Flood victims point finger at bickering authorities

By Tom Bawden

Residents with homes and business along the Thames say failure to dredge is to blame and Government also damned for funding cuts.

Boats are loaded with sandbags on a flooded street in Datchet. Photo / AP
Boats are loaded with sandbags on a flooded street in Datchet. Photo / AP

Mick Dummer got a nasty shock when he arrived at work.

His Thameside Mitsubishi car dealership and garage had finally succumbed to the weeks of rain.

"We are well and truly underwater and there's no way we can operate the workshop like this - the servicing, MOT work, repairs, we can't do anything," said Dummer, the after-sales manager of the outlet, next to the main bridge in Chertsey, Surrey. "We can't afford not to operate but there's more rain coming in and the water is rising all the time. If this goes on for too long, we'll have to shut the site down."

Dummer says there is a strong feeling among some in the community that Westminster is more committed to protecting that end of the Thames - central London - than them.

Fourteen kilometres north, a funeral procession in the Berkshire village of Datchet was unable to pick up mourners, prompting the local Ford garage to use its 4x4 to pick them up and transport them to the cortege.

Six and a half kilometres east of Chertsey, the fire brigade was finishing ferrying the final members of a housing community across by boat after they were inundated with water.

Around the corner, in a riverside cul-de-sac near the Surrey village of Shepperton, John and Judy Hickey were preparing for the inevitable, as they braced for the water to enter their living room.

Standing knee-deep in water outside their home, Hickey pointed the finger of blame firmly at the Environment Agency's failure to dredge the build-up of silt from the Thames and speed the river's flow.

Jillian Lampkin, a neighbour, wades past in wellies. "I'm watching the water creep up but what can you do? I've been here 30 years and the house was built in 1926 and it's never been flooded."

Back over by the main Chertsey bridge, Clive and Debbie Milne-Buckley said extensive development in the area had exacerbated the flooding: "I find it amusing that they keep building on the flood plains. There's a big development just down the road, built about 10 years ago, which is underwater."

Scientists have rounded on the Government over its "knee-jerk" handling of the flooding emergency in retaliation to stinging criticism of the agency's performance by Cabinet Minister Eric Pickles.

Water specialists yesterday condemned ministers for aggravating the crisis by cutting spending on environmental work and warned that dredging overflowing rivers in the Somerset Levels, which is now advocated by the Government, would make little difference to the problem.

Comments from Pickles, the Communities Secretary, also provoked a Government rift with Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, who complained to Downing St over his Tory colleague's "grandstanding".

Pickles attacked the agency for providing poor advice on dredging and making it clear he believed its chairman, Lord Chris Smith, should resign.

The angry peer hit back at his critics, insisting the agency's staff knew "one hundred times more about flood management than any politician ever does" and blaming Government cuts for shortfalls in flood prevention.

Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered that dredging begin as soon as floodwaters recede.

However, scientists said there was no evidence that dredging would provide a long-term solution to flooding or would have prevented the disaster in Somerset.

Hannah Cloke, associate professor in hydrology at the University of Reading, said: "Ministers' continuing knee-jerk reaction is worrying. It's crazy to be trying to command and control very local dredging operations from Whitehall without any consideration of the scientific evidence of flood risk or value for money.

"The idea that dredging on its own would have made the critical difference over the last month is fanciful."

Richard Ashley, of Sheffield University, who wrote a report on flooding risk for the Blair Government, said its findings had been ignored by "short-term politicians who don't take notice of the science".

He said: "The current Government, especially the Department for Communities and Local Government, is obsessed with deregulation.

"They are also obsessed with cutting the [Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] budget at great risk to people in communities at risk of flooding. For them to rubbish the Environment Agency is frankly disingenuous and frankly stupid."

Roger Falconer, professor of water management at Cardiff University, said he believed dredging would have only a marginal effect in Somerset as its rivers had only slight gradients.

He argued that it was more important to speed the flow of water by increasing the rivers' gradients - possibly by building a lagoon off the coast where water levels could be kept low at times of flooding.

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