Winter Floods Under Scrutiny in Sedgemoor

smed on the level
Labour chair of Corporate Scrutiny Cllr Brian Smedley (Bridgwater Westover) looking at ‘Winter Flooding on the levels’

Sedgemoor District Council’s scrutiny committees combined today to look in depth at the key events and decisions taken during the recent devastating winter floods. Corporate Scrutiny Chairman Cllr Brian Smedley (Labour, Westover) chaired the combined meeting at which key decision takers took part while Community Scrutiny Chairman Cllr Julian Taylor (Labour Eastover) a victim of the floods, took a role as committee backbencher for the day.

Cllr Smedley said “The purpose of today’s joint overview and scrutiny committee meeting was to look at the recent Winter Flooding in Sedgemoor, to identify the key risk points as they developed and scrutinise how the relevant agencies responded. The Winter floods were a major disaster for the many communities affected and an international news story. The area was visited by pretty much every senior politician, all the world’s media and some members of the Royal Family.”

He added “The story of the developing inundation is well documented with high penning levels,severe weather, continuous rainfall, extremely high tides-the highest river levels ever recorded in Bridgwater , spillway running , severe flood warnings, evacuations, major inland flooding, the establishment of rest centres, disruption of road and rail transport , active military involvement and a sterling intervention by volunteers from all over the country and the hours of extra work put in by EA staff, our own staff at Sedgemoor, the County and the Emergency services . The professionalism, dedication and hard work of those workers on the frontline is not up for scrutiny today, but what is up for scrutiny are the key decisions taken before, during and after the crisis by the responsible authorities.”

Sedgemoor calling ‘Major Emergency’ was a ‘Game Changer’

Mick and Mili
Labour councillors Mick Lerry and Julian Taylor with Labour Leader Ed Miliband in the floodzone earlier this year

The meeting looked first at how Sedgemoor District Council performed throughout the emergency phase of the flooding leading up to the declaring of a major incident. Answering questions was the Chief Executive Mr Kerry Rickards , supported by Environmental Health officer Sara Dowden and Council Leader Duncan McGinty (Con, East Polden). The key question for Sedgemoor was why it was them that called the Major Emergency which was clearly a game changer. Cllr Smedley said “ It was quite clear that there was a reluctance on the part of Somerset County Council or any other agency to call the Major Emergency and it was to Sedgemoor’s credit that the decision was taken by them, at which point everything changed with a Gold command established, COBRA meetings focusing on the flooding and the Police assuming the lead role.”

The meeting then looked at the Government response. To help with this the MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset,Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger, was present and explained how he had been in close communication with Sedgemoor leaders during the developing crisis. The MP said he was “disgusted with Somerset County Council’s failure to call a major incident” and interfacing with Government himself said that he had urged SDC to therefore call one instead. “This opened up Government resources to us and crucially I was able to cut through the red tape. “ In terms of the Enviroment Agency he said he was “Disgusted that Chris Smith had failed to do his job and left it to Nick Gupta and his team-who did a phenomenal job.” He said he believed that “SDC out-performed SCC” and added that he was even now surprised that were “2 different versions of the 20 year plan”, both of which he duly submitted to the committee .

Labour Calls for ‘Public Enquiry’ rejected

julians house
Maria Eagle MP visits the flood damaged home of Cllr Julian Taylor

Questioned by Cllr Mick Lerry (Labour, Victoria) as to whether he would support calls for a Public Enquiry, Mr Liddel-Grainger said “I don’t want to let Government off the hook, but Public enquiries are very expensive and the only people who benefit are the legal profession.”

Cllr Julian Taylor (Lab, Eastover) said the root cause of the problem was the “cutting of funds to the Environment Agency by the Treasury, 26% in 2011 and 14% every year since”

Mr Liddel-Grainger accepted that many decisions were “Treasury led” but countered that “The EA shouldn’t be wasting money on bird sanctuaries at Steart island when WE are top of the food chain!”

Environment Agency ‘on the frontline’

Labour councillor Julian Taylor welcoming the 'pledge to dredge'
Labour councillor Julian Taylor welcoming the ‘pledge to dredge’

Finally , representatives from the ENVIRONMENT AGENCY – the key and therefore relevant government agency for the majority of the issues under scrutiny, were invited to take their seats before the committee to help understand the background to the emergency, the response during and immediately after the flooding and the plans for the future . EA officers present included the area manager of the EA Mr Nick Gupta, Asset Performance team leader Mr John Rowlands and Communications manager ms Gemma Sweet. Also in attendance was the Chairman of the Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal committee Mr Alan Lovell and Vice Chairman of the Parrett Drainage boards Mr Tony Bradford.

Questions were first put to the panellists from members of the Public, focusing on dredging pumping, prioritisation of resources, engagement with the communities. This was followed by a cross examination by the committee.

During the course of the flood some 172 properties were flooded , 100 tonnes of water per second was being pumped from the moors and 150,000 sandbags were issued. 3 emergency bunds had been erected, one of which failed and was submerged, 2 major roads – the 361 and the 373 were impassable and the village of Muchelney accessible only by boat.

7 Outcomes

Moorland Flooding
Labour PPC Mick Lerry “Our priority to stop this happening again is to ensure that the neccessary funds for a Parret Tidal barrier and the Dunball pumping station are in this years Autumn Budget”

Finally the members debated amongst themselves, and whilst Labour calls for a Public Enquiry were rejected by the Tory majority on the committee, 7 key recommendations were agreed with cross party support.

1. That in the light of the appointment of Ms Liz Truss as the new Secretary of State that this Council invites the newly appointed Secretary of State to Sedgemoor.

2. That the eagerly awaited Trigger Mechanisms that the Environment Agency will be using to Minimise the risk flooding of property and agricultural land will be considered at a future Scrutiny Committee.

3. Lessons must be learnt at a governmental level to avoid future similar floods from happening (in the main caused by delays in the Environment Agency from removing water quicker) and as such, given the level of devastation, disruption and personal hardship, calls upon the Government to publish the reasons why the Environment Agency failed to act quickly enough to avoid 47 square miles of Sedgemoor from being flooded for so long”.

4. The Council calls upon Government to fund the building of the Parrett Tidal Exclusion Barrier and a permanent pumping station at Dunball and to announce this in the Autumn Budget Statement.

5. To call upon the Environment Agency and Somerset County Council as the statutory water management authority to identify at the earliest at point at which a major incident will be declared in the future.

6. SDC will continue to vigorously lobby Government to make sure the necessary funding will be available for flood protection.

7. To visit the pumping stations and other key sites to understand the issues.


Floods Bridgwater
The Somerset countryside under water – but how will it look next winter….?.

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Bridgwater TUC
Bridgwater TUC
9 years ago

Bridgwater Trades Council recently held a public meeting from a workers perspective about the floods and proposed this motion to SWTUC regional conference -where it was passed unanimously.
1. Sympathised with flood victims
2. Applauded workers and volunteers involved.
3. Condemned 20% cuts in Flood coastal and Risk management staff.
4. Supported a campaign ro restore morale amongst EA staff by calling for
a) Reinstating all cuts to Flood Coastal Risk management staff and budgets
b) Shelving the proposed 15% cuts to EA staff
c) Ensuring through affiliated unions that any incoming Labour Government carries out this policy and ensures that, in the dangerous climate-change driven future that awaits us, we have a publicaly owned Environment Agency that is fully funded.
A full report “After the Floods” is available in booklet form from Bridgwater TUC

Elwyn Johnson
Elwyn Johnson
9 years ago

I am deeply indebted to the investigations and recommendations by SDC into the causes of the recent flooding particularly the need to work together to solve the problems relating to the Parrett and the Tone and their many tributaries. BUT….we need a fundamental mind shift from central government acknowledging the human contribution we all make to the now inevitable rise in world temperatures. Whatever the cost we must send a message to the disengaged and disinterested that we will all be affected in years to come by similar catastrophic inundations to that experienced by the brave and valiant voters in the South West who all have a valuable and long-fought-for right to elect those whose duty it is to speak to our needs and to protect our rights. Ignorance, public relations, double-speak and hypocrisy will not be tolerated by a well-informed electorate.

9 years ago

I am so fed up with political parties of all colours who persist in party politicking rather than look at broader issues and consequences.
Dealing with the flooding without taking into account Climate Change and rising sea levels, the effect of County Council redundancies over a broad range of services, particularly those that affect the countryside, liaison /communication/policy issues between the Drainage Board and the Environment Agency, building more and more houses on vulnerable flood risk land…
Simplistic responses to dredge are not helpful. Dredging is only part of the story
Pam Earnshaw

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