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Thames Residential Lock Keepers Under Threat

Friday, January 10, 2014

With Thames Flooded GMB Shocked To Learn Of Environment Agency New Push To Cut 90 Residential Lock Keepers After Minister Was Assured Of No Cuts To Front Line Flood Defences

New report in March 2014 will recommend revival of rejected plan for a substantial reduction in the number of lock and weir keepers on the River Thames and a freeze on the recruitment of resident keepers says GMB.

GMB, the union for staff at the Environment Agency (EA) dealing with flood defences, learned today that plans will be put forward in March 2014 by EA to cut 90 Residential Keepers dealing with locks, sluices and weirs on the River Thames.

Frank Minal, GMB regional officer, said “With the River Thames flooded, and a  just a week after EA Chief Executive Paul Leinster assured the Government that there would be no cuts to front line flood defences as part of the proposed 1,700 jobs are cut, GMB is shocked to learn that EA plan to table a report in March 2014 with plans to cut 90 residential keepers on the river.

GMB has learned that the report will recommend a substantial reduction in the number of lock and weir keepers on the river Thames and a freeze on the recruitment of resident keepers.

This will further increase the risk of flooding, potentially putting lives and property at risk. These unnecessary changes will see the response time to operate weirs and sluices increase from minutes to hours. 

That is because each weir needs to be operated sequencially and any weir that isn't adjusted in time or by the correct amount will act as a dam. Any delay leads to water being held back and the river level rising unnecessary.

A delay of only twenty minutes in fully opening weir gates and sluices can cause water levels to peak several inches higher than they otherwise might have done. To those living in low lying areas, every inch is critical, especially when watching flood water creep towards the front door.

Under working practices proposed once a keeper has operated one weir they will have to race to the next site, which are typically in remote locations (on occasions by bus or bike) in order to operate the weir in the hope of doing so before water levels start to rise.

Environment Agency managers claim that they no longer needed resident keepers as they had over two hundred employees on stand-by to respond to incidents on the Thames. These claims have been shown to be misleading, as none of those on stand-by are able to operate the weirs and many live hours away.

All those who use or live by the river are aware of the critical work residents perform.  Living on site they are able to respond in minutes both day and night, often in atrocious conditions, to the threat of rising river levels or to give assistance to boats which are in danger of going over their weirs.   

The Environment Agency originally claimed that it would save £47,000 for every resident post frozen have been found to be vacuous. In April 2012 EA Chairman Lord Smith of Finsbury challenged his managers to justify these claims. A year later managers were forced to ask the Chairman for more time, when the GMB showed the figures they had produced were fundamentally flawed. The EA has still failed to provide any meaningful evidence to support the claimed savings.   

The EA does not give up on these plans. In 2008 the EA was forced into a humiliating U-turn, when a pressure group supported by Thames Valley MP's showed that similar plans to rent out lock houses would put safety at risk and would not result in any real savings. In 2013 EA started to look at it again and this was put it on hold due to criticism of their evaluation by GMB. We now learn that there will be a new EA report to press on with the plan in March 2014.

 It's disgraceful that only four years later Agency managers have used the economic climate as a smokescreen to try and force through these unpopular changes. Freezing resident posts will put those living by and using the Thames at further risk without producing any savings.

With so much at stake its time for a full Parliamentary Audit of the Environment Agency Waterways Department".

End

Contact: Frank Minal, GMB Regional Organiser Tel: 07713 079 930 / 01256 308080 Email: frank.minal@gmb.org.uk

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