Flood defences 'saved lives' says Sir Philip Dilley during Westminster grilling
Environment Agency chairman Sir Philip Dilley has admitted he should have returned earlier from holiday to deal with flooding, as MPs heard evidence on the recent devastating floods.
Sir Philip, who faced criticism that he was on holiday in Barbados over Christmas while floods hit parts of the country told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee that he wished he had come home as early as possible.
He took responsibility for a press statement which had said he was at home, when he was at his family house in the Caribbean, but insisted his absence - while distracting focus from flood-affected communities - had not affected the agency's performance.
The Environment Agency boss was giving evidence after residents of Cumbria, where communities were devastated by the first of a series of intense rain storms which hit the UK last month, told MPs their county had been "catastropically" affected.
And as more warnings come of possible flood risk with further heavy rain, the Government was accused by Labour of failing to prioritise flood prevention despite the risks it posed to the country and repeatedly disregarding expert advice on flooding.
Shadow environment secretary Kerry McCarthy told the Commons ministers were still refusing to provide long term certainty on maintaining flood defences and called for a complete rethink on flood management.
Sir Philip praised the effectiveness of flood defence schemes in preventing deaths and more serious damage to homes and businesses in the recent floods, in which 16,000 homes were inundated and roads and bridges swept away.
He told the Efra committee: " The story in many places is the defences we had were tested beyond their design.
"They didn't fail, they protected properties against flooding that would have occurred had they not been there, and most importantly they gave a little more time for people to rescue precious possessions and to get out.
"They undoubtedly saved lives."
On his actions he said: "Could I have come back earlier by one or two days, with hindsight do I wish I had? Yes. But I don't feel guilty of leaving it many weeks."
December ended up as the wettest month in records stretching back more than a hundred years for the UK, with almost double the normal amount of rainfall falling nationwide.
And there is still no let-up for some areas, with heavy rain and showers expected across England and Wales overnight and through Thursday morning.
But Sir James Bevan, the Environment Agency's chief executive told the Efra Committee that the situation was gradually improving across Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire, which have been hit by a series of devastating floods in the past month.
The agency was watching the weather very carefully, as more rain falling on already saturated ground could cause further flooding, and staff were focusing on repairing damaged flood defences and helping communities rebuild, he said.
"It's heartbreaking to see what has happened to these communities, to people's homes, communities, businesses, daily lives," he said.
"It's not just damage to businesses, it's damage to people, to the economy."
He said it was inspiring to see how communities were dealing with the floods and paid tribute to the spirit of Environment Agency staff for their work over the past month.
When asked about the public expectation of the Environment Agency, he said: "There's no such thing as 100% protection against floods for everybody and we are in the territory of managing risk and not preventing floods.
"But just because we can't prevent all floods doesn't mean we shouldn't try to lower the risk to the lowest possible level."
He said local communities and flood groups could "take ownership" of their own flood risk, while other preventative measures could include building new flood defences and warning people when they are at risk.
Quizzed on whether flooding was enough of a priority for the Environment Agency, which also has a number of other responsibilities, Sir James insisted that it was.
"The top priority for us is the protection of lives and property," he said, adding that the agency needed to be fit to deal with the kind of crisis seen in recent weeks."
And he said reactionary measures were "not a substitute for long-term strategic action".
He told the panel: "Everyone that I've spoken to in the affected communities said the same thing: something is different, we have never had something like this before.
"That means we have to think differently."
He said the Government's national flood resilience review, launched last month to better protect the country from future flooding and increasingly extreme weather events, would be concluded by the summer.
He added: "We face a very big challenge now in an era of more extreme weather, and the way to deal with the challenges is to deal with them together."