Weathering the storm: Ministers in flood talks as criticism of No 10 rises

Cobra meeting held as more rain and strong winds set to batter UK

The miserable Christmas weather that many in Britain have suffered looks set to continue tonight as more heavy rain and high winds are expected to batter parts of the country, increasing the risk of further flooding and piling more pressure on an already-stretched relief effort.

Up to 40mm of rain, approaching half of the average total for December, is expected to fall over south-west England and Wales into Monday morning, while areas of Scotland could face between 50mm and 60mm. Most areas will have between 15mm and 30mm of rain.

Gale-force winds will also hit Wales, and south-west and southern England, with the possibility of gusts of up to 80mph across exposed areas such as the Isles of Scilly, west Cornwall and west Wales.

The Environment Agency said there is a "heightened flood risk" in areas of southern England as river levels stay high and ground remains "already saturated over much of this region". More than 70 flood-alert warnings were still in effect last night, alongside more than a dozen flood warnings across England and Wales, with further calls for immediate preventative action to be taken. There were also about 20 warnings still in effect in Scotland with little chance of large areas of the UK drying out until the New Year.

Downing Street hosted a Cobra meeting yesterday morning as it faced mounting criticism over its handling of the adverse weather effects. Housing minister Kris Hopkins, Energy minister Baroness Verma, Business minister Lord Livingston and officials from the Environment Agency were at the meeting chaired by Defra minister George Eustice.

David Cameron later tweeted: "I've asked the Dept for Communities & Local Govt to ensure councils have robust plans in case of bad weather and flooding over New Year."

Approximately 4,000 homes could still be without electricity tomorrow. Power companies in Cumbria and North Wales, areas which saw 2,000 families affected by power-outs, said they expected the vast majority of homes to be reconnected overnight.

UK Power Networks, which owns electricity lines and cables in London, the South-east and East of England, said it will increase payments for 48- to 60-hour outages from £27 to £75 for those affected on Christmas Day as "a gesture of goodwill". Additional payments – up to £432 – will be made to customers who have been without electricity for longer.

Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, was said to be insisting that UK Power Networks provide a clear public timeline to get power back on. Mr Hopkins has also activated the Bellwin Scheme, to deal with funding for emergency situations, and is speaking to councils to ensure they are adequately responding to victims of the wet weather.

The Government has asked Environment Agency representatives who are assisting those affected by the floods to identify which insurance firms are not moving fast enough.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin was criticised by Mary Creagh, his shadow, for not being involved in the Cobra call, especially since ministers from the department had been "conspicuous by their absence" over the past few days. She said: "I'm surprised [he] wasn't part of the planning over the weather because disruption on the road and rail networks has been one of the massive problems over the last week."

The flooding and travel disruption caused by the Christmas storms was still being cleared yesterday with agencies working to limit the problems. Closures on the train line between London Waterloo and Portsmouth are set to go on until at least 6 January, especially between Petersfield and Haslemere, after four landslips, while trains between Horsham and London Victoria were disrupted following a landslip at Ockley. On the Isle of Wight, the Island line from Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin was suspended after major flooding.

A spokesman for Network Rail said that it was waiting for word from the Office for Rail Regulation (ORR) on the final decision about the money it can spend to combat problems such as flooding, which it will receive in the New Year.

He said: "We are funded in five-year cycles and the next period runs from 2014 to 2019. Part of our submission to the [ORR] was for... money specifically to deal with making the railway more resilient when it comes to extreme weather... if we get that money, great, if not, we will still need to do the work and invest the money to make the network more resilient."

Network Rail officials have said a "high-level strategy" includes a £31m plan targeting high-risk flood sites, if the money is sanctioned.

Ms Creagh called on ministers to ensure that the money is available quickly. She said: "I think ministers need to make sure that the money goes to Network Rail to help them tackle climate change and flooding incidents. Ministers need to speed that up and make sure it is adequate."

Tree safety

Every cloud has a silver lining and storm clouds particularly so, especially if you are tree specialist. The storms lashing the UK have resulted in one of the trade's busiest periods in recent memory.

Graham Kenward, director of South East Tree Surgeons, which covers an area hard hit by the storms, said: "There has been a massive rise in call-outs, our services are hugely required." The strong winds across the nation led to uprooted trees and broken boughs, causing havoc and disruption as they fell across roads, cars and houses.

Dan Ashton of Heritage Tree Specialists said: "The Christmas period has been a busy time. We've been a bit overrun." A rise in "extreme weather" had weakened the trees in the Norfolk area that his company covers and the recent storms were "the straw that broke the camel's back".

Network Rail estimated that more than 200 trees had to be cleared as it battled to restore its services. And Southern Electric said that falling trees had brought down power lines.

In Buckinghamshire, tree specialists Salcey provided three teams to deal with 71 reports requiring emergency tree removal. These included one tree blocking the A40 and another that fell across the River Thames downstream from Marlow, blocking the busy waterway.

Nick Clark

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