Residents 'cautiously' welcome plan

The Oxford Times: Environment Secretary Owen Paterson (centre) visiting Northmoor Pumping Station, Somerset, in January Environment Secretary Owen Paterson (centre) visiting Northmoor Pumping Station, Somerset, in January

A new action plan to protect Somerset from future flooding has been "cautiously" welcomed by residents and campaigners.

The plan, announced by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, includes dredging five miles of the Rivers Parrett and Tone when it is "safe and practical".

Some temporary flood defences and pumping sites will be made permanent and a new Somerset rivers board will be created.

New developments on the Somerset Levels and Moors will have to meet high standards for water and drainage, while farmers will be helped to manage flood risk better.

The Government today pledged £20.5 million for the plan - £10 million from the Department for Transport, £10 million from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and a further £500,000 from the Department for Communities and Local Government.

More than 150 properties remain flooded on the Somerset Levels and Moors, while 11,000 hectares of agricultural land remain under water.

At least 200 homes in several communities in the area have been cut off due to flooding on roads - with some left without access for more than two months.

Mr Paterson, who commissioned the plan following a visit to flood-hit communities on January 27, claims it will protect the region from similar disasters over the next 20 years.

Campaigners and residents say they "cautiously" welcome the announcements, but some warn a return to 'business as usual' is "not enough".

Rebecca Horsington, of Flooding on the Levels Action Group (FLAG) told the Press Association: "Overall, FLAG are cautiously optimistic about the plan.

"However, I think it should be seen as a bit of a wish list.

"For us, it is essential that the dredging doesn't get held up.

"We are very pleased that at last, the Government has committed £10 million towards the dredging and regeneration of the banks.

"We have been told that the money has already been spent, which does not come as a surprise.

"The upgrading of the pumping stations, especially Northmoor and Saltmoor is also essential.

"We are also very very optimistic to hear about having a Somerset rivers authority and will be very, very pleased if that means the responsibility of the rivers is devolved from the Environment Agency and given over to more local control."

Mrs Horsington said water levels were receding in Somerset but residents would not be able to return to their homes for months.

"We are now being left behind with a terrible mess, a literal terrible mess," she added.

"These houses are going to have to be dried out for at least two months, let alone having the plastering done and putting kitchens in to make them habitable again."

Mark Robins, of the RSPB, which manages 1,750 acres of land in flood-affected areas on the Somerset Levels and Moors, questioned whether the plan would mean "real change".

Speaking for the bird charity in the South West, Mr Robins said: "W e need to make sure good words translate into real change, as a matter of urgency.

"It's good to read that we must increase resilience to flooding for families, agriculture, businesses, communities and wildlife by maximising the benefits from catchment sensitive farming," he said.

"But will it translate into real change at the scale of what's needed?

"Are we prepared to see a significant percentage of land in the catchment managed sensitively to enable flood reduction?

"Surely everyone agrees that a return to 'business as usual' is not enough after the tragic events of the last few months.

"Something strong really needs to emerge now, or the opportunity for a better future will be squandered once again."

Local councils, MPs, businesses and residents spent six weeks drawing up the plan, which aims to protect the county from future flooding.

Mr Paterson, who visited Somerset again yesterday, said dredging the rivers was "the key thing local people asked for".

The Environment Agency will dredge two-and-a-half miles of the River Tone upstream of Burrowbridge and a further two-and-a-half miles of the River Parrett, to the 1960s river profile.

This work will "ideally" begin from the end of March and will be completed by autumn 2014, weather permitting.

"The exceptional weather over the past few months has taken its toll on flood prone communities," Mr Paterson said.

"Six weeks ago I visited Somerset and saw for myself the exceptional impact on the county.

"That is why I commissioned urgent work from those at local level to identify how we can better protect Somerset communities over the next 20 years.

"The plan we have received today includes some immediate actions that will help do this and I'm pleased that dredging will start as soon as it is safe to do.

"We will continue to work with local partners on other proposals to ensure we secure a sustainable future for communities on the Somerset Levels."

Serious flooding from seas, rivers and groundwater since the beginning of December last year has led to water entering around 7,000 properties across England.

Mr Paterson said areas of the country, especially southern England, would continue to be affected by flooding in the coming weeks - though other parts are now making the "transition to recovery".

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said the £10 million pledged by the Department for Transport would fix damaged roads and "improve the network's ability to cope with tough weather conditions and flooding".

"This is on top of the extra £33.5 million for urgent road maintenance work we have already announced for the rest of England and a £31 million package of resilience measures for rail in the south west," he added.

John Osman, leader of Somerset County Council, said he welcomed the action plan, which provided "short, medium and long-term" solutions to the flooding crisis.

"The plan contains some firm ideas for what we can do now, but also some broad ambitions such as a sluice or barrage for the River Parrett and long-term projects to prevent water entering the area in the first place," Mr Osman said.

"We listened to local people in drawing up the plan and we will spend a lot of time now talking and listening to them again to ensure the plan is fit for purpose and supported by local people."

The possible barrier on the River Parrett could protect up to 17,500 properties in the large town of Bridgwater in Somerset.

Further measures to help fishermen affected by the recent storms have also been announced by the Government.

Fishermen, under the European Fisheries Fund, will be reimbursed up to 60% of the cost of replacing lost or damaged fishing gear, such as crab and lobster pots.

Lighthouse dues will also be paid by the Government for a further year, saving the industry up to £140,000.

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