The environment secretary has defended the government’s record on flooding after Storm Dennis left thousands of properties underwater, saying new defences had worked well.
George Eustice, who was appointed in the cabinet reshuffle last week, dismissed the idea that Boris Johnson should have toured flood-hit areas over the weekend, saying he had been there in the prime minister’s place.
Hundreds of flood warnings remained across much of England on Monday, five of them severe, after Dennis dumped a month’s worth of rain on some areas over the weekend, with winds of up to 90mph.
The shadow environment secretary, Luke Pollard, questioned why Johnson had not called a meeting of the Cobra emergencies committee in response, saying this had happened during flooding before December’s election, “when he needed your votes”.
Tim Swift, the leader of Calderdale council in West Yorkshire, said the government had to “recognise the scale of the problem that we’re facing”.
He told Sky News: “We feel that this is a significant threat, on a par with the threats of pandemics and terrorism.”
But Eustice told Sky News the official response was proportionate: “The government has a firm grip on this. It’s a very difficult situation, with widespread flood alerts, but our flood defences are working as intended.”
In the last year, he said, new flood-response infrastructure had protected more than 200,000 properties, with another 100,000 due to be protected. The government had also pledged an extra £4bn in funding for flood defences over the next five years.
“What we’ve got in place is working, and in these recent flood events nearly 20,000 properties have been protected,” Eustice said.
“I know that’s no consolation at all to the 400 that have been affected. But it is the case, when you have these events, you’ll never be able to protect every single property. But the investments we’ve made mean we have been able to protect a significant number.”
Asked why Johnson had not visited the flood-stricken areas, Eustice said: “When I was appointed by the prime minister, one of the first things he mentioned was the floods. We discussed Storm Dennis, that it was coming through. I am leading on this. I’m in the cabinet, I was up there yesterday in Yorkshire. I’ve been in regular contact with officials on this.”
Pressed on why Johnson had not visited personally, he said: “Because I went up there yesterday on his behalf. He has been to these areas before, I’m sure he will again.” Asked when this might happen, Eustice said: “I don’t manage the prime minister’s diary.”
Storm Dennis continued to cause transport chaos on Monday as train lines and roads were blocked by flooding. Network Rail was assessing the repairs needed to reopen damaged parts of the railway.
CrossCountry, Great Western railway, Northern, South Western railway, Southern, Thameslink and Transport for Wales were among the operators with delays and cancellations on Monday morning.
Rotherham Central station was closed until at least Tuesday due to flooding.
A fault with the signalling system in the Welwyn Garden City area also caused major disruption to services between Stevenage and London Kings Cross.
Large parts of Britain were facing days more of disruption in the wake of Dennis, one of the worst winter storms of recent times, which came a week after Storm Ciara.
The north Atlantic storm, described as a “bomb cyclone”, triggered nearly 600 flood warnings and alerts in England alone on Sunday, more than any other day on record, with dozens more in place across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In south Wales, police declared a “major incident” after more than a month’s rain fell in 48 hours, leading to multiple landslides and people being trapped in their homes. A local MP, Alex Davies-Jones, said she had been “truly heartbroken” to see the damage caused to more than 1,000 homes in the area.
The town centre of Pontypridd was underwater and surrounding towns and villages had been told by the Met Office they could be cut off “perhaps for several days” because of the floods. About 600 people were evacuated and placed in emergency accommodation overnight on Saturday.