Yesterday morning ConHome applied for an interview with Ian Liddell-Grainger, but was informed that he had set out in a canoe to visit flooded parts of his constituency. Liddell-Grainger, MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, is not one of the Tory Party’s best-known backbenchers, but has leapt to national prominence during the crisis afflicting the Somerset Levels.
He has been outspoken in defence of his constituents, and also in his criticism of Lord Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency, whom he described as a “coward” and a “little git”. On returning to dry land yesterday afternoon, Liddell-Grainger asked to be emailed a list of questions by ConHome. We suggested he give his answers by telephone, which would have permitted the asking of supplementary questions, but he decided he would rather reply in writing.
ConHome: What do you think should be done?
Liddell-Grainger: Precisely what is now being done – thanks to the response of the Government. We have received a cast iron pledge that money will be found to pay for dredging of the rivers. The tragedy is that I have to watch my constituency slowly vanishing under water until the rain stops or the pumping out operation begins to make an impact. It is going to be a slow process – with the best will in the world.
ConHome: How long have you been raising all this? Did you see it coming?
Liddell-Grainger: I have been raising concerns about the efficacy of the Environment Agency for several years. It is NOT repeat NOT the fault of the people on the ground. The policies of the EA have been settled much higher up the line. I think they stick too slavishly to European Directives. They are seen down here as being more in favour of birds and eels than people. Lord Smith is out of his depth – literally. The former chief exec, Baroness Young, wanted to flood the Somerset Levels years ago and was overheard saying that she would put a limpet mine under every pumping station if she had her way. There are hard-working lions at the sharp end of the EA, but dismal donkeys at the helm.
ConHome: What is your view, not just of the Environment Agency, but of the role ministers have played?
Liddell-Grainger: Ministers have acted remarkably quickly, under the circumstances. Owen Paterson got a fairly hard ride from the locals – that was, perhaps, inevitable: it is the price of being where the buck stops – but I have absolutely no complaints about his action. He said yes to dredging. He said yes to waiving the financial rules and the PM arrived with more money. Everything we’ve asked for so far has been delivered.
ConHome: Could you, for the benefit of ConHome readers, describe a bit of what you saw and heard on your canoe expedition today?
Liddell-Grainger: No politician likes to be set adrift in a canoe – especially with only one paddle as I have had! But down on Moorland it is one of the few ways of getting about. I am wet, tired, cold and angry on behalf of the people who are suffering. I am also amazed at their good humour and resilience. These people deserve our support and are getting it.
ConHome: Is there anything else you would like to try to bring home to readers – many of them Tory activists – with no direct experience of the floods?
Liddell-Grainger: Today it’s us, tomorrow? I am not sure we can afford any longer to believe in immunity from flooding. David Cameron described the Somerset scenes as “biblical”. Maybe we should learn the lesson of the Dutch who made flood defence a top national priority after the fatal floods of 1953. It will cost a great deal of money – difficult in times of recession – but we can no longer afford to do the bare minimum. We must safeguard people’s lives and property in future.