The UK was braced on Tuesday for further heavy rain and gale force winds as officials warned that hundreds more homes could be flooded over the coming days while the battered rail network could take months to restore.
The Environment Agency has issued more than 350 flood alerts and warnings, with the southeast, southwest and the Midlands bearing the brunt of the rising waters. Ministers insisted the authorities were doing “everything possible’’ and the military was on standby.
Commuters faced more disruption to the rail network on Tuesday with services in and out of Paddington hit after the Thames flooding damaged signal and safety equipment in the Maidenhead area. Network Rail was forced to close two of the four tracks into and out of Paddington.
First Great Western said it was still running services but at “a significantly reduced frequency” and warned passengers to expect delays and cancellations. Services between Oxford and Didcot were suspended and the line between Windsor and London Waterloo remained closed.
The Environment Agency said river levels on the Thames were still very high on Tuesday morning but were stabilising. Conditions at Datchet in Berkshire had worsened significantly overnight after flood waters rose by at least six inches in the town centre.
Many residents had stayed with their properties but feared that rising waters would force them to abandon their homes, as happened in neighbouring Wraysbury.
There was frustration in Datchet that long-term flood prevention measures had been focused on big conurbations such as Maidenhead, at the expense of smaller towns along the Thames. “They haven’t dredged the Thames in 20 years,” said one resident.
The potential for a political backlash was made clear by Marion Falchi, an interior designer. “I’ll vote for the person who’s going to dredge the river and put some money back into these communities,” she said, as she waited for a boat to take her from the Costa Coffee shop on the Green.
Costa is one of few retail businesses remaining open in the town centre. Emilio Aleo, franchise owner, said the café had experienced record sales on Monday as the community turned out on to the streets to help with relief efforts. But he fears he will have to close as the waters continue to rise – and face a big repair bill. “If it comes on to my floor it’s going to cost me a lot of money.”
Philip Hammond, defence secretary, visited armed forces assisting with emergency operations in Wraysbury on Tuesday.
As the political row over responsibility for the floods continued, he refused to give Chris Smith, who chairs the Environment Agency, his backing. “I think that this is not the time for recriminations or for discussions of who did what, when,’’ Mr Hammond told the BBC’s Today programme. “We can do that afterwards.”
Prime Minister David Cameron had on Monday refused to rule out sacking Lord Smith when asked by journalists whether the former Labour cabinet minister should step down as chairman of the quango.
Lord Smith, who came under fire from Eric Pickles, communities secretary, at the weekend, said he had always planned to step down once his term expires in July. He took over the agency in 2008 under the Labour government.
As flood misery spread from the southwest to more densely populated London commuter towns, Lord Smith said he had told ministers there would be consequences when the agency’s funding was cut soon after the coalition came to power in 2010.
Lord Smith told the Financial Times: “I certainly pointed out to the then secretary of state that this would mean we had a severely diminished ability to build new flood defences and I pointed out the consequences.”
He added: “Our funding for capital work went down massively and has been creeping back up again but it’s in my view still not enough.
Downing Street did not dispute Lord Smith’s numbers, but said flood investment over the current four-year period would be higher than the previous four-year period.
”I’d point out to you that the Environment Agency has said that frontline spending on flooding is being protected,” said a Number 10 spokesman. He said the government had found a further £130m of additional funding, half of which would go towards maintenance.
The Environment Agency’s independent board members on Monday also hit back at criticisms of the quango’s role in preparing the country for floods.
“Our work is based on firm evidence and tested science . . . Just as it is wrong to criticise the work of our staff on the ground, it is equally wrong to seek to place blame for the recent flooding events on the chairman and ‘people in London’,” the board members said in a statement.
“We are tasked with implementing government policy and are subject to Treasury rules about the use of public money,” the statement added.
It has already declared January the wettest on record. Over the past week, it said, more than 180,000 properties had been protected from flooding and about 850 homes flooded.
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