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Somerset floods latest: At last, Army is called in to Somerset Levels to help flood victims

By cfayfineran  |  Posted: January 31, 2014

Somerset floods latest: At last, Army is called in to Somerset Levels to help flood victims

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Nearly a month after the flooding crisis on the Somerset Levels began the official response was dramatically ramped up last night.

Specialist Army vehicles could be drafted in as soon as today to help tackle the flooding, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said.

The Ministry of Defence is in talks to deploy equipment and manpower to deliver food, transport people and deliver sandbags.

It comes after David Cameron announced 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.

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Last night county council leader John Osman said the authority was so exasperated it was about to dip in to public funds and hire amphibious vehicles privately.

He added some residents are being forced to pay insurance excesses of up to £35,000 in some of the worst-hit areas.

Prime Minister David Cameron insisted he will "rule nothing out" in his determination to solve the agonising problem of flooding on the Somerset Levels.

Dredging will begin as soon as practical, extra pumps will be sourced immediately, there will be extra help for stranded residents and there is that open-ended commitment to sort out the long-term maintenance programme to prevent another disaster.

Mr Cameron's pledge at yesterday's Prime Minister's Question Time came after anguished cries from afflicted communities whose homes and businesses have been seriously damaged.

It also came within hours of Somerset farmer James Winslade's appeal to Mr Cameron to come down to the county and "smell the smell" of septic tank leakage and decaying rubbish.

Somerset's MPs, councils the NFU and many other organisations have pleaded for a return to dredging the rivers Tone and Parrett for years.

It used to happen before the Environment Agency took over river management 19 years ago. Locals know it is not the whole answer and that a system of temporary water retention in the upper catchment areas and a revised long-term maintenance programme is needed.

A tidal barrage of the Parrett will also be investigated.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson charged the county's MPs with ensuring that an action plan is drawn up in the next six weeks when he visited the flood area on Monday, but there was disappointment he did not announce immediate extra funding.

Yesterday morning the Bishop of Taunton, the Rt Rev Peter Maurice revealed that he had written to all his fellow bishops in the House of Lords asking for their support in urging "proper action" after visiting Muchelney and surrounding villages with the Archdeacon of Wells and hearing "heartbreaking" stories.

And then at 12.11pm Jeremy Browne, MP for Taunton Deane rose in the House of Commons to tell the Prime Minister "the severe flooding on the Somerset Levels is causing acute distress," and to ask "Will the Prime Minister give a commitment today to both take immediate action to try and clear the flood water from the Somerset Levels as soon as possible and also to put in place a long-term plan to try and make sure that this doesn't happen again?"

Mr Cameron replied: "I can give my honourable friend both of those assurances. Cobra will be meeting again this afternoon to see to explore what more we can do to help the villagers in the Somerset Levels. The current situation is not acceptable.

"I can tell him that 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 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 Department for Communities and Local Government'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 to give to the local residents to move around and I rule nothing out in the days ahead to get this problem sorted."

Ian Liddell-Grainger, Bridgwater and West Somerset MP, a vehement critic of the Environment Agency, has campaigned long and hard in Parliament and outside for action. He said: "I think this is a most important intervention. I am delighted that Jeremy Browne asked the question. The Government now has a moral and financial responsibility to get these rivers dredged.

"We will get our plan to them in six weeks and I will make sure the PM has a copy. We will hold him to his promise. Now we have the PM's endorsement we will make the progress to put right the Levels.

"The fact that the Prime Minister now accepts that the rivers must be dredged as a matter of urgency vindicates what the local people have been saying for 10 years. We must now have a complete examination of the Environment Agency's running and management."

James Winslade the farmer who had called on Mr Cameron to come down and see the damage said the Prime Minister's response was "fantastic, a really positive result".

But he warned: "I want to see the machines on the ground and doing the work. I really hope it all goes through and that the red tape is cut through and something doesn't scupper it at the last minute.

"I would also like the work to be done by an independent organisation.

"This is very positive but the crucial thing is funding. This is a state of emergency down here and the sooner the drainage can start the better."

David Heath, former Farming Minister and MP for Somerton and Frome, who had also tabled a question to ensure that any action plan would get support from other relevant departments, including the Treasury said: "It's a great result. We are genuinely making progress. It does now look as though the money is there."

Somerset County Council Leader John Osman said: "This is just what we wanted to hear from the PM. 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."

Councillor John Williams, leader of Taunton Deane Borough Council, described the Prime Minister's announcement as: "A lifeline."

Councillor Mick Lerry, leader of the Labour Group on Conservative-controlled Sedgemoor District Council, and Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Bridgwater said "At last the Government has recognised that something has to be done, regarding the Flooding on the levels."

In his letter to fellow bishops Bishop Peter said: "We visited couples in flooded-out homes who have lived in the village for over 30 years and have never seen conditions so bad.

"The stories are heartbreaking – with farms and other businesses unable to operate normally, and homes made unbearable by the flooding of domestic sewage systems (cess-pits and septic tanks). This situation began before Christmas, and nothing has changed since the New Year – more rain has made the situation much worse. People are dependent on an emergency boat or tractor to get them to the mainland. The local councils have heeded the villagers request that this be deemed a major incident. Emergency services are now providing specialist vehicles to gain access in the event of an emergency of any kind.

"Archdeacon Nicola and I are very proud that the local church in Muchelney has been used as a community resource during this emergency – with foodstuffs, newspapers and hot coffee available.

"The clergy have been using the boat system to gain access and conduct worship as well as offer pastoral care. But action is needed now to help people, and the recovery phase must be properly planned and founded by Government if this awful scene is not to be repeated."

An appeal fund to help victims of flooding is nearly half way to its £150,000 target, and organisers are urging a generous public to make one more big push to ensure that victims get the help they need as the weeks go by. Justin Sargent of Somerset Community Foundation which has combined the flood appeal with its annual Surviving Winter bid to help vulnerable people fight the cold, said: "Thanks to an initial grant from Somerset County Council almost 30 emergency flood relief grants of £250 have been distributed to people whose homes have been flooded.

"Many of the people helped were also flooded last winter, with some having only recently moved back in. As one resident put it 'The stress is awful. We have lost everything again.'"

Donations can be made online at www.somersetcf.org.uk, by telephone on 01749 344949, or by cheque (payable to Somerset Community Foundation at Yeoman House Bath and West Showground, Shepton Mallet BA4 6QN).

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