Residents paddle through floodwater in the village of Wraysbury in Berkshire, Southeast England, yesterday.
LONDON: Thousands of homes in southeast England were braced for flooding 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. Some areas are already under water, including parts of the Great Windsor Park, near Queen Elizabeth II’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 over the coming days.
Forecasters at the Met Office said the run of winter storms, which have brought heavy rain and strong winds and seen high waves batter the English coastline, has been “exceptional in its duration”.
But 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 in the southwest, blame the devastating floods on the failure of the Environment Agency to dredge local rivers.
Communities minister Eric Pickles joined the attack yesterday, 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.
Chris Smith, the head of the Environment Agency, hit back and accused ministers for holding back vital funds. Smith, a former minister for the now opposition Labour government, said the Treasury had limited the amount the agency could spend on flood management in Somerset.
Top political leaders headed to flood-hit areas of southwest England. Prime Minister David Cameron returned to the area for the second time in four days, visiting Dorset, while Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg arrived in badly-flooded Somerset. Parts of Britain have seen their wettest January on record and around 5,000 homes have been flooded, with some remaining under water for more than a month.
Last week, the government pledged an extra £130m ($213m) to help with the repairs and maintenance of flood defences, and the military have been drafted in to help build defences and evacuate homes. Cameron has described the scene in the Somerset Levels, an artificially drained wetlands area prone to flooding, as “biblical”.
Mohammad Khan, insurance partner at PwC, estimated the cost of the damage caused by the bad weather in December and January could be more than £600m, with the insurance industry facing paying out as much as £500m.