Now Britain prepares for gales and floods

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The Independent Online

Britain was warned tonight to prepare for heavy rain, strong winds - and yet more snow.

The rain will sweep from the west across Wales, the Midlands and southern England through the night, falling as snow on higher ground, forecasters said.

Amid fears the rainfall and melting snow would cause flooding, householders were advised to take action to protect themselves and their property.

The Environment Agency had issued 15 flood warnings and 92 less serious flood watches as of 5.30pm. It said south-west and south-east England were most likely to be affected.

Much of Scotland experienced what one meteorologist described as "Scandinavian" conditions today, with deep snow, no wind and very cold temperatures.

The mercury plunged to minus 18C (minus 0.4F) in the Highland ski resort of Aviemore, the lowest temperature recorded in the UK so far this winter.

There was limited transport disruption, although Virgin Trains cancelled some services between London and Birmingham and Manchester today and tomorrow.

Stocks of salt to grit the roads were heading for Britain from a number of countries as supplies held in the UK dwindled.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said councils were continuing to keep roads clear of ice and snow by ensuring that the limited salt supplies are delivered to the areas where they are needed most.

Michael Dukes, forecast manager for MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said Britain was likely to experience a "winter storm" rather than a blizzard overnight.

"It could be rain, then snow, then back to rain," he said. "It's not going to be as severe in terms of the huge amounts of snow we had a few days ago.

"The difference now is it's much stronger winds than we've had for a while - 50-60mph winds are quite possible."

Mr Dukes advised motorists to avoid hilly roads where possible.

"There is going to be lots of rain falling," he said.

"The air is just about cold enough that it could turn to snow over southern Britain on high ground in Wales and the Midlands.

"Later in the night high parts of Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Hampshire are also at risk of wet snow falling."

The rain is expected to reach the eastern half of England just before dawn.

An Environment Agency spokesman said: "Given that catchments are already wet, the high rainfall totals may thaw existing snow and combine with the snow melt to substantially increase run-off and the chance of surface water flooding.

"Widespread flood watches and flood warnings are to be expected across southern England.

"Some severe flood warnings could be issued for localised areas, particularly in the south-west region. These are likely to depend on the influence of snow melt."

Paul Bettison, chairman of the LGA's environment board, said councils had emergency planning teams on "full alert" to help people before floods struck.

"If the floods are going to come in the middle of the night, when it's freezing cold outside, elderly and vulnerable people need to be moved early," he said.

"Councils are ready to assist anyone who is forced to leave their home because of weather or flood damage.

"It's vital that people do everything they can to protect themselves and their property before any floods arrive.

"People living by a river, coastal or flood risk area must be prepared."

The rest of the week is likely to see fine cold dry weather with occasional snow showers, forecasters predict.

Meanwhile, a row over whether London Underground staff would have to take unpaid leave for failing to turn up for work last Monday when the capital was snowbound was thawing tonight.

A spokesman said London Mayor Boris Johnson had "absolutely no intention" of penalising anyone who failed to get to work due to the "exceptional" weather.

There were warnings that Britain's economy would suffer because so many workers stayed at home - but mobile phone companies apparently received a boost.

Orange said it had the busiest Monday of the year so far last week as people used their mobile phones and laptops to work from home, and sent each other picture messages of snow scenes.

:: This time last year Britain was enjoying a warm taste of spring.

February 2008 was the sunniest since records began in 1929, with the UK basking in 106.1 hours of sunshine.

On February 9 last year top temperatures reached almost 17C (63F), double the typical maximum temperature for the month of around 8C (46F).

This February has so far been an average of 6C colder than it was last year.