Feb 12 2014
There is no "blank cheque" to pay for repairing the damage of weeks of storm and floods, a Government minister has warned, as much of the country braced itself for more extreme weather.
Forecasters are warning that some of the strongest winds of the winter could hit on a "wild Wednesday" of severe storms and rising water levels, with gusts of up to 100mph on exposed parts of the Welsh coast.
And the Met Office has forecast 70mm (2.75 inches) of rain by Friday in the already sodden West Country - more than the region would normally get in the whole of February - with south Wales, western Scotland, Northern Ireland and other parts of southern England also expected to bear the brunt of the deluge.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who this morning chaired a meeting of the Government's Cobra emergencies committee in 10 Downing Street, promised yesterday that "money is no object" in offering relief to those affected by the floods.
But Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin indicated that there would be "careful consideration" before money is spent on the larger rebuilding exercise of restoring damaged infrastructure after water levels recede.
"I don't think it's a blank cheque," Mr McLoughlin told ITV1's Daybreak. "I think what the Prime Minister was making very clear is that we are going to use every resource of the Government and money is not the issue while we are in this relief job, in the first instance, of trying to bring relief to those communities that are affected.
"Then we have got to do the repairs of the structures and the railway infrastructure that's been damaged and then the other long-term issues, which will need some careful consideration."
At the Cobra meeting, Environment Agency chief executive Paul Leinster told the Prime Minister that flooding could reach levels last seen in 1947 in some parts of the UK, though he said improvements in defences since that point meant that fewer homes were expected to be inundated.
"Oxford to Maidenhead we think could rise over the next five days and may lead to more flooding in that area," Mr Leinster told the committee.
"Below Maidenhead, the levels are holding at the current level but potentially over the weekend and going into the beginning of next week they could rise to higher than the current levels."
Major General Patrick Sanders, who is coordinating the military response, told the meeting that around 2,000 military personnel are involved in the clean-up operation and support in Somerset was increased overnight.
He told the Prime Minister that "thousands" of extra military personnel were available in a short period of time.
Mr Cameron said: "I think one of the things we have got to make sure today is that all the local authorities who need help are clear that they can get help."
Mr Cameron has cancelled a planned trip to the Middle East to take personal charge of the response to the flooding crisis. Tomorrow he will chair the first meeting of a new Cabinet committee set up to oversee the recovery effort.
He warned yesterday that "things may get worse before they get better", but said every effort would be made to help affected areas get back on their feet, with new support allocated for householders, businesses and farms.
"Money is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed for it will be spent," said the Prime Minister.
Sixteen severe flood warnings - indicating a danger to life - remained in place in Berkshire, Surrey and Somerset this morning, with a further 122 flood warnings and 225 flood alerts. There were warnings that high winds could bring down trees and cause disruption to transport and power supplies.
Residents in Staines, Surrey, were evacuated from their flood-hit homes during the night, while around 1,000 homes in the Thameside village of Datchet were left without electricity during the night after power cuts which initially affected 1,700 properties.
A primary school in Wraysbury, Berkshire, was reportedly turned into a "24/7 control centre" for residents affected by flooding, while the BBC reported that the army and police had set up checkpoints in the village following fears of looting at the homes of flood victims.
Thames Valley Police assistant chief constable John Campbell defended the authorities' response to the flooding in Wraysbury, where furious residents have been filmed berating politicians for leaving them to defend themselves against the rising waters.
Mr Campbell acknowledged that residents had been "frustrated" by the initial response from authorities, but insisted they were now "happier", with as many as 100 military personnel deployed to the village to help out.
"Obviously we have to prioritise and focus on trying to defend certain aspects of the Thames and the flood breaches and that was what we were trying to do in the first instance," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"In the first 48 hours or so, a lot of effort with military and blue light services and the Environment Agency was put into preventing further flooding, and that involved a range of activities along the Thames, building flood defences, protecting infrastructure sub-stations and assisting Network Rail with issues in terms of the Maidenhead line.
"One of the unfortunate things about Wraysbury as a location is there are limited flood defences that can take effect around that location - unfortunately it has flooded before."
About 100 properties remain flooded on the Somerset Levels, where extra pumps are being brought in from the Netherlands, and groundwater flooding is also expected in the coming days in Hampshire, Kent and parts of London. The Thames barrier closed again yesterday to protect communities to the west of the capital.
EA senior flood adviser Kate Marks warned it was "increasingly likely" that there would also be problems along the River Severn and River Wye.
Since the beginning of December, a total of 5,800 premises have flooded - although the Environment Agency also stressed that 1.3 million have been protected by defences.
Mr McLoughlin warned that the extreme weather of the past few weeks could not be viewed as a "one-off event".
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It was not many years ago that we were all talking about droughts and the problem 'would our underground water ever fill up again?'. That was three years ago and now we are talking about water just coming up out of the ground into people's homes.
"So we have got to accept there is more extreme weather and how do we become resilient for it?"
He added: "I don't think we can just take this as a one-off event."
But he denied the state was "powerless" in the face of the forces of nature, telling BBC1's Breakfast: "It isn't powerless in that it's got the machinery of government to try to help and alleviate the problems that individuals face.
"And it is also not powerless in making sure that when we do the repairs, we do them at a resilience that will last for future storms that come along.
"Engineering techniques have changed a huge amount and when we rebuild walls we will build them to a different standard of engineering to what they were originally built to."