Jan 29 2014
More rapid action is needed to tackle flooding in the Somerset Levels, David Cameron said as he warned Whitehall arguments must not hold up help for residents in devastated areas.
The Prime Minister said dredging of rivers would start as soon as the present waters could be reduced to a safe level and promised extra pumps to help speed up the process.
And he told MPs he would "rule nothing out" in dealing with the situation as the Government's emergency Cobra committee met again to find ways to ease the situation.
Farmers, politicians and church leaders are demanding immediate action to alleviate what furious residents describe as "Third World" conditions.
Many parts of the Levels have been flooded since Christmas and there are fears it could be many months before the water is completely pumped away.
Drainage experts blame two decades of under-investment in flood defence work for turning the Levels into a "disaster area" and said it was "very, very urgent" that rivers are dredged to prevent more damage to homes, livelihoods and wildlife.
The Environment Agency has come under fire from MPs and local councils, but insists that increased dredging of the rivers would not have prevented the recent flooding and was "often not the best long-term or economic solution".
Local MPs Jeremy Browne and David Heath - both Liberal Democrats - confronted the Prime Minister at Commons questions over what was being done.
Mr Cameron paid tribute to the efforts made so far by agency staff, the emergency services and the local flood wardens to restore normal life.
"But we now need to move more rapidly to the issues like dredging which I think will help to make a long-term difference," he said.
He told MPs: "It is not currently safe to dredge in the Levels.
"But I can confirm that dredging will start as soon as it is practical, as soon as the waters have started to come down.
"The Environment Agency is pumping as much water as is possible given the capacity of the rivers around the Levels but I have ordered that further high-volume pumps from the DCLG's national reserve will be made available to increase the volume of the pumping operation as soon as there is capacity in the rivers to support that.
"We are urgently exploring what further help the Government can give local residents to move around and I rule nothing out in the days ahead to get this problem sorted."
He was pressed by Mr Heath to ensure other Whitehall departments - including Transport, Communities and Local Government, and the Treasury - played their part.
"This does need to be a whole Government effort because what I don't want to see is dredging work being held up by arguments in other departments," Mr Cameron told him.
"We have got to crack this problem."
John Osman, leader of Somerset County Council, welcomed Mr Cameron's announcement.
"This is just what we wanted to hear from the Prime Minister," he said.
"We have lobbied hard to get national attention, we are in a major incident due to the extent and length of time that much of the county is flooded.
"Now we have the PM behind us, people can start to believe that real action, dredging the rivers, sorting the drainage systems, protecting our communities will really happen.
"I am delighted to hear this."
Mr Cameron's announcement was welcomed by campaign groups fighting to end the flooding on the Somerset Levels.
A spokeswoman for the Flooding on the Levels Action Group (Flag) said: "Flag thinks this is excellent news and we would like to thank everyone who has backed our campaign as well as the local community for their massive support.
"We will continue to work with all agencies involved to ensure a better future for the Levels."
The announcement was also welcomed by the Stop the Floods group.
"Today we have a county council campaign for dredging, all the local MPs on board and everyone except the EA now agreed on a way forward," the group said in a statement.
"I understand that serious progress is being made on a plan to be presented to Owen Paterson which will revolve around both dredging now and continuous river maintenance in the future.
"So we have to keep pressing hard until there is commitment and money and a plan of action being implemented."