Jeremy Corbyn has criticised David Cameron for travelling to York at the height of the city’s floods and distracting emergency workers battling to help people whose homes were flooded.
The Labour leader came to the city on New Year’s Eve to inspect the damage caused by the floods, which hit hundreds of homes in the city when the River Foss burst its banks on Boxing Day.
“The last thing you want is people getting in the way at the height of an emergency,” said Corbyn, when asked why it took him three days longer than the prime minister to visit the scene of devastation. “I don’t want to get in the way of people doing an emergency job at a highly critical time, turn up in the midst of all that and distract engineers.”
The prime minister visited the city on 28 December, at the height of the floods, which were largely caused when the Environment Agency chose to shut down a key flood defence when its control room was overwhelmed by water. As a result hundreds of homes that are usually protected were inundated shortly after Christmas.
Corbyn said he wanted to learn from what had happened to make sure the floods were not repeated and “immediately put pressure on the government to fully fund the Environment Agency and new defences”.
Attacking the coalition government’s decision to reduce budgets at the agency over the last five years he said “the answer has to be to increase support” and “fully fund the Environment Agency, not cut its budget”.
The Labour leader also appeared to distance himself from attacks on the Environment Agency attributed to him and briefed out to journalists by Labour party press officers overnight. Labour had issued quotes in Corbyn’s name suggesting the agency owned 10 high-volume pumps but did not deploy them to the North to help with flooding.
In York, Corbyn said he was satisfied the agency had done everything possible in the circumstances. Asked about his attack on the Environment Agency, he said: “I’ve been talking about this and it seems the problem here is the sheer volume of water and the controls of the switch gear to deal with it were flooded out. So I’m very satisfied with what I’ve been told this morning.
“The improvements have to come after the floods have subsidised in terms of flood defences, in terms of waste management, in terms of resilience of the entire emergency planning system.”
Corbyn also dismissed criticism of Sir Philip Dilley, the chairman of the Environment Agency, for being on holiday in Barbados while the floods peaked since he could not have helped on the ground. “The engineers on site are the people dealing with it,” he said.
Instead he praised the “superhuman efforts” of the emergency services and Environment Agency staff: “These are people working 24/7 to keep York safe."
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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