UK Politics

Flooding: Environment Agency told to put homes before nature

Residents carry possessions from their flooded homes in Carlisle Image copyright PA
Image caption Widespread flooding affected parts of northern England including Carlisle

The Environment Agency has been ordered to prioritise protecting people's homes ahead of nature when tackling flooding, the prime minister says.

David Cameron told a committee of MPs there had been an "attitudinal change" which he wanted to see continue.

He cited the example of the Somerset Levels, where dredging of rivers has resumed in a bid to avoid a repeat of flooding seen in 2013-14.

He also defended the response to floods in northern England and Scotland.

In an appearance before the Commons Liaison Committee, Mr Cameron said: "You've seen quite an attitudinal change in the Environment Agency that in years gone past, I think, were trying to balance up the effects on nature on the one hand and protecting property on the other hand.

"We've said to them: 'The time for that is over. This is about protecting human lives. This is about protecting our homes.'

"I want to see that continued shift. You saw that very directly in Somerset, where there is a man-made environment and it was ridiculous those rivers weren't being dredged.

I threatened to go and drive the dredger myself. Those rivers have now been dredged.

"Do we need an attitudinal change in the way we approach flooding? Yes, we absolutely do."

'Complete rethink'

The Environment Agency, which covers England, is responsible for managing the risk of flooding from main rivers, and issues flood alerts and warnings.

But that was not the reason it was set up or the main part of its remit.

"We work to create better places for people and wildlife, and support sustainable development," the agency says on the "what we do" section of its website.

Several storms wreaked havoc across the UK in December, with Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Yorkshire among the worst affected by the floods.

Parts of Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland also saw flooding and damage from a series of storms, including Desmond, Eva and Frank.

The environment agency's chairman, Sir Philip Dilley, resigned on Monday after coming under pressure for holidaying in Barbados during the recent floods.

Last month the agency's deputy chief executive said a "complete rethink" of the UK's flood defences was required, saying better waterproofing of homes and improved warning systems were vital for tackling future weather extremes.

Mr Cameron told MPs more could be done, saying that "the country wants us to do more and we will do more".

The authorities need to get better at river management and more flood defences are needed, he said.

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