Financial Times FT.com

UK ministers travel to flood areas

By Christopher Adams, Political Correspondent

Published: July 22 2007 15:05 | Last updated: July 22 2007 15:05

A meeting of the government’s civil emergencies committee Cobra was held on Sunday as ministers travelled to areas of central and southern England worst affected by floods.

Downing Street said Gordon Brown, the prime minster, was being kept informed and monitoring the situation “very closely”, while the environment secretary Hilary Benn remained in charge of the government’s response.

After accusations that the government has been slow to react to some of the intense rainfall that has left areas of Worcestershire and Warwickshire under water, a number of ministers were despatched to the West Midlands and south west of England.

“The immediate issue for today is that people on the ground have everything they need and that there is the best possible co-ordination across government agencies,” said a Downing Street spokesman.

The spokesman added: “We want to look at what the lessons to be learned are.” The Cobra meeting, attended by Whitehall officials, was the first since rising water levels in the river Severn had reached their highest in 60 years, threatening to breach flood defences near Gloucester.

Seven severe flood warnings have been issued, covering Oxfordshire, Berkshire and parts of London. In Gloucestershire, the army was taking humanatarian aid to Upton-on-Seven and Royal Air Force helicopters were rescuing people in Tewkesbury, which has been cut off.

Mr Benn vigorously defended the government’s response, telling the BBC’s Sunday AM programme: “This was very, very intense rainfall, with five inches in 24 hours in some areas, even some of the best defences are going to be overwhelmed.”

The government praised the way the emergency services had dealth with “unprecedented” levels of rainfall and described the flooding as a “1 in 100 year” event.

Mr Benn said he had “total confidence” in the response of the Environment Agency.

He conceded there had been a cut in the Environment Agency’s forward planning budget, but capital expenditure was being increased from £600m to £800m by 2010-11. Ministers are to look at whether flood defences should be kept closer to vulnerable areas and if they should be put up earlier - after it emerged that one vehicle carrying them had got stuck on the jammed M5 motorway.

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