Boris Johnson has agreed to chair a meeting of the government’s emergency committee on Tuesday to discuss the response to the recent severe floods, after he was urged by Jeremy Corbyn to “take personal charge” of the situation.
The announcement by Downing Street came as residents began a clean-up operation, and warned that further damage was likely unless existing water was pumped away.
Corbyn had said that he disagreed with the prime minister’s assessment at the weekend that the flooding was “not looking like something we need to escalate to the level of a national emergency” and urged him to convene the Cobra meeting.
The Labour leader wrote to Johnson: “If this had happened in Surrey, not Yorkshire or the east Midlands, it seems far more likely that a national emergency would have been declared.”
He called for the government to ensure “every resource is being utilised to aid those that need it and protect against future potential floods” and “that the insurance industry fulfils its responsibilities”.
Downpours last week meant several areas from Yorkshire to Derbyshire and the east Midlands were deluged with one month’s worth of rain in a day.
On Monday, the Environment Agency had five severe “danger to life” flood warnings in place, all in and around Doncaster, as well as 39 flood warnings across the country. Last week the River Don burst its banks, leaving houses inundated by floodwater and forcing residents out of their homes.
Residents in Fishlake, near Doncaster, raised concerns that more flooding was likely unless the existing water was pumped away, with more rain forecast for Thursday night.
In Fishlake, 51-year-old Grant Berry said he had spent three dark nights marooned on the first floor of his house in Fishlake, relying on candles for light after the electricity was knocked out.
It was just before 1am on Saturday that the Environment Agency issued a “danger to life” warning for the village after a month’s rain fell in 24 hours. But Berry and his wife, Samantha, did not get it, having not signed up to the agency’s text alerts. Nor did many residents of their pretty South Yorkshire village, who thought they had escaped the worst after a major emergency was declared across the county on Thursday night.
They only realised they were in trouble when the water started rushing down the lane by their house. Two nearby rivers, the Don and Ea Beck, had breached their banks, spilling into Fishlake, which centuries ago was settled on a floodplain. The couple had just a few minutes to grab their most precious belongings and a packet of candles before their ground floor was a foot underwater, tripping the electrics.
At the bottom of the drive, the floodwaters had reached waist-height. The couple were going nowhere. All weekend, they sat upstairs eating crisps and corned beef, taking turns to look forlornly out of the window at the For Sale sign outside, poking up from the floodwater.
“We can forget about selling up now,” said Berry, showing the Guardian around the musty ground floor on Monday after the waters had receded, the floorboards warped after their rapid submersion.
Like at least half of the 175 households in Fishlake, the Berrys had no intention of abandoning their property, even though the threat to life warning was firmly in place. Not only did they have nowhere to go, but they worried their home could be targeted by looters.
John Waite, 75, one of the voluntary flood wardens, insisted the door of a local funeral parlour had been forced, leading to the surreal sight of coffins – empty, thankfully – “floating down the high street”. But South Yorkshire police said there were no confirmed reports. “We’ve got a drone up, boats and crime prevention patrols and we can’t find any evidence of criminality,” said a spokeswoman.
In the Hare and Hounds, Andrew Benford was stroking his border terrier, Mazy. Along with several other homeless residents, the pair had been sleeping together on a camp bed in the pub since Friday night when their bungalow was flooded. The new landlords, Scott and Angie Godfrey, had been amazing, said Benford. “They can’t do enough for us.”
On Monday afternoon the first high-volume pump arrived in Fishlake to reduce water levels, which were still several foot deep in some areas of the village. In nearby Bentley Ings, which flooded on Thursday night, an RAF Chinook helicopter had been deployed to reinforce flood banks with aggregate.
However, there was no sign of Doncaster council in Fishlake. A spokeswoman said it could not send in employees for health and safety reasons, and had been asked to stay away by the emergency services while the severe flood warning was in place. While expressing sympathy for residents, she criticised them for using the fire service as “a courier service”. Throughout Monday, fire officers ferried prescriptions via dinghy from house to house, checking that anyone who wanted to leave could do so.
For many residents, the council’s absence was all the more jarring given how many journalists had managed to travel on amphibious vehicles to reach the village, hitching a ride from the nearby pit village of Stainforth. The Guardian was given a lift by one of these “Land Rover heroes”, Neil Carpenter, who with his son Lewis had been providing a shuttle service all weekend, refusing money for petrol.
“What you have seen here is people who have very little, giving a lot,” said town councillor Phil Bedford, who was coordinating a respite centre at Stainforth community resource centre, which was filled with donations of everything from sanitary towels to tins of beans – and even a pair of flippers. “This is a response from the people not the authorities.”