Floods: Environment Agency job cuts back on agenda

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 posts would be cut during the flooding crisis, according to unions.

David Cameron chats with soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment in Upton-Upon-Severn. Picture: PA
David Cameron chats with soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment in Upton-Upon-Severn. Picture: PA

The GMB said a meeting has been arranged for Thursday, when it understands a timetable will be discussed for making up to 1,700 redundancies.

The move comes after the EA announced last week that any job cuts would be put on hold as it dealt with the widespread flooding, a position reinforced by David Cameron yesterday as he visited areas affected by the bad weather. A GMB spokesman said: “The meeting will discuss how the delay impacts on the timetable for job losses. This is ludicrous. Has the government learned nothing?

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“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 …to maintain, service and run these vital defences.”

The development came as it emerged the Prime Minister aims to visit every flood-hit area “to try and learn lessons”. Mr Cameron defended the government’s handling of the crisis and hit back at criticism 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 been done.

He described the floods as a “tragedy” while unveiling £10 million support for flood-hit businesses to 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. “When the bad weather and flooding started before Christmas in Norfolk, we had Cobra 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 the flood investment that went in after 2007 has made a real difference, with hundreds of properties protected.”

He added government spending on flood defences had been increased to £2.4 billion in the current four-year period – a rise of £200m on the previous amount under the Labour government. Mr Cameron praised the impact of the defences, including those in Upton where a £4.5m barrier and road protection scheme built after devastating floods in 2007 has protected 64 homes and businesses from being inundated during the recent winter storms.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond also defended the government’s “proper response” to the storms, but he conceded the military could have been brought in sooner.

He said Royal Engineers would now be sent in to perform fast-track inspections of defences damaged by flooding, tidal surges and gales of up to 100mph, which have battered the UK, and left large areas of the south-west of England and the Thames Valley under water.

Many communities in the worst-hit areas remain on high alert, with rivers and flood plains still swollen with water and more bad weather forecast. Mr Hammond said about 3,000 troops have been deployed to assist flood-hit communities, with another 5,000 on standby.

It was yesterday revealed offenders have been drafted in to help residents on the flooded Somerset Levels by filling hundreds of sandbags.

The Probation Service is supervising the work, which is being carried out by offenders on community payback schemes. Seven offenders have shifted 14 tonnes of sand and filled 600 bags, while five others filled 750. The work was carried out at the Sedgemoor District Council depot in Bridgwater.

Denise Day, community payback team manager, said: “They can all identify with the plight of flood victims – most of them are local and are affected by the floods in some way.” The offenders have all been handed community service sentences of between 40 and 300 hours.

Last night, Kath Evans, flood risk manager at the EA, said the situation was generally improving but warned that groundwater could continue to blight many areas. She said it could be six months before river and water levels returned to normal in areas such as Kent, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset.

But severe flood warnings along the Thames were being downgraded to normal flood warnings yesterday afternoon, meaning lives were no longer at risk, although the stronger warnings remained in place in the Somerset Levels.

Four high-volume water pumps that were switched off over the weekend in Somerset had been redeployed with help from Dutch engineers. Ms Evans said there was no longer a risk to coastal areas from bad weather.

Together with the military, fire and rescue services and others on the ground, the EA has put in place 50 portable defences that have protected 1,169 properties from flooding since the new year, she said.

Ms Evans said: “The outlook for the coming week is that we will continue to see some high water levels in our rivers and, certainly along the Thames and the Severn, we are expecting a bit more rainfall today which is going to keep those levels high.

“It is generally an improving situation.”

Police also last night launched 24-hour boat patrols to help residents and prevent crime on the flooded Somerset Levels.

Avon and Somerset Police will work with Devon and Somerset fire and rescue service and the RNLI to run the patrols. Two inflatable lifeboats have been provided by the RNLI, while 15 volunteers from the Welsh RNLI flood rescue team have travelled to Somerset.

Leading insurers head for Downing Street summit on recovery efforts

Flood victims have received £14 million in emergency insurance payments so far, industry chiefs said as they prepared for a summit with ministers to discuss their response to the crisis.

Senior representatives of leading firms are due at 10 Downing Street for talks over the government’s calls for a “stepped-up national effort” to deal with the impact of the extreme weather. They have been asked to demonstrate what efforts they are making to help households get back on their feet “as quick and as simple as possible”, No10 said.

On top of the £14m in successful claims – each typically between £500 and £3,000 – some £24m has been paid out for emergency accommodation, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) said. More than 2,000 loss adjusters were “ready and waiting” to assess the damage when the flood waters had subsided sufficiently, it said – and 1,800 staff had been reassigned to deal with customer queries. The sheer scale of the likely claims has raised fears of rising premiums wiping out recent falls. Summer floods in 2007 resulted in a hit of more than £3 billion.

Flooding minister Dan Rogerson said: “Insurers have a critical role to play and, by working closely together, we will continue to ensure that the help and support which people need is available.”

The chief executives of Aviva, Direct Line Group, Axa, Lloyds Banking Group and Ageas, the claims director of RSA and underwriting director of Axa are due to attend the summit, representing 60 per cent of the market. ABI director general Otto Thoresen will also join Mr Rogerson, Cabinet Office ministers Oliver Letwin and Jo Johnson and communities minister Brandon Lewis.