28/11/2012 09:33 GMT | Updated 28/11/2012 09:39 GMT

UK Floods: Have Staff Cuts And Poor River Management Impacted On Devastation?

Britain is once again in the grip of flooding chaos. Following disastrous floods in 2005, 2007 and 2009, this year's heavy downpours have led to four deaths, around £1 billion worth of damage and hundreds of thousands of people in danger of losing their home insurance next year.

But is it just the weather to blame? Local residents (including magician Paul Daniels - see below) hit by the floods insist the severity of the flooding could have been lessened if more resources had been spent managing the river beds and riverside banks.

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(and later)

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But it wasn't just Paul Daniels:

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The Environment Agency, which is responsible for the maintenance of the vast majority of the UK's waterways, suffered £200 million in cuts in August 2006, including £14.9m specifically earmarked for flood defences and £9m on environmental protection.

Then in 2010, chancellor George Osborne declared in his October spending review that the Environment Agency would be forced to swing its axe again; spending on flood management had to drop 17% in 2011 – from £629m to £520.8m, rising to a 23% cut by 2014-15, falling to just £485.2m.

At the time, a government spokesman defended the flood spending cuts, noting that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would still spend £2.1bn on flood management over the next four years at an average of £540m a year – a cut of 8% on previous average of £590m.

Defra said the budget allocations reflect its "priorities to support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production; to help enhance the environment and biodiversity to improve quality of life; and to support a strong and sustainable green economy, which is resilient to climate change".

Across Defra, between 5,000 and 8,000 jobs were expected to be cut.

More temporary flood defences are going up

EA staff are putting up temporary flood barriers in Bewdley Credit: Dave Throup

Many local communities have seen the effect of those cuts in the disappearance of the 'river men' - people employed to walk along the rivers and clear debris, or call in the Environment Agency to remove obstacles, clear waterways and maintain banks when they were in danger of causing blockages.

Susan Cashmore, chairman of Cockermouth’s flood action group, confirmed the anecdote to Huff Post UK: "If you ask the older folk who live here they'll tell you there used to be a river dredging man here, but there's been a massive change in policy when it comes to river dredging."

Dredging is a practice where gravel and silt is removed from areas where it's built up to help the water continue to flow. Removal of scrub from river banks and herbicidal spraying to remove vegetation adjacent to the river are also associated with dredging.

There are two reasons for undertaking such work, for flood alleviation purposes, or for land drainage improvement. In both cases the objective is to increase the river channel capacity and its ability to convey water.

There are environmental implications with dredging - the removal and disruption of natural pools of sediment and the natural vegetation can destabilise the ecosystem. It can also disrupt spawning seasons for fish, toads, frogs and newts.

It's also expensive, since the detritus removed from the river can't simply be dumped on the side of the bank, as it would then block access to the flood plains on either side of the river - transporting the silt and gravel to a deposit spot it costly.

cameron in gloucester

Prime minister David Cameron in the fire command in Gloucester

The Environment Agency told Huffington Post that over the past four years it had indeed cut the number of staff in its front line asset maintenance workforce by 9% "due to planned reductions in funding over the period 2011 to 2015".

"However, we prioritise our maintenance work to ensure the most efficient use of our resources and the highest level of protection to communities from flooding," a spokesman said.

There are currently 1,168 people are employed in "front-line maintenance" roles across England and Wales, although contractors are brought in if necessary through pre-arranged contracts.

The EA was also keen to point out that between 2009 and 2011, new flood defence schemes have protected over 189,000 more households, including more than 52,000 homes in the most recent floods.

More than 60 flood and coastal risk schemes will also begin construction in this financial year, protecting more than 25,000 more homes.

"We remain on track to achieve our target of providing better protection to 145,000 homes over the period 2011 to 2015. Every £1 spent on protecting communities from flooding saves £8 spent repairing damage," the spokesman added.

However, it was unwilling to provide numbers for how many staff worked on the "front-line" activities prior to 2008, saying it was too busy dealing with the current flooding crisis.

Prior to 2009, Cashmore and other residents of Cockermouth tried to encourage more regular maintenance of its rivers after it suffered devestating floods in 2005. She was told that EA policy had changed, and that they now believed flood water would push excess gravel down the hills and that it therefore didn't need to maintain the river as regularly.

The residents eventually got the EA to remove what Cashmore says was "a little bit of gravel", but then the 2009 floods hit.

"After that, they did take some more out, but we had to pressurise them to," Cashmore told Huff Post UK. "My firm belief is the impact of the flood would've been lessened if the management of the river banks had been better."

Cashmore collected a number of local residents and convinced the EA to meet with them - EA even praised their professional approach in discussing the issue calmly, without "table-thumping".

"We went to them and calmly explained we needed a maintenance strategy, and asked them to sit down with us and learn some of the local knowledge. I got meetings out of them by calmly asking, and then by nagging."

The EA was supposed to remove more gravel this year, but has been prevented from doing so by high river levels.

cameron 2009

David Cameron is shown the level the water rose to in this Cockermouth house in 2009

Cashmore also complained that the influence of Natural England - a group tasked with protecting the local wildlife - had gone too far in influencing the EA's policy on scaling back dredging activities.

"Our river is a special interest river, known as SSI, so the EA has to apply to Natural England if it wants to do anything in it," Cashmore explained. "It can take them between six and eight weeks to come out and clear the river if we report an obstruction, like a fallen tree.

"The pendulum's swung too far towards nature, never mind the environmental concerns, I just don't want water in my house."

Farmers in Wales have campaigned for regular dredging to be reintroduced after the devastating effects floods have had on their land.

The National Farmers' Union urged the EA in October this year to resume full-time dredging, after Wales endured one of its wettest summers on record, but was told "dredging our rivers on a regular basis is not always effective at reducing flooding as many rivers quickly silt up again as part of their natural processes".

The EA told Huffington Post UK it spends £20m a year on dredging in England and Wales, and again repeated what it had told the Welsh farmers, that in "many cases", dredging does not reduce the risk of flooding because many rivers quickly silt up again.

"We therefore focus our efforts on dredging at those locations where it has a proven benefit of reducing flood risk."

Currently 530 flood warnings and alerts are in place across England and Wales.