When disaster strikes, victims generally have a modest window of opportunity to get something done before the moment of crisis passes and any hope of getting real change disappears. On the Somerset Levels – where homes, farms and thousands of acres of farmland have been under water since before Christmas – that window remains open, but it won’t stay like that for long.
So MPs, local authorities and the drainage boards across this flood-hit area need to capitalise on the sympathetic words of Defra Secretary Owen Paterson who not only unveiled a £20.5 million package of flood protection measures but also had some very upbeat things to say about the idea of a tidal barrage at the mouth of the river Parrett.
The barrage scheme would, for £30m, provide a permanent solution to the flooding that has now affected the Levels and Moors in two successive winters.
It is the kind of scheme – at the kind of cost – that would likely elicit a lot of waffle designed to avoid any sort
of commitment from most politicians. Mr Paterson, who has a disarming tendency, unusual in a politician, to speak his mind and call a spade a spade, said the proposal for a such a barrage that would keep tidal surges and silt out of the river could have “significant pay-off.” Design options, along with ways of accelerating the project and finding the necessary cash are all to be explored this summer.
It sounds like the plan, which has been suggested but rejected in the past, might this time really stick. It is clear Mr Paterson has been genuinely moved by what he saw when he visited the Levels at the height of the floods in January and genuinely impressed by the good sense he has heard from the local drainage boards and the farmers about the best long-term solution.
While he has stopped short of outright criticism of Environment Agency policy on dredging the rivers and, quite properly, paid tribute to the work of EA staff on the ground, there is no doubting he wants a change of course on the management of the flood risk on the Levels. It is not every day we see a Secretary of State – in any department, let alone Defra – ready and willing to act in the best interests of local people. It is essential that, on such a crucial issue, momentum is not lost.