Boris Johnson has been accused of displaying an “utterly outrageous” lack of concern about the severe floods that have devastated hundreds of homes and caused more than 1,200 properties to be evacuated in northern England.
Under increasing pressure over the issue, the prime minister chaired a meeting of the government’s emergency committee Cobra on Tuesday after he was criticised by Jeremy Corbyn for not declaring a national emergency.
Afterwards, the government announced it would “provide funding to support the recovery efforts of local councils where households and businesses have been affected”.
It said a community recovery grant would be made available to local councils, equivalent to £500 per eligible household, and businesses would be eligible for up to £2,500 each. An additional 100 armed forces personnel will also be deployed.
Speaking afterwards, Johnson said the country had to “prepare for more floods” this winter because the ground is so waterlogged.
Criticism of Johnson by opposition leaders was echoed in the towns badly affected by the downpours, where 30 flood warnings remain in place including five “danger to life” alerts along the River Don in South Yorkshire.
In the Nottinghamshire town of Worksop, scores of residents were evacuated and more than 200 homes and businesses were flooded on Friday after a month’s worth of rain fell in 24 hours.
Simon Greaves, the Labour leader of Bassetlaw district council, said Johnson had been “preoccupied with electioneering” when he should have been coordinating a national response to the disaster, which encompasses Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and South Yorkshire.
He said: “The government had a fantastic opportunity to step up to the plate and take emergency action. For me, they were concentrating more on the general election campaign than they were on people’s lives. They had an opportunity to take action [and] they consciously chose not to. I think it’s utterly outrageous.”
Johnson was filmed mopping up in a branch of Specsavers when he visited flood-hit Matlock on Friday night after campaigning in nearby Mansfield. Earlier that day the body of Annie Hall, the former high sheriff of Derbyshire, had been found, after she had been swept away by the River Derwent at Darley Dale, not far from Matlock.
On his visit to Derbyshire, the prime minister said the government needed to invest in flood defences but that the floods were not “looking like something we need to escalate to the level of a national emergency”.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, visited Fishlake near Doncaster on Tuesday, where she announced her party’s plans for a £5bn flood prevention fund that local authorities would be able to access to improve their area’s defences.
Sue Marshall, who has been unable to return to her house since she was evacuated on Saturday, said she hoped the political visits would lead to real help for those affected – and that she feared being flooded on Thursday, when more rain is forecast.
“I’ve just said to Jo Swinson that it’s all very well her doing this but in a month’s time we’re going to be old news,” she said. “What we need to know is that in two months’ time, the MPs will revisit this and look at what has been done to stop it happening again. And my immediate concern is what are they doing now to stop it happening on Thursday.”
Corbyn made his second trip to the affected area in a week on Tuesday afternoon visiting a site of serious flooding in Doncaster, eight miles from where the Lib Dem leader made an appearance earlier in the day. He used the visit to announce Labour’s plans for a new £5.6bn fund to level up flood defences over 10 years, funded through the party’s £250bn Green Transformation Fund.
The Labour leader was shown around Custom Windows and Doors in Bentley, which has become the site of a community effort to help people affected by the floods back on their feet, housing piles of donated clothes and food.
Asked whether politicians were guilty of taking advantage of the disaster in South Yorkshire for their own electoral advantage, Corbyn said it was important that people understood that the party was serious about “providing the resources necessary to deal with what are the personal and human disasters of floods”.
Corbyn said that the Conservatives always ignored the needs of the north of England. His party’s proposed fund would prioritise areas of need in the north-west, Yorkshire and the East Midlands.
Emma King, 36, showed Corbyn around the home she lives in with her three children and partner. Her house was flooded on Friday and she said it now smelled like “stale, rotten fish”. King’s house was last flooded in 2007. “It shouldn’t have happened again,” she said.
Gwen Kincel’s home was flooded on Saturday, 12 years after it was last flooded in 2007. “They promised us this would never happen again and it has,” said Kincel, 69. “It was the same in 2007. I spent a year living upstairs last time until the downstairs of my house was back to normal and now i’m going to have to do it again.”
David Hughes, the mayor of Matlock, said it was right that the government had called an emergency meeting but he was surprised that Johnson had not yet visited the worst-affected areas. “Obviously if people are flooded for days and days on end then it is an emergency for them and it seems to be over a large area,” he said. “Given the persistency [of the floods], yes I think he probably should make a visit.”
In the Doncaster suburb of Bentley, which remained under a severe flood warning on Tuesday, Tony Nicholson said there was anger at the hierarchy of the town’s Labour council and the Conservative government over their response to the disaster.
“If this was in another area this would be deemed a national emergency. This is devastating for people’s lives,” said Nicholson, a Green party parish councillor. Nicholson said he was not making a party political point but was angry at the official response at a national and local level.
“It’s the official response that’s the issue, whoever is in charge,” he said. “It seems it has not been fast enough and because these people are not wealthy people and it has happened before, they have a sense that they’re not that important.”
Jane Cox, the leader of the Conservative group on Doncaster council, said it was inappropriate to score political points out of a human tragedy. “It does matter that [the government] should acknowledge it but I firmly believe it should not be politicised,” she said. “I would be horrified if anyone started slating anyone from the Labour party for what has happened.”