Environment jobs 'still set to go'

Updated: 

Prime Minister David Cameron chats with soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment in Upton-Upon-Severn, where he is meeting local people and members of the military to discuss flooding measures and work in the community. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday February 17, 2014. See PA story WEATHER Floods. Photo credit should read: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

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".

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.

He described the floods as a "tragedy" while unveiling £10 million 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."

He added that Government spending on flood defences had been increased to £2.4 billion in the current four-year period - an rise of £200 million over the previous spending period under the Labour government.

Mr Cameron praised the impact of the defences, including those in Upton where a £4.5 million barrier and road protection scheme built after floods devestated the town in 2007 has successfully protected 64 homes and businesses from being inundated during the recent winter storms.

Yesterday, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond defended the Government's "proper response" to the storms but he also conceded the military could have been brought in sooner.

He said the Royal Engineers would now be sent in to fast-track inspections of flood 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 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 is forecast.

Mr Hammond added that about 3,000 troops have been deployed to assist flood-hit communities, with another 5,000 on standby.

Among those soldiers are B company of 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment who have been using high-axle troop carriers to run residents in Upton across the river since Saturday morning.

Mr Cameron met members of the unit and praised what has affectionally been called by locals the "Upton Express".

Addressing the troops, he said: "I've been hearing about your fantastic bus service - it's very popular, I gather. I'm glad you're here."

Upton has the unenviable record of being one of the most flooded towns in England and has been inundated more than half a dozen times in the last 11 years and almost 80 times since 1970.

Later, Mr Cameron went to the Queen's Head in Longford, near Gloucester, to meet local residents who have set up a flood warden scheme.

The Prime Minister spoke with members of the community including David Walker, who runs a team of 30 manning the local volunteer water rescue team, the Mercia Inshore Search and Rescue Association
(MISAR).

He told Mr Cameron they had been working non-stop, checking on 15 families in flooded homes right on the river, delivering groceries, and transporting an 86-year-old woman to hospital.

"However, while we were busy helping others, sadly our own station in the town was flooded with a metre of water and we've lost a bit of equipment," he said.

The network of volunteer urban, mountain and waterborne search and rescue teams has been playing a large part in the current national relief effort supporting the emergency services, he added.

Mr Walker said he felt the Army could have been sent in more quickly, and in future could be better co-ordinated with the existing civil emergency system of gold, silver and bronze commanders.

Mr Cameron was told by the Environment Agency's Dafydd Evans that flood defences all along the swollen River Severn had stopped 1,400 homes and businesses from flooding, compared with 2007.

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.

Another spell of rain is expected in the South West today, the Met Office said, with 0.4in (10mm) to 0.8in (20mm) falling quite widely and up to 1.6in (40mm) over higher ground, exacerbating the problems for areas that are already flooded.

The 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.

There are still widespread delays on many rail services, with Arriva Trains Wales, Chiltern Railways, CrossCountry, First Great Western (FGW), London Midland, South West Trains, Southeastern and Southern all reporting major delays.

Insurance companies are to attend a meeting in 10 Downing Street tomorrow to discuss their response to the flooding crisis with Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin and the head of Mr Cameron's policy unit, Jo Johnson.

The meeting will also discuss the industry's proactive efforts to contact customers who may be affected by floods and to ensure the speedy processing of claims and the prompt provision of equipment such as dehumidifiers to dry out homes, said the spokesman.

Mr Cameron's spokesman was questioned at a regular Westminster press briefing over whether the departure of Energy Secretary Ed Davey on two weeks' paternity leave on Friday would hamper the Government's response to electricity blackouts suffered by thousands of households.

The spokesman said that "of course" the Prime Minister supported fathers' decisions to take paternity leave in line with legislation.

Mr Cameron is expected to chair the latest meeting of Cobra in Whitehall when he returns to London this afternoon.

Some 600 homes were still without power as a result of the severe weather, but one million customers have seen their electricity reconnected.

Tony Glover, of the Energy Networks Association, said firms had been "working round the clock", with more than 1,000 engineers out in the field at any one time.

At a briefing in London, he said: "Across the electricity network we are seeing a return to normal.

"We have seen weather over the last few days which is almost unprecedented, we have seen levels of devastation on parts of the electricity network that have not been seen for decades."

The remaining homes without power are mainly in flooded areas, where power can only be restored once it is safe to do so, he added.

Places at most risk of flooding in Britain

Places at most risk of flooding in Britain