Aside from his ding-dong over floods with Ed Miliband at PMQs today, David Cameron also faced questions from backbenchers who have been affected by the floods. Conservative Graham Stuart asked whether the Prime Minister shared his ‘outrage at the false choice presented by the Chairman of the Environment Agency between protecting urban and rural areas from flood’. He was referring to Smith’s op-ed for the Telegraph earlier this week in which the quango chief pitched town and country against one another. The Prime Minister replied:
‘I think my honourable friend is absolutely right: there shouldn’t be a false choice between protecting the town or protecting the people who live in the countryside. I think what we need to see and where I think the debate is now rightly going is that from the late 1990s far too long the Environment Agency believed that it was wrong to dredge.’
The Spectator’s leading article this week argues that Smith should be fired for ‘rank incompetence’ and the Environment Agency dismantled. It says:
‘Nothing has more vividly conveyed the failure of the Environment Agency during this crisis than the lamentable public performances of its current chairman, the former Labour culture secretary Lord (Chris) Smith. His weak, half-shifty, half-arrogant interviews have shown him up to be a man wholly out of touch with the reality of the havoc his agency’s policies have wreaked. His blatherings about a choice between protecting ‘front rooms or farmland’ sums up his failure to understand the countryside, and the fact that most people have looked after both for generations.’
And why did the Environment Agency decide against dredging in the first place? The leader argues that this seems an odd change of heart when humans have been managing nature for hundreds of years.
‘Many of our cherished ancient habitats are, of course, created and managed by man. It has been a long time since nature was self-regulating in this country in the way that some in the Environment Agency seem to wish it to be. The British have been living on reclaimed land for hundreds of years — which is what makes it so bizarre that quangocrats seem to think such areas should no longer enjoy proper protection.’
But after PMQs today, sources close to the Prime Minister sought to defend Smith, saying he was ‘bringing important leadership to the Environment Agency’.
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