17 Feb 2014

More bad weather on the way, have we learnt our lesson?

David Cameron defends the government’s handling of the flood crisis and says lessons need to be learned during a visit to storm-damaged parts of Britain.

  • Swathes of the UK remain on high alert as people battle to protect their homes and communities from the floodwaters, which are still expected to rise in places despite yesterday’s calmer conditions.
  • Sporadic rain is expected in the coming days, bringing fears of the possibility of water levels rising once again, but forecasters are predicted a largely drier week ahead.
  • The Environment Agency (EA) said 16 severe flood warnings remain in place for the South West and the Thames Valley, with nearly 130 flood warnings and more than 180 flood alerts.
  • Two people died on Friday – James Swinstead, 85, an elderly passenger on a cruise ship in the English Channel, and minicab driver Julie Sillitoe, 49, whose car was hit by falling masonry in central London.
  • A 20-year-old pregnant woman and her unborn baby, from Tredegar, south Wales, also died in a crash on the A465 between Brynmawr and Garnlydan.
  • Firefighter Clifford Cox, 53,died of an apparent heart attack while on duty in a flood-hit area on Saturday night, but it is unclear whether there was any link to the storms.

Mr Cameron said on Monday he would aim to to visit every flood-hit area around the country “to try and learn lessons” after speaking with residents in one of the country’s most flooded towns.

Mr Cameron defended the government’s handling of the crisis and hit back at criticism that he was visiting places such as Upton-upon-Severn in Worcestershire, where the army was deployed after the town was cut in two by floodwaters, only after the damage had already been done.

Earlier, he described the floods as a “tragedy” while unveiling £10m of support for flood-hit businesses to help them keep trading.

Mr Cameron said it was not fair to suggest the government was on the back foot over its handling of unprecedented national flooding, adding that the Cobra emergency committee had been meeting since water levels started rising before Christmas.

“I don’t really think that’s fair at all,” he said of criticism.

“When the bad weather and flooding started before Christmas in Norfolk, we had Cobra – the emergency committee – meet then.

“Then it met again after Christmas to talk about the problems in Kent and Somerset.

“I visited Norfolk and I’ve been up in Blackpool, here now in the West Midlands, and in the West Country.

“I’ll try to get to every part of the country that’s been affected so that we can learn all the lessons.

“But here in Worcestershire we can recognise that the flood investment that went in after 2007 has made a real difference, with hundreds of properties protected.”

Mr Cameron who met residents, volunteers and troops in flood-hit parts of Worcestershire and Gloucestershire on Monday said he was hopeful that the work to strengthen long-term flood defences put in place “will mean that we can minimise the number of homes and businesses affected by the latest high water levels”.

Dutch help

On Friday Channel 4 News revealed that that Dutch emergency flood relief has been turned down because British authorities said it was not needed.

Several Dutch authorities involved with the talks confirmed that concrete offers of material aid were declined, says Channel 4 News Producer Nanette Van der Laan.

“We told the British government that we would help in any way we could,” said Ursula Meering, spokeswoman of the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment.

“We told the British government that we had pumps, emergency dykes and sand bag-filling machines available, but they said there was no need for any of this help at present. They said they only needed expertise, so we have sent a team of four dyke experts to the UK.”

Peter Glas, Chairman of Regional Water Authorities in the Netherlands said on Dutch news channel RTL Nieuws: “It’s up to the English government to determine when they would like to make use of our offer.”

On Sunday, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond defended the government’s handling of the crisis but admitted the military could have been brought in earlier to help deal with the winter storms that have wracked the country and claimed a number of lives.

He said Royal Engineers were now being tasked to carry out a high-speed assessment of “serious” damage to the UK’s flood defence infrastructure but conceded that in future the government would involve the military earlier in the process and be more “aggressive” in urging local authorities to use troops.

Environment Agency

Controversial plans to axe jobs at the Environment Agency are to be raised at fresh talks this week despite assurances from the prime minister that no jobs would be cut during the current flooding crisis, according to unions.

The GMB said a meeting has been arranged for Thursday at which they believe a timetable will be discussed for pressing ahead with up to 1,700 redundancies.

Last week the Environment Agency (EA) announced that any job cuts would be put on hold as it dealt with the effects of widespread flooding, a position reinforced by David Cameron as he visited areas affected by the bad weather.

The GMB said it was clear the agency would press on with redundancies after the floods have receded.

A spokesman said: “The meeting will discuss how the delay impacts on the timetable for job losses. This is ludicrous. Has the Government learned nothing from the current floods?

“At the root of the current flooding crisis are successive years of central government cuts that have trimmed maintenance budgets to unsustainable levels.

“Government must immediately reverse the cut of 1,700 EA jobs. This should be followed by an independent inquiry into what are the realistic funding levels necessary to ensure the EA has both the capital budget to protect the country from flooding and drought and a big enough revenue budget to maintain, service and run these vital defences.”

The development came as it emerged that the Prime Minister will aim to visit every flood-hit area around the country “to try and learn lessons”.

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