The UK has suffered its wettest winter in records dating back more than a century, the Met Office has announced. Figures for December 1 to February 19 show that the UK has had 486.8mm (19.2 inches) of rain, making it the wettest winter in records dating back to 1910, beating the previous record set in 1995 of 485.1mm (19.1 inches).
Wales, East Scotland, south west England and South Wales, and south east and central southern England have all seen record amounts of rainfall this winter, and all countries and areas of the UK are on target for a warmer than average winter. Two severe flood warnings remain in place in the Somerset Levels, which has been one of the worst-hit areas this winter, suffering prolonged flooding in the face of repeated storms and heavy rain.
Across the rest of southern and central England, the risk of flooding is receding as river levels fall, including along the Thames and Severn, the Environment Agency said. But properties in areas including Windsor and Maidenhead, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Wokingham and West Berkshire could remain flooded for some time.
And with more unsettled weather on the way, the risk of flooding will be slow to disappear, the Environment Agency warned. There are 75 flood warnings, and 121 less serious flood alerts currently in place across England and Wales. Groundwater is continuing to rise, with ongoing flooding in parts of Greater London, Kent, Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset.
Met Office spokeswoman Laura Young said showers and some heavier rain are expected, along with sunny spells, over the next few days, and a band of rain will go across the UK on Sunday, mainly focusing on the West. Rain will fall as snow on high ground, and west and north-west exposed coasts could see some strong, near-gale winds, but "not anywhere as windy as it has been over the last few weeks", she said.
"This is weather, rather than exceptional weather. It's unsettled, but February unsettled. It is standard weather for this time of year and nothing like the extreme and exceptional weather we've seen over the last couple of months," she added.
The Environment Agency has announced that dredging on the Somerset Levels is to start next month as soon as it is safe and practical to do so. Five miles of river channel where the Tone and Parrett rivers meet at Burrowbridge - an area identified by local people for dredging and where "significant amounts of silt" have built up - will be dredged, the agency said.
The announcement comes in the wake of a row over the prolonged flooding of the Somerset Levels, in which local people and MPs accused the Government and Environment Agency of ignoring repeated calls to dredge to reduce flood risk. Work will be ready to start by the end of March provided water levels in the area drop and the banks and adjacent land is dry enough for the excavators to work safely, according to the Environment Agency.
It will start on a 656ft (200m) stretch of the River Parrett north of Coates Farm. Floods Minister Dan Rogerson said: "Today marks a crucial step forwards in ensuring local communities around the Somerset Levels are better protected from the devastating impact of floods.
"We know those affected are tired and fed-up but I can assure them we are working around the clock to clear the flood water so they can get on with their lives."
Paul Leinster, chief executive at the Environment Agency, said: "We plan to start dredging by the end of March, as long as the contractors deem it is safe to do so. We are committed to dredging as part of a broader package of work to protect people, property and land in Somerset."
Officials and ministers have faced criticism that two decades of under-investment in flood defence work had turned the Levels into a disaster area, and that repeated calls to dredge before the floods went unheeded.
The row deepened as ministers and Environment Agency chiefs turned on each other, with Communities Secretary Eric Pickles blaming faulty advice over dredging from the agency for the situation.
Environment Agency chairman Lord Chris Smith hit back at criticism of the agency's handling of the situation and pointed the finger of blame for the failure to sufficiently dredge rivers at Treasury funding rules. But experts, and the Environment Agency itself, have also warned that dredging would not have prevented the flooding caused by relentless heavy storms coupled by high tides.
Prime Minister David Cameron has set out details of help that will be provided for households and businesses affected by the flooding. Businesses flooded since December will qualify for 100% business rate relief for three months, regardless of how long they were flooded, with the Government guaranteeing to reimburse the costs to councils so they can start providing relief immediately.
The Government is also providing up to £4 million to councils to give people with flooded properties a council tax rebate of at least three months, with the guarantee meaning that the relief could start immediately. And from April, grants of up to £5,000 will be paid to flooded home-owners and businesses, after a survey is completed to identify appropriate measures to make them resilient to future flooding, with the cost of the survey forming part of the grant.
Mr Cameron said: "This Government is continuing to take decisive action across the board to help hard-working people affected by the floods. We have led the immediate response through Cobra, and put in place a range of measures to help people in the longer term. We are helping people who need help now and protecting communities who need protecting in the future."
But shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn said Mr Cameron had promised that householders would not have to pay council tax while they were out of their homes, and central government would be fully funding the relief for local councils. "Now it turns out that he's only going to give those councils enough money to pay for a council tax exemption of about three months, even though ministers have just been told by insurers that it could take an average of six to nine months for flooded homes to be repaired, and in some cases even longer," he said.
"The Prime Minister made a promise yesterday. Now he must keep it by saying that he will fully fund an exemption from council tax for as long as it takes for the families affected."
Following the news that the UK had experienced its wettest winter on record, campaigners called for more action to tackle climate change, which is thought to be behind the increasing weather extremes. Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Guy Shrubsole said: "Extreme weather is becoming more common; four out of the five wettest years on record have taken place since the year 2000.
"The climate is changing before our eyes, and still the politicians fiddle - the more fossil fuels we burn, the more it floods. The Government needs to close the gaping half-billion pound hole in its flood defence plans and redouble efforts to tackle climate change."
Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis insisted the £4 million pot will be enough to refund householders for as long as they are forced to live away from their homes. Responding to Mr Benn's comments that the money would only last three months, he said: "The £4m fund should cover everyone for the period they cannot live in their property.
"On top of paying for council tax relief, we are also giving repair and renewal grants of up to £5,000 to householders. This is a comprehensive package for householders."
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