Heavy rain and floods stir up political storm

Environment Agency issues 14 severe flood warnings for the Thames to the west of London

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 9:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 2:10am

Thousands of homes in southeast England were braced for flooding yesterday after the River Thames burst its banks, as a political row over the handling of devastating winter storms erupted into the open.

The Environment Agency issued 14 severe flood warnings - meaning lives are at risk - for the Thames in the affluent counties of Surrey and Berkshire to the west of London.

I am sorry we took the advice ... we thought we were dealing with experts

Some areas are already under water, including parts of the Great Windsor Park, near Queen Elizabeth's castle at Windsor, which itself is built on higher ground.

London itself is protected by the Thames Barrier, although a suburb to the south of the capital, Croydon, announced plans to divert rising floodwaters caused by heavy rain away from homes and businesses by pumping them into a pedestrian underpass.

Parts of the southwest of England have been under water for weeks after the wettest January since 1766, with more bad weather expected.

There has been a growing tide of criticism at the official response, which has erupted into a full-blown political row.

Many people in Somerset, one of the hardest-hit counties, blame the devastating floods on the failure of the Environment Agency to dredge local rivers.

Communities Minister Eric Pickles, standing in for Environment Secretary Owen Paterson who's recovering from surgery, joined the attack on Sunday, suggesting the government "perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency's advice" on flood prevention.

"I am really sorry that we took the advice ... we thought we were dealing with experts," Pickles, a member of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party, told BBC TV.

Environment Agency head Chris Smith hit back yesterday and accused ministers of holding back vital funds.

"When I hear someone criticising the expertise and professionalism of my staff in the Environment Agency who know more about flood risk management - 100 times more about flood risk management - than any politician ever does, I am not going to sit idly by," he said.

Cameron steered clear of the row yesterday.

"This is a time for everyone to get on with the jobs that they have," Cameron said as he visited Portland in Dorset on his second visit to flooded areas in four days. "I'm only interested in one thing and that's making sure everything the government can do is being done and will go on being done to help people through this difficult time."