Labour has questioned whether Environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s “climate change scepticism” is blinding him to the dangers of flooding in future years, as the worst winter storm for 20 years continued to rage.
The shadow Environment Secretary, Maria Eagle, claimed that Owen Paterson – the Conservative minister who once said Britain would see some benefits from climate change – had failed to protect the budget for flood defences. A source close to Mr Paterson dismissed the comments as “nonsense and a cheap trick”, insisting the Government was spending more than ever before on flood defence.
She was speaking after the bad weather claimed another life when a 47-year-old man fell into the River Thames at Oxford while trying to drive his mobility scooter along a flooded path on Saturday evening.
The search continued for missing photography student Harry Martin, 18, who was last seen on Thursday going to take photographs of the stormy seas near his home in Devon. Police said they were “ extremely concerned” by his “out of character” disappearance.
The Environment Agency issued one severe flood warning in Dorset - meaning "there is significant risk to life" - and 87 flood warnings where flooding is "expected" across almost every region in England and Wales.
The Met Office issued a "be aware" yellow warning for wind as gusts of up to 70mph are expected on the west and south-west coast of Britain and the east coast of Northern Ireland today.
This will cause "exceptionally high waves", the Met Office predicted. "The public should be aware of the dangers of waves crashing onshore and over-topping shore lines and sea fronts,” it said.
In pictures: Storms batter the UK
In pictures: Storms batter the UK
1/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
Huge waves break over the Newhaven Lighthouse on the south coast as another Altlantic storm hits Great Britain in Newhaven
2/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
A miniature sandstorm whipped up unusually high winds blows across the breakwater next to the Perch Rock lighthouse in New Brighton
3/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
Storm waves crash over the Longships Lighthouse just off Lands End in Cornwall
4/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
Storm waves crash over cliffs at Sennen Cove near Lands End in Cornwall
5/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
A woman watches the rough sea in Aberystwyth, west Wales
6/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
Storm waves break at Porthleven in Cornwall
7/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
Storm waves break at Porthleven in Cornwall
8/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
Newhaven Lighthouse is battered by waves during stormy weather in Newhaven on the southern coast of England
9/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
A car sits on flood water on a flooded property at Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels
10/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
Flood water is seen pumped into the river at the pumping station near Fordgate on the Somerset Levels near Bridgwater
11/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
Waves crash against the seafront and the railway line that has been closed due to storm damage at Dawlish, Devon
12/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
A huge waves break over the railway in Dawlish, causing damage. High tides and strong winds have created havoc in the Devonshire town
13/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
A huge length of railway track is exposed and left hanging after the sea wall collapsed in Dawlish
14/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
People stand by beach huts that have been damaged by the storm waves at Dawlish
15/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
A huge wave breaks behind a car, which sits in seawater on a flooded street by the sea wall railway in Dawlish
16/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
Beach huts that have been damaged by the storm waves at Dawlish
17/31 Storms continue to batter the UK
Spectators watch as waves break over the harbour wall at Porthcawl, Wales, during a high tide
18/31 High tides, rain And strong winds in Wales
Waves crash up against the sea defences at Aberystwyth during high tide and high winds on 2 February
19/31 Stormy waves in England
Stormy waves roll in to the shore and break along the seafront at Porthcawl
20/31 High tide waves in Wales
High tide waves break along the seafront at Porthcawl in Mid Glamorgon, Wales
21/31 Flooding in England
Flood water surrounds the Plough Inn besides the River Severn at Upton-upon-Severn in Worcestershire
22/31 Flooded streets in Kent
A man looks on as a car passes on a flooded road in the village of Yalding in Kent
23/31 Storm damage in Surrey
A fallen tree blocks a road in Epsom, Surrey
24/31 Huge waves in Wales
Waves crash against the lighthouse wall in Porthcawl
25/31 High tides in Scotland
A train passes along the coast at Saltcoats in Scotland, as a combination of high tides, heavy rains and strong winds are expected to bring yet more severe flooding to many parts of the country
26/31 Flooding in Wales
Holiday chalets at Carmarthen Bay Holiday Park are surrounded by flood water caused by high tides in Kidwelly, West Wales
A car drives through flood water on the A361, which has been closed to traffic due to flooding, at Burrowbridge
A car tackles flood waters near Headcorn, Kent
29/31 River Wey floods
Flooding near the river Wey in Guildford, Surrey
30/31 Blackpool flooding
Waves crash over Blackpool seafront
31/31 Huge waves at Tyne and Wear
Surfers brave the waves at Tynemouth
The Thames, the River Severn and a number of other smaller rivers broke their banks in places on Sunday with the Environment Agency issuing dozens of flood warnings and more than 200 flood alerts.
An agency spokesman warned people to check for further warnings.
Ms Eagle, speaking on Sky News, said that the Government had cut flood defence spending by more than £100 million in real terms. And she suggested Mr Paterson had failed to argue strongly enough in budget negotiations because he does not believe predictions that the UK will be hit by increased storms over the coming decades as the world warms.
“The question is whether Owen Paterson's climate change scepticism — remember, he said that Britain would benefit from climate change — has blinded him to concerns of increasing risk of flooding, and therefore he hasn't protected budgets like he might,” she said.
However, Ms Eagle declined to say how much a future Labour government would spend on flood defences, saying she would have to “ fight my corner” in Cabinet.
In October, The Independent revealed the Environment Secretary had not had a single briefing on climate change from his chief scientific officer, Sir Ian Boyd, during his then 14 months in office. Mr Paterson is said to be close to leading climate change sceptics such as Matt Ridley, Mr Paterson’s brother-in-law, and former chancellor Nigel Lawson.
Leo Hickman, chief adviser on climate change with WWF UK, said that it was “a cause for concern that we have a reported climate sceptic as our Environment Secretary”.
“These last few weeks really have been a timely vision of what we might expect of the decades ahead, so we really want our Environment Secretary to be really on top of the game in terms of being well-briefed and forward-looking, not just thinking about the present,” he said.
“We are destabilising the climate system by pumping carbon emissions into it. We’ve got to take a cold-headed, scientific, risk-analysis view of this and think long term. It’s not a time for blinkered, closed minds on the science. We want our Environment Secretary and all Cabinet ministers to be totally open to what their scientific advisers are telling them and the science is pretty clear.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the Government was “currently spending over £2.3 billion on tackling the risk of flooding and coastal erosion”.
“Together with contributions from other partners, this is more money than ever before,” she said.
Forecaster Matt Dobson, of the MeteoGroup, warned the current floods would likely continue for some time as the rain “simply has nowhere to go” with rivers full of water and the ground already saturated.
“It's very unusual to have so many powerful storms come in one after the other in such a short space of time - we haven't seen anything like this since about 1991,” he said. “The nasty weather of the last few days is going to continue across the UK, with the combination of high tides and a powerful storm putting coastal areas particularly at risk.”
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