UK Environment Agency Chairman Chris Smith hit back at the government over the handling of floods affecting southern England, saying spending cuts had reduced his team’s ability to prevent the inundations.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who’s currently in charge of the government response to the flooding, said ministers “relied too much” on the advice of the agency and that rivers in Somerset in the southwest should have been dredged more. Pickles is standing in for Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who’s recovering from surgery for a detached retina.
Smith told the BBC today Paterson disagrees with Pickles and has been “hugely supportive” of the agency and its staff. He questioned Pickles’s grasp of the situation. That came after the Daily Mail newspaper quoted an unnamed cabinet minister as calling Paterson climate-stupid, and the BBC reported that Paterson had complained about Pickles to Prime Minister David Cameron.
“When I hear someone criticising the expertise and the professionalism of my staff in the Environment Agency who know 100 times more about flood management than any politician ever does, I’m afraid I’m not going to sit idly by,” Smith told BBC Radio 4. He said the agency was “following the Treasury rules that were laid down that say how much we can spend and can’t spend on any individual flood scheme.”
Flood prevention is one of the main tasks of the government agency. Smith, a minister in Tony Blair’s Labour government, was appointed as the agency’s chairman in 2008, under Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown. He told the BBC he has “absolutely no intention of resigning.”
Pickles said yesterday he was “really sorry that we took the advice” of the Environment Agency. “We thought we were dealing with experts,” he said on BBC television.
Cameron has become increasingly involved in the response to the flooding over the past four days. He traveled to Somerset to view the damage on Feb. 7 and is scheduled to do so again over the next 24 hours. The prime minister presided over a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee yesterday.
Asked repeatedly by reporters in London today if Paterson would take back responsibility for the flooding once he returns to work, Cameron’s spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, declined to answer directly, saying that Cameron and Pickles were expected to continue in charge.
“The prime minister’s view is that Owen Paterson is doing an excellent job,” Gray said.
“If reports Mr. Paterson has complained to the prime minister over Mr. Pickles ‘grandstanding’ over the Environment Agency and flooding are true, then things are clearly getting very tetchy indeed,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said in an e-mail. Cameron “needs to get a grip. It’s one thing for a government to be seen as a bit of a shower. But this one’s in danger of becoming a persistent band of rain.”
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