UK Politics

UK floods: Environment Agency job cuts 'on hold'

River Severn
Image caption More than 5,500 properties have been flooded since the start of December

Job cuts at the Environment Agency have been put on hold while it deals with the floods crisis in England.

The quango said it still intended to press ahead with long-term plans to cut its workforce by about 1,550.

But it said discussions with staff who might be affected would be delayed until "current flooding has subsided".

Labour has claimed the jobs of 550 flooding specialists are at risk from the shake-up but the Agency said this was not currently being considered.

The Agency has been criticised for its performance in recent weeks and for its past policy on river dredging in Somerset, one of the worst-affected areas.

But its chairman Lord Smith, whose own position has come under pressure, has praised the dedication and professionalism of its frontline staff, many of whom have been working non-stop since the start of December.

The Agency, which has an annual budget of £1.2bn, announced plans last year to reduce staff numbers from 11,250 to about 9,700 in response to a cut in the amount of money it gets from central government.

'Change programme'

It has never specified which departments would be affected and it has now confirmed that it has postponed a consultation on potential redundancies until the current crisis is over.

"We are prioritising incident response above all other work," said its programme director Toby Willison.

"With this in mind, we are reviewing the timetable for the Environment Agency's change programme and will not be entering a formal consultation with staff until the current flooding has subsided.

"Once we move out of incident response mode, we will refocus our efforts to continue to bring Environment Agency costs in line with our budget from government for 2014-15."

Labour leader Ed Miliband highlighted job cuts at the Agency during Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions, urging the government to reconsider what he said was the threat to 550 flood specialists' jobs.

The BBC's political correspondent Alex Forsyth said the 550 figure may have come from an internal exercise into future changes but it had never been confirmed and the organisation said it was not being considered.

The Agency insisted that any future reductions in staff would not affect "its ability to respond to flooding incidents", adding that it would minimise the impact on other frontline services as well.

'Stay of execution'

Speaking before the Agency's announcement, David Cameron said the reported job cuts had never been confirmed.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The prime minister has praised the response of Environment Agency staff

"Those aren't plans that are going to be put in place," he said. "Of course every organisation has to make sure it is efficient - but nothing will be done at the Environment Agency that will hamper our flood relief effort."

Labour welcomed what it said was Mr Cameron's "changed position" on frontline flood staff, opposition leader Ed Miliband tweeting: "We'll make sure he keeps his promise not to sack them."

But unions and environment campaigners warned that this could not just be a "stay of execution".

"While the Environment Agency has put consultation on redundancies on hold this statement makes clear that they will press on with redundancies after the floods have receded," the GMB's Justin Bowden said.

"This is ludicrous. Has government learned nothing from the current floods?

"At the root of the current flooding crisis are successive years of central government cuts that have trimmed maintenance budgets to unsustainable levels."

The Environment Agency has admitted it did not have enough specialist staff to deal with the flooding caused by the unprecedented rainfall since December and it has had to take staff off other duties to reinforce relief efforts.

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