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Thursday, 1 October 2009

Where did you go wrong Baroness Young?




Where did you go wrong Baroness Young?

It struck me that with all the talk of fighting and change at Labours' Brighton Bash and more to come with the Tories I dug out an open letter to Baroness Young which hopefully she left behind for her sucessor as Chair of the Environment Agency. You have to realise that the Baroness, a very busy woman by all accounts, never did respond to letters but hopefully the youing turks in the Tory Party will see the value of doing something positive and practical about flooding and pollution in general, rather than just chatting about it whilst houses fall into the sea.

Dear Baroness Young,Former Chair of the UK Environment Agency:
In response to your interview in The Daily Telegraph.
As an ex-environment agency foot soldier circa in the year 2000. I am increasingly worried not about the flooding, but over your own view as to what is going on. You seem to be retreating to your upper (safe from all forms of flood risk) floor Millbank Towers eyrie and safe from the real world.

You say that you lie awake at night worrying about our cities and so you should. It is a wonder that you are still in post but you were the vice chairman of the BBC Governors and true to BBC tradition, obviously a resignation was out of the question and so ideally suited for the Environment Agency but you might like to take on board some of the remedial strategies as designed for the BBC and proffered by Jeff Randall earlier in the week.

Far from distancing any thoughts of building further on flood plains, you endorsed Yvette Coopers crazy and dangerous plans to build on them but of course provided they are built properly???? Baroness, building on a flood plain,any flood plain, will increase flooding however you put the spin on it.

You know this but you offer the amazing advice that electrics should come in at upper floor level ( and sockets at ground floor ceiling level? And waterproof finishes on the ground floor. You did say that didn’t you so its carte blanche for flooding in the future.

It was at the start of your tenure in the year 2000, you urged us all to back ‘the men on the sluice gate.’ It was then your main battle cry. You were equally aware way back then, flooding was a major issue – you told us so - equally you impressed on us all that the environment agency had many other more urgent high visibility matters to worry about.

Did you actually know what was happening during your watch? There was the constant squabble for bigger and better cars, team leaders would move up a grade and get a better car. Support local industries so the EA renews its Toyotas and foreign 4WD trucks every twelve months. Ensure that EA has not one but at least three external public relations agencies working on a rota basis; when you have armies of experienced but hogtied, frustrated PR and corporate communications teams at each regional headquarters. This resulted in many going on long term sick leave, but the headcount, if you get my drift, remained the same.

There were countless grand openings, for sluices and locks and some minor engineering works, why the Environment Agency even owns a PUBLIC HOUSE at Boston!

Activities countering Pollution, fly tipping, global warming issues, prosecuting water companies (brilliant for extra press and media exposure) and other transgressors, handing out fishing licences. And for good measure the odd bit of reed cutting.

You had however given up on dredging activities to the levels that the National Rivers Authority once thought were essential and told your staff that many coastal properties would not be defended.

You demanded that people in flood sensitive areas had to physically register with the EA in order to get a tlephone warning that flooding was imminent. The system became so discredited that at one point the Met. Office, BBC and ITV during weather bulletins refused to carry your telephone numbers and even today the BBC and the met office still direct those at risk to their own websites for information.
Some water companies prefer to get their flood information directly from the Met Office direct rather than the EA, including Severn Trent . You knew that if we didn’t spend our year on year budget to the hilt it would be cut the following year, you knew that the existing flood defence budget was being underspent and under manned.

You demanded the flood defence teams to hold back as the administrators insisted that every other year new office furniture, interoffice video conferencing systems and regularly upgraded computer systems were prime essentials. You insisted on an ever increasing number of administrators to be employed and write reports, produce mountains of publications that will never be read, could not be verified and will be outdated in a few months. Rather than throw them out they are stored away from prying eyes. But you have to admit your policy is working even that David Cameron thinks the Environment Agency is physically involved in flood defence but in reality the EA does very little; more a luxury advisory service.

You spend mountains of money on team building and receptions at luxury hotels, in fact the administrators number many thousand when there is just 1,600 working directly on flood defence work so take out the administrators and that leaves around 800 who actually get their feet wet in raw stinking sewage. Admittedly you’ve drafted in some extra bodies but they although employed by the EA know precious little about flood defence work and none have ever physically got their hands dirty or their feet wet.

We knew back in the year 2000 that the mobile transportable flood barrier was a public relations exercise and would make good media pictures and newsreel footage. We even employed a bunch of clowns a so called ad.agency based in London called Circus but in reality the assembled EA Press officers found out they were anything but funny and in fact would tell us all how to approach the whole flood question.

It involved little model sandbags as giveaways for the proess , specially printed environmentally friendly notepaper (with a picture of a toy coloured sandbag) and a metal stamped floodline Key fob.

You blamed the drainage systems, in fact you blamed everyone - I suggest – to deflect attention away from the EA as all the other response services, water companies and utilities have just got on with it or turned their backs on the EA. Norfolk Constabulary refused to physically warn people at risk in rural Norfolk citing manpower shortages, the Met Office pushed their own weather forecasting services, as this was a brilliant commercial revenue earner and really wanted little to do with the EA.

The call centres on the 0845 number and the flood centres could not cope either with call volumes and the flood centres were consistently behind the times as the EA was consistently late in issuing warnings, so that when warnings were issued it was time to run upstairs, grab the dog and cat and wait for the RAF rescue helicopter.

My remedy? Strip out the whole former Rivers Authority function from DEFRA and the EA, set up a new national body controlling all aspects of water supply, regulation of foreign own private water companies and utilities processing, coast and inland waterways, flood prevention first then defence. Increase physical man power on the sluice gates dredging and red cutting getting our waterways back to 1970’s levels and ensuing that already laid down government standards are achieved and not the lesser standards introduced by the EA. All this will cost £1 Billion for a period of 8 years or put another way the same amount that Ruth Kelly (now departed) is wanting to spend….on railway carriages.

Yours sincerely Julian Bray ex Environment Agency







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