POLITICS

Owen Paterson Accuses Eric Pickles Of 'Grandstanding' Over Response To Floods

10/02/2014 09:15 GMT | Updated 10/02/2014 09:59 GMT
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Have the floods, and the government's handling of them, prompted leading Tory cabinet ministers to turn on another?

Environment secretary Owen Paterson is reported to have complained to the prime minister over Eric Pickles’ public criticism of the Environment Agency.

The communities secretary, who is standing in for fellow Tory Paterson while the latter recovers from eye surgery, blamed faulty Agency advice for the scale of the damage to the Somerset Levels. "We made a mistake, there's no doubt about that and we perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency's advice," Pickles told BBC1's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. "I am really sorry that we took the advice ... we thought we were dealing with experts."

According to the BBC, Paterson has complained "in the strongest possible terms" to the prime minister about what he calls Pickles' "grandstanding". Downing Street has refused to say whether any complaint from the environment secretary has been received, but so far David Cameron has given his backing to the communities secretary's handling of the response.

Meanwhile, under-fire Environment Agency boss Lord Smith has accused ministers of "getting in the way" of vital work to deal with devastating floods by turning the crisis into a political row.

The peer hit back at criticism of his and the quango's handling of the situation and pointed the finger of blame for the failure to sufficiently dredge rivers at Treasury funding rules.

lord smith

Environment Agency boss Lord Smith has hit back at ministers

Politicians, including the prime minister, have been visiting the worst affected areas in the south west as efforts are made to restore transport and power and get people back into their homes.

With more severe weather expected over the coming days, there are now 16 severe flood warnings in place - meaning a risk to life - as more areas brace for rising waters, notably the Thames Valley.

Lord Smith - who faced the ire of locals when he did not apologise for the EA's performance when he was besieged during his own visit to the Levels - said his "heart goes out" to all the victims.

He accepted there was "always more that we can do" and welcomed a £130 million Government funding boost for repairs.

But he issued a furious broadside at what he said were attempts by politicians to undermine the work and reputation of the Agency in a bid to secure better media coverage.

"What really saddens me, though, is seeing the Environment Agency's work and expertise in flood-risk management, internationally respected and locally praised in many parts of the country, being used as a political football for a good media story," he wrote in an article for the Guardian.

"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.

"Our staff have worked their hearts out in order to protect as many people as possible in the face of extreme weather.

"They'll carry on doing so. But there's no place for playing politics in the serious business of flood protection."

He said a Treasury-imposed "benefit-to-cost" rule had limited the sum the EA had been able to devote to dredging the silted-up rivers which failed to drain the Levels properly.

It had put the maximum £400,000 on the table it was allowed to, he said, but "the additional funds from other sources that would be needed didn't come in".

"So when politicians start saying it's Environment Agency advice or decisions that are to blame, they need to realise that it's in fact government rules - laid down by successive governments, Labour and Tory - that are at the heart of the problem."

Repeated calls for dredging were made to Downing Street and other Whitehall departments by farmers and others in the region from at least six months ago but funding was declined.

Pickles earlier said the agency needed to revisit its priorities.

As politicians traded blows on the political fall-out from the disaster, police were investigating whether seven-year-old Zane Gbangbola, who died after falling ill in his flood-hit home in Chertsey, Surrey, may have become a victim of the floods.

Officers have refused to be drawn on whether carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator pumping out flood water from his home may have been to blame, which also saw his parents, Kye Gbangbola and Nicole Lawler, taken ill.

The prime minister, speaking after chairing a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergency committee this evening, said he had "made clear again that every resource is available to the local communities affected.

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David Cameron has been visiting the worst affected areas in the south west

"We will keep providing whatever immediate practical support and assistance is needed, whether that is extra pumps and sandbags; military support on the ground; emergency funds from the new £7 million severe weather assistance fund for local councils.

"In Somerset, the Environment Agency is starting a further flood alleviation plan and, as I've said before, when the water levels come down and it's safe to do so, they will be dredging to make sure that these rivers and ditches can carry more water."

Network Rail had been told to do "whatever it takes" to restore badly disrupted rail links - which earlier saw the south west cut off entirely.

Rail operators are now able to run trains to Exeter but there is still major disruption to services following flooding, landslides and collapsing track beds in the West Country.

"I want to assure the public and communities affected that we are doing all we can to get them back on their feet," Cameron said.