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Somerset Levels Escape Flooding By Ignoring Eco Zealots

March 5, 2020

By Paul Homewood


h/t Patsy Lacey

 As I commented a week or two ago, the Somerset levels have escaped flooding this winter, despite well above average rainfall last month.

The Mail explain why:



No one who saw Bryony Sadler’s reaction, after being informed that floodwater had poured into her family’s smallholding – a handsome Victorian rectory set on a seven-acre plot in the Somerset Levels – will easily forget her anguish.

Having remained in the house for a month, watching the inexorable advance of a foul green tide from the swollen River Tone, four miles away, she had just been evacuated along with her husband, Gavin, their two young children, and their menagerie of animals: dozens of chickens, a pony, rabbits, guinea pigs and two dogs.

And in a scene that became an emblem of the catastrophe that had beset hundreds of families living on the Levels, as violent storms battered western England, a BBC camera crew captured the moment the police phoned her with the news she had been dreading.

Mrs Sadler’s first reaction was to clasp her head in her hands in despair. ‘We’ve virtually lost it all, then,’ she uttered through tear-stained fingers, envisaging the end of an idyllic rural lifestyle that had taken years to build.

That was in the winter of 2014, when the Levels – a vast, low-lying natural drain for the network of tidal rivers flowing off the surrounding hills, and prone to serious flooding – were deluged by some of the worst floods in memory.


As the 160,000-acre expanse was submerged, hundreds of homes were destroyed and the farmland became a vast lake. The village of Muchelney was turned into an island – intrepid former Mail reporter Paul Harris got there by rowing boat.

What an extraordinary contrast with the scene that greeted me in the Levels.

While many areas of England and Wales have been inundated after huge rainstorms – this week it was the turn of towns in East Yorkshire along the River Aire, last week it was Shrewsbury, Ironbridge, and Worcester along the River Severn – in the Levels, by some small miracle, the streets and houses are dry.

Admittedly, rainfall in the area in January and February 2014 was almost twice as heavy as it has been in the first two months of 2020, yet this month’s rain was still 70 percent above average.

Furthermore, the autumn of 2019, when 526.9mm of rain fell, was far wetter than that of 2013, when 389.5mm did, so we might have expected the water-table to rise even higher this time around.

Given such wet weather, 44-year-old Mrs Sadler feels sure that the roads and fields would have been underwater in bygone years.

Yet although her Alexa smart speaker annoyingly parrots the latest flood alerts, there is not the slightest sign of the disastrous 6ft surge that forced her family to ‘live out of boxes’ for nine months, until their home and business were restored by way of a £500,000 insurance pay-out (some Levels residents had no coverage and are still suffering the consequences).

‘You can see a few puddles on the fields, and the ground around the house is a bit soggy,’ she told me, gesturing through the window. ‘But it really isn’t much, considering the amount of rain we’ve had.’

It certainly isn’t, as I saw when strolling down the road people rowed along in 2014.

Yes, water lapped the hedgerows, but this is normal for the Levels in winter. It would have needed to rise by many feet before impeding passing cars.

Since new Environment Secretary George Eustice was attacked by the Farmers’ Union for the Government’s perceived tardiness in tackling the flooding crisis (he responded by pledging to spend ‘record’ amounts on defences, but laid much of the blame on climate change), this begs some pertinent questions.

How have the Levels managed to the hold back the torrents? Why is the area better protected now than in 2014? And could the methods that worked here be used with similar effect elsewhere?

Of course, when it comes to topography, no two areas are alike; and the means of combating upstream floods, for example, will differ from tactics used in an area such as the Levels, which lie close to the coast and rise only a few feet above sea-level.

Nonetheless, according to David Hall, chairman of the Somerset Rivers Authority, the work that has reduced the risk of flooding in this unusual West Country swathe, with its Dutch-style man-made dykes, could be adapted as a ‘template’ for other flood-prone areas.

And he believes they could learn invaluable lessons by studying the intriguing story behind the great Levels flood of 2014.

At the heart of the story lies an ideological power struggle between a powerful Green lobby – hidebound by idealistic but dangerously impractical EU wildlife directives – and more traditional guardians of the countryside.

The Levels have been flooded periodically since early medieval times, when monks first reclaimed the boggy land for farming. However, until 25 years ago, a water-management system, modernised and refined over the centuries, ensured its houses largely remained dry.

It hinged on regularly dredging the silt that washes up from the Bristol Channel and slows the flow of the four main rivers. Unless this is removed, during heavy rainfall it can cause them to burst their banks. A series of pumping stations also removed excess water.

But matters changed when stewardship of rural England’s land, rivers and coastline fell under the remit of the Environment Agency, formed in 1995.

The work of local drainage boards was hampered by the new agency’s zealous enforcement of EU waste-removal regulations, with habitat directives placing ‘sustainability’ and ‘biodiversity’ ahead of the need to safeguard homes, businesses and farmland.

These Brussels-concocted rules made it almost impossible to dispose of tonnes of dredged-up silt.

Matters worsened considerably after 2000, as many locals recall, when Baroness Young of Old Scone, a Labour peeress who had previously run the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Natural England, became chief executive of the EA.

Intent on creating havens where wildlife could flourish, she determined to transform the Levels into a vast wetland suitable for water-voles and wading birds.

To this end, she actively promoted flooding by withdrawing funds for dredging and pumping.

If she had her way, she remarked, she would plant ‘a limpet-mine on every pumping station’. Indeed, in a lecture to a House of Lords Committee, she said her recipe was cheap and simple: ‘For instant wildlife, just add water’.

However, people living on the Levels will tell you that her tenure was a recipe for disaster.

Baroness Young is unmoved. She insists that dredging has not stopped the Levels flooding.

‘The Somerset Levels were intended to be flood plains,’ she says. ‘Dredging the Levels for farming at all costs is not my idea of a balanced solution. You have got to take into account issues of biodiversity and climate change. I feel I have been vindicated quite substantially over the past few years.

‘People were desperate just to do something, but dredging doesn’t solve anything. It just moves the flow of water down to the next pinch point.

‘What was always needed was systems … that hold back the flow of water, so that it comes down gradually, rather than in a rush.

‘These effective solutions that I was thinking about in my time at the EA are what people are now talking about. So I am not lying awake thinking I have done something wrong.’

A bold assertion. However, by 2012, two years before the tumultuous floods, Mrs Sadler, who lives in Moorland, near Bridgwater, and other Levels residents were so concerned by rising water levels they formed a pressure group to lobby for a resumption of silt dredging.

A local farmer also wrote to then Prime Minister David Cameron, warning of impending disaster.

Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The result was a flood so devastating that it cost Somerset £200million in lost tourism revenue alone.

Ruined farmland and crops, damage to property, and the massive evacuation and mopping-up operation cost hundreds more millions.

It also cost then Environment Secretary Owen Paterson his job. Partly because he was ridiculed by the media for wearing town shoes, rather than wellingtons, when he went to inspect the flooded Levels, Mr Cameron deemed Paterson to have ‘had a bad flood’ and sacked him soon afterwards.

In the eyes of many Levels-dwellers, however, the North Shropshire MP is a hero. Mrs Sadler, for one, says she ‘adores him’.

For while Mr Cameron was seen flitting about in a helicopter, and delivered suitable soundbites, Paterson instigated an innovative and effective action plan.

It was implemented that same summer, soon after the floodwater had subsided – a refreshing departure given that government schemes are usually mired for an eternity in red-tape. Though dredging was recommenced, after 20 years, there is far more to it than that. New pumping stations have been built, sumps dug to hold excess water, sluice-gates put in place; some villages are now protected by walls known as ‘bunds’.

Further upstream, the cascade of river water has been slowed by erecting barriers called ‘leaky dams’, planting more trees, and encouraging farms to plough the land so that run-off sinks into it.

In all, 150 preventative actions have been taken, overseen by the Somerset Rivers Authority, a body which Mr Paterson also created.

By 2024, his plan should have its pièce de résistance: a £100million tidal barrier stretching across the River Parrett estuary.

Much of this is being funded by a special levy added to Somerset’s council tax; some residents outside the Levels object to paying this.

Yet floods indirectly affect everyone in the county by hitting the local economy and transport, and it is cheaper to fund improvements than repair widespread damage.

All this is a salutary reminder to Boris Johnson and Mr Eustice – who have faced criticism in recent days for their tardy response to the floods – of what can be done with sufficient drive and good will.

When I spoke to Mr Paterson this week, he was clearly still angry at being scapegoated by Cameron, and dismissed as the ‘Wally without Wellies’ (‘I had two pairs with me in the car,’ he fumed).

In truth, he said, he had rushed to the Levels of his own accord when the full extent of the disaster became evident.

Looking for solutions, he consulted farmers and landowners. A broad outline of the emergency plan was written that same night.

‘It is all about listening to the people who really know how to manage the countryside,’ he told me, suggesting the same should be done at the latest flood flashpoints.

Though this is disputed by some engineers, he believes the fundamentals of his Levels flood prevention plan would apply elsewhere.

‘It’s like having a huge bath with a blocked plughole. If you just un-bung it, the water will drain away,’ he says.

Mr Paterson is scathing of Baroness Young’s ‘catastrophic’ policies, and dismissive of those who argue that flooding is the inevitable result of climate change, implying that it cannot be eradicated.

With Britain having just left the EU, he argues, we have the opportunity to manage the environment, free of European diktat. In this, he is looking to his successor, Mr Eustice, to take a strong lead.

Is he doing enough to fight the floods? ‘He’s only been in the job a few weeks – give him a chance!’

Back in her renovated old rectory, Bryony Sadler agrees that other flood-hit areas could learn from experiences on the Levels.

‘There’s no point deciding what to do from an office in London,’ she says. ‘You have got to engage with the community.

Earlier this week, her heart sank when a nearby river suddenly rose. It happened because two of the four pumps were switched off, she says. When the EA was alerted, they were turned on again.

‘It shows how the flooding we had in 2014 could happen again without proper management,’ she says.

‘If the people in power hadn’t listened to us, we might have been in the same situation as the rest of the country this week.

‘But if they stop maintaining the rivers in the Levels, it could happen again here, too”

  1. John Palmer permalink
    March 5, 2020 1:29 pm

    A thoroughly sensible, knowledgeable and practical chap, Paterson – and a countryman too. How on earth did they let him anywhere near a position in our loony eco-Government?
    Bring him back I say!

    • March 5, 2020 2:49 pm

      Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any other minister who was given the heave-ho because he was competent and good at his job.

      • keith holland permalink
        March 5, 2020 3:11 pm

        You can be pretty sure Cameron got rid of him as Greenpeace and such like complained to Cameron that Paterson wouldn’t talk to those eco loonies. It is also a pity that Baroness Young couldn’t be sued for the damage she’d done.

      • Tonyb permalink
        March 5, 2020 3:48 pm


        But it’s a very low bar isn’t it?

  2. Chris permalink
    March 5, 2020 1:31 pm

    I believe the name Muchelney in Anglo Saxon means island – the clue is in the name

    The Levels, once dammed by Bristol Channel Ice have always flooded and we have chosen to live there

    Over the centuries that flooding has been managed until the EU came along

    Sent by CJ Matchette-Downes


    • bobn permalink
      March 5, 2020 2:29 pm

      Yes, the clue is in the name. The suffix -ney means island in anglo-saxon. So any ancient village ending ney probably had flood plains around it periodically turning it into an island. Of course we now build on these low lying fields and wonder why every 10yrs or so the houses flood. Answer – because the always have for hundreds of yrs.

      • Tonyb permalink
        March 5, 2020 3:51 pm

        Don’t forget these marshes are where Alfred the great hid from the Vikings. At one time it was called an Inland sea but it’s always been prone to flooding even with best efforts for drainage.

    • Harry Passfield permalink
      March 5, 2020 3:33 pm

      Which raises the question: would Baroness Young extend her faulty logic to say that the Netherlands should be surrendered to the sea as that land is very much reclaimed from the sea?

  3. Gerry, England permalink
    March 5, 2020 1:49 pm

    Owen Paterson was sacked for being competent – not good in Cameron’s liberal government of incompetents starting at the top – and for upsetting Call Me Dave’s green mates supported by his wife Soppy Sam. If you are attending a briefing meeting in a church hall you don’t need wellies – unless the Environment Agency’s incompetence has flooded that as well. The late Booker will attest to how Paterson got on with sorting it out instead of posing for stupid photos for the legacy media. Paterson also performed well during the horsemeat for beef sags when he showed he knew how the EU regulations worked. It was a sad day when his brain died and he joined Rees-Morons ultra Brexit bunch.

    • bobn permalink
      March 5, 2020 2:35 pm

      Gerry, Why do you support the imperial EU and their Ultra-green idiocy and climate alarmist nonsense? Those who oppose climate alarmism supported Brexit as a way of escaping climate stupidity. Paterson and Rees Mogg are heroes fighting for freedom and realism.

      • March 5, 2020 2:51 pm

        I agree. Paterson could see that the only way out of the disastrous consequences of EU regulations was to make a clean-break exit.

      • Mike Jackson permalink
        March 5, 2020 4:37 pm

        Agreed, bobn, but you partially miss the point. Paterson was successful in part because he knew how the EU regulations worked, ie he knew what he could get away within the rules. The mistake we have made for years (and I strongly suspect are about to continue making in the coming negotiations, though I hope not) is that we allowed bureaucrats and activists like Young to use the regulations to set their agenda, not the people’s.

        It’s certainly true that we have a lot more flexibility now we’re out but the hardline eco-activists and the control-freak tendency in Whitehall are both still with us. Don’t be fooled into thinking this fight has been won yet, On any front!

  4. Phoenix44 permalink
    March 5, 2020 2:06 pm

    Let’s face it, it suits the EU, Greens and others to have floods and wildfires and other disasters. They will do nothing to prevent them ad they help their cause. And preventing them through adaptation is even worse – that demonstrates there are alternatives to simply destroying our economy.

    We need a political force, an organisation that Lukewarmers, Sceptics and adapters can coalesce around to fight this stuff. This is a political battle now, not a scientific one.

    • Harry Passfield permalink
      March 5, 2020 3:44 pm

      The Greens are to the environment as the Police are to crime: If the police did their job – of preventing crime – then there would be no stats to say that crime was rife; there would be a call for fewer police on the ground (which would also be a nonsense). Thus, by allowing crime to fester Chief Constables can justify the need for more police. And all without accepting that they have failed in their primary duty.

  5. Jackington permalink
    March 5, 2020 3:28 pm

    Dear Chistopher Booker late of the S Telegraph and long time resident of Somerset would have loved ths D Mail piece.

  6. Vernon E permalink
    March 5, 2020 3:41 pm

    My understanding is that the flooding was overcome by restoration of the massive sluices upon which the below-sea-level land depended for drainage (just like Holland) and these had been abandoned to dereliction when the EA took over responsibility for the area. No doubt that dredging/de-silting etc all helped.

  7. tom0mason permalink
    March 5, 2020 4:40 pm

    Baroness Young and her like are the antagonist for civil strife!
    She and her acolytes, high up in their ivory towers, attempt to Lady & Lord it over all others.
    Personally I wished she had gone to the Somerset levels, voice her beliefs only to been met with the locals wielding torches and pitchforks.

    Like most animals humans change the environment to best suit there needs. Baroness Young’s ideas are no more relevant to running the countryside than asking squirrels how to bury nuts, or moles about soil conditioning.

  8. AaronH permalink
    March 5, 2020 5:33 pm

    It would be interesting to hear about what is happening in the Netherlands in response to the warnings of sea-level rise. After all, they can’t afford just to allow erosion and flooding as a response: they wouldn’t have a country left!

  9. Mad Mike permalink
    March 5, 2020 5:36 pm

    The attitude shown by the EA must be institutional as it echos what we in our village are being told, as long as wildlife’s environment is protected and enhanced we can do what we like in our rising river system. Unfortunately that means we can do nothing meaningful to manage the river and it keeps rising. Their total focus is on doing nothing it seems and nothing is what they have done and are doing. We can’t carry on mis-managing our rivers like this. Sooner or later people will take matters in to their own hands. Such is the mindset of individuals within the EA, all single minded environmentalists, we need to take the management of our watercourses away from the EA and into the hands of a body that believes that human life and property should be the main aim of it’s existence.

  10. March 5, 2020 6:11 pm

    ‘rainfall in the area in January and February 2014 was almost twice as heavy as it has been in the first two months of 2020’. Interesting seeing as the Beeb and Met Office have been implying that we’ve been experiencing unprecedented biblical rainfall recently.

  11. Philip Mulholland permalink
    March 5, 2020 7:25 pm

    “dredging doesn’t solve anything. It just moves the flow of water down to the next pinch point.” also known as the Bristol Channel.

  12. AR Clapham permalink
    March 5, 2020 8:25 pm

    I operated a fleet of lorries for many years collecting Agricultural produce from Norfolk,going through the Village of Welney never any flooding during the 30 plus years we never once had a diversion. Traffic is diverted nowadays for weeks at a time.The drainage used to be managed by the The Great Ouse River board and was 1st Class! Thanks to European masters we went from experienced River drainage experts to clip board carriers from the Dept of the Environment. Rivers and Drains have lost width and depth.I was born in the Fens and have witnessed the deterioration of Fenland drainage thanks to the EU or economically useless! As it is also known as in the Fens,we need remidial work as carried on the Somerset Levels.!!

  13. Dibnah permalink
    March 6, 2020 7:10 am

    Good to see the benefits of works of engineering construction.
    Those incompetents responsible for the dereliction of existing drainage systems should be prosecuted for offences in public office.

  14. Chaswarnertoo permalink
    March 6, 2020 7:57 am

    Baroness Young drowned all the wildlife and ruined residents lives. She should be held personally liable.

  15. Dan permalink
    March 6, 2020 10:16 am

    I am sorry but this is really a terribly written article. Clearly the lower rainfall has played a huge impact with previous data from this site showing that such rainfall levels do not result in wide spread flooding.

    The article then tries to blame EU regulations but actually clearly points out that it was UK regulation from the late nineties and early noughties that were behind the questionable decisions. It is so bent on this that it refers to a “waste removal directive, which of course, is not related to flood plain control.

    The lack of referenced materials, with not even one law or directive being clearly referenced and identified, with the specific texts going unknown. this whataboutary is clearly deficient and in direct contradiction to articles on this site, where referenced datasets and articles are used.

    I will leave you with the introduction to the EU floods directive
    “As the Floods Directive has now entered into force the implementation of the Directive is starting, and the timetable is clearly set out. The Directive which applies to all kinds of floods (river, lakes, flash floods, urban floods, coastal floods, including storm surges and tsunamis), on all of the EU territory requires Member States to approach flood risk management in a three stage process whereby :

    Member States will by 2011 undertake a preliminary flood risk assessment of their river basins and associated coastal zones, to identify areas where potential significant flood risk exists.
    Where real risks of flood damage exist, they must by 2013 develop flood hazard maps and flood risk maps for such areas. These maps will identify areas with a medium likely hood of flooding (at least a 1 in 100 year event) and extreme events or low likelihood events, in which expected water depths should be indicated. In the areas identified as being at risk the number of inhabitants potentially at risk, the economic activity and the environmental damage potential shall be indicated.
    Finally, by 2015 flood risk management plans must be drawn up for these zones. These plans are to include measures to reduce the probability of flooding and its potential consequences. They will address all phases of the flood risk management cycle but focus particularly on prevention (i.e. preventing damage caused by floods by avoiding construction of houses and industries in present and future flood-prone areas or by adapting future developments to the risk of flooding), protection (by taking measures to reduce the likelihood of floods and/or the impact of floods in a specific location such as restoring flood plains and wetlands) and preparedness (e.g. providing instructions to the public on what to do in the event of flooding). Due to the nature of flooding, much flexibility on objectives and measures are left to the Member States in view of subsidiarity.”

    So much for the accuracy of EU directive bashing.

    • David virgo permalink
      March 6, 2020 11:07 am

      It seems to me that the article does not lay blame on the EU – it blames a powerful green lobby and the Environment Agency, both of which have misused EU directives. The EU has, of course, been a useful whipping boy for many years…

    • Mike Jackson permalink
      March 6, 2020 2:56 pm

      The UK interpretation of the Waste Removal Directive was to classify dredging spoil and silt as “contaminated waste” which meant it could not be spread on adjoining fields — which goes to show just how much bureaucrats (ours and theirs) really know about environmental matters.

      (I’ll pass for the moment on a lengthy lecture about how the end result is that the green lobby has been leading the civil service(s) of Europe and most of the rest of the Anglophone world by the nose for decades.)

      The outcome was inevitable. The additional haulage costs impact severely on the budget so we stop dredging.

      David Virgo is also correct. Bureaucrats and special interest groups have been abusing EU Directives for years. In my (quick) reading of the relevant Directive I can find nothing to suggest that clearing out watercourses such as canals or drainage channels demands removal and disposal of the waste under controlled conditions.

      The “dogs breakfast” that is the current railway system is another example of “over-interpretation” of a EU Directive. The only requirement was to separate financially operation from infrastructure. I could name another half-dozen!

    • March 6, 2020 8:11 pm

      You are grossly misleading readers by suggesting that last month’s rain was not high in Somerset.

      At Yeovilton, for instance, 117mm fell last month, only 4mm less than in Dec 2013, which directly caused most of the flooding that winter, and that was after an exceptionally dry November.

      The bottom line is that Owen Paterson’s reforms had an dramatic effect on flooding of the levels, a fact which is borne out by the locals on the ground who know much more about these matters.

    • Mad Mike permalink
      March 7, 2020 10:25 am

      Dan, can you give me a link to the directive you mention. The wording of the directive that i found is a bit different to the one you quote.

      I found this

      Is there an updated one that I haven’t found?

  16. MrGrimNasty permalink
    March 6, 2020 11:26 am

    On another thread on here (NALOPKT!) I mentioned a comment from a user on a local news site about mismanagement of reservoir levels causing/exacerbating the Shropshire etc. floods. BBC has a mention.

    You can easily believe how the EA, obsessed with it’s own endless summer droughts climate change belief, would fail to empty the reservoirs in a controlled fashion, as per historical practices, and instead keep them full. A primary purpose used to be to absorb heavy winter rainfalls and prevent flooding downstream – if they are already full, they cannot do that.

  17. March 6, 2020 11:59 am

    What the situation and so many of the comments show, is the disaster of a centralized bureaucracy, whether it is people with titles or the EU. Bureaucrats ultimately care about their own futures more than that of others and must please those “above” them. Here we had the East Coast, West Coast, Chicago and the rest of us were flyover country. The bureaucrats, whether elected of otherwise entrenched, showed continuous contempt for we the unwashed and therefore, uneducated, of flyover country. We simply did not matter.

    On November 8, 2016, we of flyover country began to rectify the situation. Although there is a lot of kicking, screaming, and tantrums from the elite, major progress is being made. Like the Somerset Levels, we also are draining the swamp and the swamp is not happy. It required someone with an incredible backbone and determination to get it done–and we elected him. The self-anointed elites have had the vapors over Donald Trump’s plain spoken rhetoric instead of nuanced faculty lounge speak.

    Local people should always be consulted as they are the ones who often have the best understanding of the situation and possible solutions. For that reason, the best government is that which is the most local. Also it is the most accountable to the citizens, who are, after all, their bosses (a concept which bureaucracy tries to ignore)..

  18. MrGrimNasty permalink
    March 6, 2020 7:10 pm

    Housing developer puts house in way of oxbow lake formation!

    Back to school!

    Honestly, how dumb are people these days – river courses are not static.

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