Feb 7 2014
The chairman of the Environment Agency will today visit the Somerset Levels for the first time since it was hit by floods.
Lord Smith arrives in the region amid criticism of claims he made in a newspaper interview that Britain may have to choose whether it wants to save "town or country" from future flooding because it is too costly to defend both.
The agency has also been under fire from some residents who believe river dredging could have helped reduce flooding.
Royal Marines were drafted in to assist with sand bag defences in the flood-hit region last night as residents were evacuated from Northmoor, Fordgate and Saltmoor on the Levels.
Around 5,000 properties have been affected by flooding across the country, including 40 in Somerset.
Severe weather alerts were in place for south east England, the South West and Wales as further torrential downpours arrived overnight, with more wet weather forecast.
The Daily Telegraph reported that days before the recent winter storms, the EA is said to have told peers that it could not act to protect the railway line at Dawlish, Devon, from the sea until it had studied the impact of any improvements on local birdlife.
The line at Dawlish was this week severely damaged by the surging sea amid winter storms, leaving much of Devon and Cornwall cut off from the rest of the country by rail.
But the EA refuted this, with a spokeswoman saying they "d o not recognise the description of the recent meeting with Network Rail and Peers."
She added: "The focus of the meeting was to discuss the Exeter Flood Risk Management scheme and its interaction with the rail mainline going into Exeter St Davids."
Details of Lord Smith's visit to Somerset, which comes a week after Environment Secretary Owen Paterson was heckled by local residents, have not been released.
The Prime Minister, who chaired a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergency committee last night, has insisted he would visit Somerset himself "when the time is right".
David Cameron said he wanted to reassure people affected by the floods that the Government was keeping up its "urgent response".
He said: "I have chaired another Cobra meeting...to ensure we continue to do everything possible to help communities affected by these storms.
"Royal Marine Commandos from Taunton have been deployed in Somerset to fill sandbags and provide relief to the local emergency services, as more bad weather is forecast.
"The Environment Agency has ordered specialist pumping equipment to clear roads, in addition to the extra pumps we have already sent, and they will keep looking at all options for pumping and dredging.
"In Dawlish, National Rail is undertaking a full inspection of the railway line and working with Army engineers on options to shore up the damaged section: a regular rail replacement service is now in place.
"Across the country another £30 million will be spent on urgent flood defence repairs this year, on top of the £100 million next year which I announced (on Wednesday).
"I want to reassure everyone affected by these terrible storms that we will continue to keep up our urgent response and help get them back on the move."
Two severe flood warnings - meaning a "danger to life" - have been issued by the Environment Agency.
The first is in Saltmoor and Northmoor including East Lyng, Burrowbridge, West Yeo, Moorland and Fordgate, while a second relates to the A361 road from East Lyng to Burrowbridge.
Across the country, more than 90 flood warnings, requiring "immediate action" have been issued, with a further 270 flood alerts in place.
The Met Office confirmed it has been the wettest December and January combined for more than 100 years, with rain falling on 23 out of 31 days in January across the UK.
There was 7.23ins (183.8mm) of rainfall in January, 51% higher than the average. Between mid-December and the end of January, southern England was deluged with over five months' worth of rainfall, figures show.
Met Office spokeswoman Laura Young warned that the whole of the UK will be "engulfed" by heavy rain overnight.
"We are looking at another 10mm (0.393ins) to 20mm (0.787ins) widespread, it will be heaviest across southern England," she said. "Locally in the area within the amber warning you could see 30mm (1.181ins) so it will lead to further flooding, unfortunately."
Severe winds are expected across the UK tomorrow, with some areas of exposed coastline potentially seeing gusts of wind of more than 80mph.