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Government warned to cancel flood specialists job cuts as storms continue to batter UK

More than 1,600 posts are due to go at the Environment Agency by October

Ministers faced demands tonight to put on hold plans to make hundreds of flood specialists redundant, in light of the continuing storm destruction across Britain.

As the Government held a meeting of Whitehall’s emergency Cobra committee to assess the damage, it was hit by accusations that George Osborne’s austerity drive would undermine work on shoring up coastlines and riverbanks.

More than 1,600 posts are due to be shed by the Environment Agency by October, including an estimated 550 staff employed on flood protection, despite record numbers of flood warnings last year and fears the number will continue to grow because of climate change.

Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, acknowledged that his department, which oversees the agency, was facing a cash squeeze. But he insisted the axe would not fall on frontline jobs and said spending on flood defences had been boosted by the Government.

However, the Environment Agency’s chief executive, Paul Leinster, warned that the redundancies would affect work pinpointing areas vulnerable to future flooding and unions called for an immediate moratorium on the threatened redundancies.

Leslie Manasseh, the deputy general secretary of the Prospect union, said: “In 2013 there were a record number of flood alerts and warnings, so that work is becoming more important and expensive.

“To say glibly that everybody has got to make cuts is a rather simplistic approach and I can’t imagine that people whose homes have been flooded are going to be comforted by that kind of statement.”

He urged ministers to “stop these cuts in their tracks” and “learn the lessons of the experiences of this winter, which have had such a devastating impact on so many people”.

Matthew Lay, a Unison national officer, said: “Staff in the agency have worked day and night to keep communities safe and prevent flood damage, and work tirelessly to support those devastated by the aftermath.

“The Government can't have it both ways, praising the sterling work of members in the agency but at the same time imposing further damaging cuts.”

The row was fuelled by comments by Mr Leinster in which he warned “flood risk maintenance will be impacted” by the cuts.

He told the environmental journal ENDS: “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.”

Speaking after the Cobra meeting, Mr Paterson said: “Like all departments, this department has had to make efficiencies given the dire financial position we inherited when we came to office.

“I had a meeting this morning with the chief executive of the Environment Agency.

“He has assured me he has every intention of protecting front-line services concerned with flooding. His intention is to protect front-line services as he makes his efficiencies.

“This Government is spending more than any previous government on flood defences - 165,000 properties will be protected by 2015.”

But Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, described ministers’ handling of the crisis as “appallingly inept” as they had cut spending on flood defences and allowed building on flood plains.

“These are real people’s lives and, as far as I can see, the Government is sitting on their hands. More than 1,000 homes are already flooded, with worse to come this weekend, and yet I have seen little evidence the Government is acting decisively,” Mr Farage said.

Guy Shrubsole, climate campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: “Every £1 invested in protecting us from flooding saves £8 in damages. Cutting flood defence spending is a false economy and David Cameron now needs to intervene.”