Flooding gets more political as Labour appointees are blamed

As Lord Smith tries to defend Environment Agency, Baroness Young's spell in charge raises questions

Column LAST UPDATED AT 11:43 ON Mon 10 Feb 2014

DAVID CAMERON is facing a full-scale Cabinet row over outspoken criticism of the Environment Agency by Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, for failing to deal with the Biblical scale of flooding that is now threatening hundreds of thousands of homes along the Thames.

The Cabinet rift emerged after the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, who was put out of action last week by a detached retina, protested from his sickbed to Downing Street at Pickles's remarks on yesterday's Andrew Marr Show.

Pickles, a plain-speaking Yorkshireman drafted in by Cameron to get a grip of the flooding crisis while the hapless Paterson recuperates from his eye operation, told Marr the EA had given ministers "poor advice" against dredging in the Somerset Levels.

His remarks echoed the criticism of the local residents who have suffered a month under water, but they appear to have infuriated Paterson. BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin this morning reported: "I understand Mr Paterson has complained 'in the strongest possible terms' to the prime minister about what he calls Mr Pickles' 'grandstanding'."

Pickles’s comments also stung the Environment Agency chairman, Lord [Chris] Smith, into an angry response. In an article for The Guardian he accused the government of kicking his agency around like a “political football”.

Smith, a former Labour Cabinet minister, wrote: "In a lifetime in public life, I've never seen the same sort of storm of background briefing, personal sniping and media frenzy getting in the way of decent people doing a valiant job trying to cope with unprecedented natural forces."

He then told Radio 4's Today programme: "I have spoken with Owen Paterson by text because he is recovering from his operation. He has been hugely supportive throughout of the Environment Agency, its staff and its work."

Smith rejected growing calls for his resignation from farmers and flooded householders in Somerset angered by his alleged complacency over the floods.

Pickles clearly wants to sack Smith: he said he would not be printing a "Save Chris Smith" T-shirt. But Smith told Today he would not quit before the end of his term of office this June.

Cameron is now certain to be challenged over whether he supports Owen Paterson and Lord Smith (who claimed EA staff knew “100 times more than politicians”), or Eric Pickles with his condemnation of the Environment Agency for its inaction.

The Mole reckons the majority of Tory MPs will undoubtedly back Pickles for turning this into a political fight, because they believe the policy and culture of the EA were changed under both Smith and another Labour appointee, Baroness [Barbara] Young, who was chief executive of the agency from 2000 to 2008.

Young has been dubbed the 'Quango Queen' for a string of public appointments under Labour. When she left the EA in 2008, she was made chairman of another quango, the much-criticised Care Quality Commission. She is a former vice chairman of the BBC and is now chief executive of the health charity Diabetes UK.

A former chief executive (back in the 1990s) of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Young been accused by local Tory MP Ian Liddell-Grainger of giving priority to wetlands for birds over flood defences for villages in Somerset during her time in charge of the EA.

Evidence of this policy is contained in a 2008 document drawn up shortly before Baroness Young left the agency, called the Parrett Catchment Flood Management Plan.

It proposed a change in policy to promote more “soft” flood defences such as wetlands and a retreat from “hard” flood defences such as sea walls. It said the objective should be “to take action to increase the frequency of flooding [the Mole's italics] to deliver benefits locally and elsewhere”.

Smith denied on the Today programme that he had ever seen the document, which was later released on Twitter by Today presenter Evan Davis.

Baroness Young told Davis: "The Somerset Levels is an incredibly important wildlife site but it does have farmers and villages so there needs to be a remedy that meets the needs of all those requirements."

She admitted there were “tensions” inside the EA about the approach to flood defences, but said the experts “came up with good advice”. She added: "We must not lose sight of the fact there has been an awful lot of rain on a restricted area."

It is likely that Baroness Young will be questioned at greater length on the policy document by the Commons Environment Select Committee which has launched its own investigation into the flooding crisis.

Meanwhile, Cameron is choosing to visit the South West today rather than the Thames Valley where even the playing of fields of Eton, his alma mater, are under water. ·