Eric Pickles has admitted the UK government made a “mistake” in not dredging rivers to prevent flooding, but blamed the Environment Agency for giving poor advice.
The Communities Secretary, who has taken charge of the response to the crisis which has hit communities in the south of England, issued an unreserved apology to those affected in the Somerset Levels.
Repeated calls for dredging were made to Downing Street and other Whitehall departments by farmers and others in the region at least six months ago, but funding was refused.
Mr Pickles said: “We made a mistake, there’s no doubt about that, and perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency’s advice.
“We recognise that we should have dredged and I think it is important now that we get on with the process of getting those people back into their houses once we are able to really do some serious pumping.”
Mr Pickles has criticised under-fire EA chairman Lord Smith for refusing to apologise for the failures when he was besieged by angry residents on a visit to Somerset.Asked if Prime Minister David Cameron should also apologise, Mr Pickles said: “I’ll apologise. I’ll apologise unreservedly.”
The Prince of Wales, Mr Cameron and the Environment Secretary have all visited the Levels in recent weeks. The latest politician to do so was Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who yesterday demanded a public inquiry and reiterated calls for the government to compensate victims. He denied his visit was “political opportunism”.
Mr Cameron is to chair a meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee this afternoon as forecasters warn of another week of storms. There are nearly 300 low-level flood alerts and almost 200 medium-risk warnings in place across Wales and central and southern England.