Flood warnings ‘too reliant’ on Internet

A train passes through the coast at Saltcoats in Scotland

A train passes through the coast at Saltcoats in Scotland

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PEOPLE most at risk of flooding are being left vulnerable because of a reliance by government agencies on using digital platforms to alert people to danger, a leading landowners group claims.

With 21 severe flood warnings issued and more than 400 lower-level flood alerts and warnings in place across England and Wales yesterday, the Environment Agency (EA) urged people to prepare for some of the worst flooding in years.

High waves crash over the sea front at New Brighton in Wirral, as heavy rain and strong winds sweep across the country.

High waves crash over the sea front at New Brighton in Wirral, as heavy rain and strong winds sweep across the country.

But the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents 6,500 farmers and landowners in the region, believes the EA places too much emphasis on its website as the primary tool of communication with people in remote, flood-prone areas.

Douglas Chalmers, the CLA’s director of policy and public affairs in the North, wants the Government to reconsider its “digital by default” agenda until more of the region’s rural population is able to access a reliable and affordable internet connection.

“The Environment Agency has been attempting to communicate via the media but when asked how people can access the latest information and advice, the standard response seems to be to check online,” Mr Chalmers said.

“That is fine if you have a good, reliable internet connection, but many of our members either cannot access broadband or have no computer access at all. And as flooding is often associated with power cuts, what is the population to do then?

High waves crash over the sea front at New Brighton in Wirral, as heavy rain and strong winds sweep across the country.

High waves crash over the sea front at New Brighton in Wirral, as heavy rain and strong winds sweep across the country.

“The Government says it accepts that some of our more remote communities are not yet connected to a useable broadband service yet many of its agencies seem to think that communicating by their website is acceptable.”

Yesterday’s strong winds, high tides and a storm surge caused floods on major roads and disrupted rail services in the South East, and the EA estimated that around 130 new properties had been flooded. The risk of more homes being inundated is expected to persist through the weekend with the Met Office forecasting more heavy rain and outbreaks of sleet and snow in parts of the UK.

Last night, a flood warning was in place for the north bank of the Humber Estuary at Hessle Haven and lower flood alerts remained for areas around the River Ouse in York, Bridlington South Pier and the River Nidd at Skip Bridge.

So far, the storms have claimed the lives of a 27-year-old man from Surrey who was swept out to sea on New Year’s Eve night and a woman who was also swept out to sea on Tuesday at a north Devon beauty spot.

An EA spokesperson said numerous methods are used to warn people about flood risks: “Our Floodline Warnings Direct service is a free service that provides warnings by phone, text or email. People can also call Floodline for information and advice on flooding, on 0845 988 1188.

“As well as this, we provide information via the Environment Agency’s website, and we use social media tools, alongside TV, radio and print media, to help us reach as much of the population as possible.”

The CLA’s criticism came as the EA’s chief executive, Paul Leinster, warned that job losses due to budget cuts will change how the EA can manage flood risk - about 550 staff from the floods team face losing their jobs,

Mr Leinster told the environmental policy magazine: “Flood risk maintenance will be [further] impacted. All of our work on mapping and modelling and new developments in things like flood warning will also have to be resized. And we’re looking at a proportionate reduction in the number of people in flood risk management.”

After chairing a meeting of the Government’s emergency Cobra committee to discuss the floods, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, said he had been assured by Mr Leinster that he had “every intention” of sparing frontline flood work.

He added that increased government spending on flood defences would mean 165,000 properties would be protected by 2015.

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