Army vehicles may give floods aid

Times Series: The swollen Cuckmere River heads towards Alfriston, East Sussex, as more heavy rain sweeps across the country The swollen Cuckmere River heads towards Alfriston, East Sussex, as more heavy rain sweeps across the country

Specialist Army vehicles could be drafted in to help tackle flooding, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is in talks to deploy equipment and manpower to help those in affected areas by delivering food, transporting people and delivering sandbags.

It comes after David Cameron said rapid action is needed to deal with the flooding in the Somerset Levels, and also warned Whitehall that arguments must not hold up help for residents in devastated areas.

The Prime Minister said dredging of rivers would start as soon as the present waters could be reduced to a safe level and promised extra pumps to help speed up the process.

And he told MPs he would "rule nothing out" in dealing with the situation as the Government's emergency Cobra committee met again to find ways to ease the situation.

Speaking to the BBC this evening, Mr Paterson said: "As we speak, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Local Government are discussing how we could deploy specialist vehicles which could help some of those villages which have been cut off, to help people travel backwards and forwards, to get fuel and food in and out, and to help with transport from dry land.

"And secondly, there will also be help with sand bags which could help prevent further flooding."

Mr Paterson said the county council asked for assistance "for the first time today" and echoed the Prime Minister's assertions that dredging would take place as soon as it is safe.

He added: "I'm delighted that the Prime Minister's been so helpful backing what I agreed on Sunday evening."

Mr Paterson said he met local councillors, local MPs, local farmers and local businesses, and said they agreed a plan.

Farmers, politicians and church leaders are demanding immediate action to alleviate what furious residents describe as "Third World" conditions.

Many parts of the Levels have been flooded since Christmas and there are fears it could be many months before the water is completely pumped away.

Drainage experts blame two decades of under-investment in flood defence work for turning the Levels into a "disaster area" and said it was "very, very urgent" that rivers are dredged to prevent more damage to homes, livelihoods and wildlife.

The Environment Agency has come under fire from MPs and local councils, but insists that increased dredging of the rivers would not have prevented the recent flooding and was "often not the best long-term or economic solution".

Local MPs Jeremy Browne and David Heath - both Liberal Democrats - confronted the Prime Minister at Commons questions over what was being done.

Mr Cameron paid tribute to the efforts made so far by agency staff, the emergency services and the local flood wardens to restore normal life.

"But we now need to move more rapidly to the issues like dredging which I think will help to make a long-term difference," he said.

He told MPs: "It is not currently safe to dredge in the Levels.

"But I can confirm that dredging will start as soon as it is practical, as soon as the waters have started to come down.

"The Environment Agency is pumping as much water as is possible given the capacity of the rivers around the Levels but I have ordered that further high-volume pumps from the Department for Communities and Local Government 's national reserve will be made available to increase the volume of the pumping operation as soon as there is capacity in the rivers to support that.

"We are urgently exploring what further help the Government can give local residents to move around and I rule nothing out in the days ahead to get this problem sorted."

He was pressed by Mr Heath to ensure other Whitehall departments - including Transport, Communities and Local Government, and the Treasury - played their part.

"This does need to be a whole Government effort because what I don't want to see is dredging work being held up by arguments in other departments," Mr Cameron told him.

"We have got to crack this problem."

John Osman, leader of Somerset County Council, welcomed Mr Cameron's announcement.

"This is just what we wanted to hear from the Prime Minister," he said. "We have lobbied hard to get national attention, we are in a major incident due to the extent and length of time that much of the county is flooded.

"Now we have the PM behind us, people can start to believe that real action, dredging the rivers, sorting the drainage systems, protecting our communities will really happen.

"I am delighted to hear this."

Mr Cameron's announcement was welcomed by campaign groups fighting to end the flooding on the Somerset Levels, including the Flooding on the Levels Action Group (Flag) and the Stop the Floods group.

John Williams, leader of Taunton Deane Borough Council, said: "I am delighted by the Prime Minister's announcement. Communities on the Levels desperately need a lifeline.

"Taunton Deane Borough Council is pledging to commit £50,000 towards the cost of dredging as we fully recognise the seriousness of the flooding.

"I also welcome the promise of immediate help while the flooding remains and the longer-term support to mitigate flooding in the future.

"Communities on the Levels and Moors are suffering greatly, with homes and farmland under water for weeks.

"People's livelihoods are at stake. It is high time we saw action rather than reports.

"Whatever is done needs to be in partnership with each of the councils and agencies involved to try to find a long-term solution to the extreme events we are experiencing now.

"The distress and hardship of those afflicted or even in fear of being flooded is incalculable and we must do all possible to remove, or at least reduce, this fear from people's lives."

Last year, the Royal Bath and West of England Society launched a fundraising campaign to pay for the dredging of the Tone and Parrett rivers, which is estimated to cost initially £3 million.

Edwin White, chairman of the society's agricultural policy group, welcomed Mr Cameron's announcement but said water management of the Somerset Levels should be given back to local people from the Environment Agency.

"It is at last some good news for the county because there wasn't certainty with Owen Paterson's statement," he said.

"And now we do have certainty and it has got to be very good news."

Mr White said the announcement would allow detailed plans for the dredging to be drawn up now.

"Some people don't realise that you cannot start dredging the rivers at this time of year - it has to be done in the spring, summer or autumn," he said.

"It will be very, very important that all of us - conservationists, farmers, the agencies, local councils and all the experts - can come together and draw up a plan.

"The Government and the Environment Agency has failed to dredge the rivers over the last few years and the whole system of water management in Somerset over the last 50 years, prior to the Environment Agency taking over in 1995, was all effectively run.

"It might be rather controversial but I do think an awful lot of people will be calling for the Levels to be given back to Somerset as we would be able to make a much better job of it.

"This is a mid-term goal and is not something that just happens as the funding has to be in place and quite a lot of work done on that."

Mr White added: "The Environment Agency has failed miserably and I think the Government ought to welcome with open arms some self-help from within the community."

An MoD spokeswoman said: "We have tonight deployed military planners to help Somerset County Council determine what support they might need."

She added they would be in the county to assess what was required in time for first light.

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