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  1. Politics
10 February 2014

Cameron hints that Chris Smith could be removed as Environment Agency chair

The PM says "there will be time later on to talk about these things" when asked if he supports Smith.

By George Eaton

As the political blame game over the floods continues, David Cameron has put Environment Agency chair Chris Smith on notice. Asked during a visit to the luckless south west whether he backed Smith, he said: “This is not the time to change personnel. Everyone’s got to focus on the job in hand. I’m only interested in one thing: everything the government can do is being done to help people, help businesses, help farmers.” But he notably added: “There will be time later on to talk about these things [resignations]”. 

The former Labour cabinet minister is due to stand down when his term ends in July (with no chance of reppointment) but Cameron’s words suggest he could be collecting his P45 rather earlier (he has said he has “no intention” of resigning). 

Smith has not handled the affair well, waiting two months before finally visiting the Somerset Levels. But it’s worth reading his riposte to ministers in today’s Guardian in which he rightly points out how spending cuts have weakened Britain’s flood defences. He writes:

It’s important, though, to realise a fundamental constraint on us. It’s not only the overall allocation for flood defence work that limits what we can do. There is also a limit on the amount we can contribute to any individual scheme, determined by a benefit-to-cost rule imposed on us by the Treasury.
 
Take, for example, the highly visible issue of the dredging of the rivers on the Somerset Levels.
 
Last year, after the 2012 floods, we recognised the local view that taking silt out of the two main rivers would help to carry water away faster after a flood.
The Environment Agency put £400,000 on the table to help with that work – the maximum amount the Treasury rules allowed us to do. The additional funds from other sources that would be needed didn’t come in.
 
So when politicians start saying it’s Environment Agency advice or decisions that are to blame, they need to realise that it’s in fact government rules – laid down by successive governments, Labour and Tory – that are at the heart of the problem.
The public, meanwhile, are happy to spread the blame equally. A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times found that 62 per cent believe Cameron has handled the floods badly (25 per cent believe he has handled them well), compared to 64 per cent who believe the Environment Agency has handled them badly. Slightly more (31 per cent) believe that Smith should remain in his job than believe he should resign (29 per cent). What is clear is that the appearance of a blame game is destructive for all sides. As Ed Miliband remarked today, “It is a disgrace that you have government ministers today pointing the finger at each other when they should be rolling their sleeves up and helping those who are affected.” 
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