10 Feb 2014

Thames flooding fears: thousands of homes at risk

Fourteen new severe flood warnings are in place along the River Thames, as the Environment Agency chief blames Treasury funding rules for the failure to dredge rivers.

The Environment Agency head Lord Smith has blamed Treasury funding rules for failures to dredge rivers – and says he has no intention of resigning.
David Cameron praised Environment Agency staff “on the ground” and said “it isn’t time for a change of personnel”.
His comments follow criticsm of the EA by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles on Sunday.
– The government has denied a split between Eric Pickles and Owen Paterson, after Lord Smith said he had Mr Paterson’s full support.
Fourteen severe flood warnings are in place along the River Thames
The Met Office has issued ice and snow warnings in east England and other parts of the UK
A further two severe flood warnings are in in place in the south west of England
National Rail is warning of disruption to travel in the south west, due to flooding

Thousands of homeowners along the River Thames have been told to prepare for “significant flooding” as 14 new severe flood warnings were issued on Monday morning, meaning lives are at risk.

Flooding is expected along a 12 mile stretch of the river through Berkshire and Surrey, and the severe flood warnings affect the areas in and around Staines, Egham, Chertsey and Datchet. Water levels are predicted to reach record heights, surpassing the floods of 2003.

Another two severe flood warnings are in place on the Somerset Levels, where already flooded areas are expected to be saturated even further. Less severe flood warnings are also in place along the River Severn, in Worcester.

Flooding has caused major disruption to some rail routes, and commuters are being urged to check before they travel. South West Trains, CrossCountry and First Great Western have also warned of major delays.

Treasury funding in the spotlight

The warnings of further flooding came as the row between the EA and the government escalated. The chairman of the Environment Agency (EA) has come under criticism, including from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles on Sunday, for not doing enough to prevent the effects of the heavy rain.

But Lord Smith on Monday issued a feisty rebuff, insisting his staff knew “a hundred times” more than any politician, and that Treasury funding rules were to blame for the failure to dredge rivers – something that critics say would have prevented the worst flooding.

“The EA is bound by the rules that are laid down by the Government. So when someone says that we followed the advice of the EA, what they were actually doing is following the Treasury rules that say how much we can spend and how much we cannot spend on any individual flood defence scheme,” he said.

The former Labour Cabinet minister said the EA was previously permitted to allocate only £400,000 to Somerset, and no other funding came forward.

Pickles/Paterson split?

His comments follow Mr Pickles blaming the EA for the scale of the damage in the Somerset Levels, saying that the government “perhaps relied too much on the EA’s advice”.

In comments that have prompted rumours of a government split, Lord Smith added that Environment Secretary Owen Paterson had been very supportive of the agency, despite Mr Pickles’ comments.

A spokeswoman for Owen Paterson denied any split with Mr Pickles. “Owen and Eric both agree there should have been more dredging in Somerset,” she said.

“They are working closely to deal with the problems caused by floods and severe weather – and to help the businesses and families affected.”

Residents in Staines-upon-Thames were woken in the morning by telephone flood alerts today, as the water edged closer to homes on Laleham Road.

Denise Bristow, 63, said: “We’ve been living here for 30 years and we’ve never seen it so high. We got a phone call from the Environment Agency at 7.30am with a flood alert. It is concerning. What will happen if it gets into the houses? You can’t move everything. What if you’ve got heavy furniture?”

In Walton-upon-Thames, one resident told Channel 4 News he was stocking up on sandbags after waking up to rising water levels. But he said the EA could be doing more to help. “The water’s been coming up steadily, and we don’t really have much information on what’s going to happen,” he said. “Try and go on the EA website, and it tells you that there’s a flood warning, and that’s expected to continue, but we’ve no real idea what’s going to happen.”

Photo: A change to the normal morning commute in Dachet, where the Thames river banks have burst.

2,500 homes at risk

The Environment Agency said the Thames warnings stretched “from Datchet to Shepperton Green, including Ham Court and Chertsey, as river levels in the area are extremely high and are forecast to continue to rise”.

Police said 2,500 homes were at risk and officials were knocking doors to warn residents of what was to come. The Ministry of Defence has put 1,600 personnel on six hours’ notice to help in the south.

There are more than 230 low-level flood alerts and more than 150 medium-risk warnings in place across Wales and central and southern England with severe weather expected throughout the week.

The Met Office warned that river levels are expected to continue rising along the Thames, the Severn and the Dorset Stour this week.

Floods as ‘political football’

EA Chief Lord Smith has also accused ministers of “getting in the way” of vital work to deal with devastating floods by turning the crisis into a political row.

He said that politicians had undermined the work and reputation of the agency in an attempt to get the media on their side.

“What really saddens me, though, is seeing the Environment Agency’s work and expertise in flood-risk management, internationally respected and locally praised in many parts of the country, being used as a political football for a good media story,” he wrote in an article for the Guardian.

“In a lifetime in public life, I’ve never seen the same sort of storm of background briefing, personal sniping and media frenzy getting in the way of decent people doing a valiant job trying to cope with unprecedented natural forces. Our staff have worked their hearts out in order to protect as many people as possible in the face of extreme weather.”