PM’s refusal to call Cobra meeting ‘hampering’ storm recovery | Environment

Boris Johnson has been accused of hampering the recovery effort from the worst winter storms in a generation as flooded towns were evacuated and parts of Wales were braced for more downpours.

MPs and council leaders in flood-stricken areas said the government’s refusal to call an emergency Cobra meeting had obstructed the response in some towns and delayed the release of vital funds to recover from Storms Ciara and Dennis.

Holly Lynch, the Labour MP for Halifax, said that more than 1,000 homes, businesses and schools had been damaged by the hurricane-force winds and flooding last week yet there had been no support from government beyond the Bellwin scheme, which reimburses some of the costs faced by local authorities.

Storm Dennis: aerial footage shows scale of flooding in Hereford – video

She said the lack of action from Johnson’s government was in contrast to the funds made available immediately after the Christmas 2015 floods, which prompted a Cobra meeting within 24 hours.

“A lot of that funding [in 2015] was unlocked so quickly because there was a Cobra meeting, which pulled all the different government departments together. This time, none of that support at all has been forthcoming,” she said.

“His refusal to call a Cobra meeting has really hampered the recovery of lots of different communities up and down the country, not least of all mine.”

As Downing Street came under pressure to act, the government announced measures late on Tuesday to help flood victims. They included an invitation to apply for up to £500 in “financial hardship payments”, council tax and business rates relief and access to funds of up to £2,500 to cover some uninsurable losses.

Ministers also said flood-hit homes and businesses would be able to apply for up to £5,000 to “help make them more resilient to future flooding”, while a cross-Whitehall flood recovery taskforce was due to begin meeting this week.

More than 300 flood warnings and alerts remain in place across Britain, including eight warning of danger to life in England and south Wales, as Johnson faced a second day of political pressure over his response to the storms.

Evacuations were under way along the River Severn in Shropshire and 33 people were rescued from a care home in Herefordshire as rainfall from Storm Dennis continued to cause widespread damage and disruption.

One of the severe flood warnings centred on the historic town of Ironbridge, near Telford in Shropshire, where residents were being evacuated over concerns that the swollen river would soon top a 6.8-metre temporary flood barrier on Tuesday night.

Shaun Davies, the Labour leader of Telford & Wrekin council, said his local authority was having to carry out tasks usually organised by the Environment Agency – such as distributing sandbags and erecting flood barriers – because the agency was so stretched.

He said: “What would be really helpful is if government were able to show some national leadership on this issue. What we need from the centre is some very practical support. It sounds very basic but sandbags and access to sand – there’s been no central resource that we have been made aware of so we are securing that but at a great premium.”

Six people are thought to have died in the flooding. The sixth was named on Monday night as Yvonne Booth, 55, from Birmingham, who was swept into flood water near Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire on Sunday. Her family said they were devastated and appreciated the continued support from the emergency services.

Downing Street said on Monday that Johnson had no plans to visit any of the areas affected by flooding from Storm Dennis, and would instead spend the day working from a country house in Kent. A No 10 spokesman said he was being kept updated from Chevening, a government-owned historic property near Sevenoaks being used while work is continuing at Chequers, the official prime ministerial country retreat.

The new environment secretary, George Eustice, has defended the government’s response to the storms, insisting it has a “firm grip” and that flood defences were “working as intended”.

In the past year, he said, new flood-response infrastructure had protected more than 200,000 properties, with a further 100,000 due to be protected. The government had also pledged an extra £4bn in funding for flood defences over the next five years, said Eustice.

Thirty-three people were evacuated from a care home in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, as the River Wye reached its highest level since 1795, according to the county council leader, David Hitchiner.

The council’s Conservative group leader, Jonathan Lester, said he did not believe sending ministers to flood-stricken areas was particularly important but said central government could do more to direct a “joined-up” approach between the various agencies on the ground.

“I think after the floods have subsided and the lessons have been learned, more needs to be done in having this strategic approach and direction as to how best local authorities and agencies cope with this situation going forward,” he said. “I would welcome a strategy from government.”

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