out for 26 years and it’s like the gutters on your house. If they aren’t cleaned out they don’t work and they overflow. All we need is that they give the system a fair chance to get rid of the water so that Curry Moor doesn’t fill up every time there’s 20 millimetres of rain.”
Or take the case of Mary Roberts, from Moorlynch, whose family have been farming the Levels since an ancestor took a fancy to the place in 1320. Over the intervening years they’ve seen good times and bad. But few situations, she says, like the current one which has left her with nearly 500 acres underwater.
And not 500 acres of reed-infested mire, either: 500 acres of some of the most fertile land in Somerset. Top-grade pasture for dairy cows. Flowing, literally, with milk and honey.
Or at least it was until Christmas. “By the spring it is going to be unfarmable,” she says. “But it’s never been under water before. This happened because the Environment Agency lowered the river banks at Combe because they thought in their infinite wisdom that that was going to stop Burrowbridge and Moorland flooding. But it’s had a worse effect on us.”
“People’s houses are important, I agree, but it is our livelihood that is under water. Everything is reduced to a morass. These people are devaluing our land as we speak. It is a shocking state of affairs that people on the Somerset Levels cannot make a living from some of the most productive land in Somerset.
“Heaven knows what it is going to look like when the water does go down because the longer it remains covered the worse it gets.
“These idiots won’t take responsibility for cleaning out the rivers. One of them even went on TV and said it was natural for the Somerset Levels to flood. He doesn’t know anything about Somerset or our livelihoods and he never will. Frankly they don’t care. Frankly they don’t give a damn. They aren’t bothered about us.
“What they would really like to do is to return it to the state it was in hundreds of years ago when my ancestors arrived.”
Owen Paterson’s arrival at the weekend signalled the fact that the gravity of the situation and the complete inability of the Environment Agency to handle it had set alarm bells ringing at the very centre of government.
His plan – to get the rivers dredged as soon as the waters go down and then to hand river maintenance back to the local drainage boards – is exactly what local people have been demanding.
Those boards have been handing over around £400,000 a year in precepts to the Environment Agency, ostensibly for river maintenance.
In return the Environment Agency has spent 20 years telling them dredging is not necessary, that it knows best, and the local farmers’ accumulated fund of wisdom and expertise acquired over generations no longer has any relevance now that everything is controlled and predicted by computers.
Handing river management back to the people who have traditionally done it – until the Environment Agency arrogantly told them they were no longer needed or capable – is the best outcome the communities on the Levels could have hoped for.
The tragedy is that it has taken so much anguish, so much misery, so much frustration and such huge amounts of financial loss for the monumental failings of a bloated and utterly inept bureaucracy to be exposed.