The floods in Berkshire are devastating. They have wrecked people's homes, businesses and lives. My heart goes out to everyone affected by this destruction and I can understand their sorrow, frustration and anger.
Right now, our priority must be taking urgent action to protect ourselves, help those in need, put down sandbags, pump water, defend our homes and businesses or relocate to a safe place.
We need to keep these floods at bay
Water levels are still rising and more rain is forecast across the Thames Valley over the next few days. The Environment Agency has warned that water levels might not stop rising until the middle of this week - or even beyond that. This situation looks set to get worse before it gets better.
So we must work hard to keep as people's properties safe. Local volunteers have shown us what can be achieved with grit and determination. In Wraysbury there's a local force of literally hundreds of people, including hard-working flood wardens and local councillors, doing everything they can to help their neighbours and friends.
Wading around the constituency these last few days, I have been overwhelmed by the strength of our community across Berkshire from Ham Island and Old Windsor to Wraysbury, Datchet, Horton and Hythe End. These are people who working tirelessly, often for very long periods without rest or sleep, distributing sand bags, helping people get to safety and making sure people have food and clean water.
A national emergency requires a national response
When I spoke with the prime minister last night he was equally determined to do everything possible to help Berkshire, and will be making all the country's resources available to Windsor and other flood affected areas. He has said that money is no object in this relief effort, and whatever is needed will be spent. He is committed, as I am, to doing everything possible to alleviate the suffering and make sure that the actual response on the ground is as desired.
It means a lot to have the country on our side, and I am thankful for the prime minister's support during these tough times. This is a national emergency with deep local repercussions and the prime minister's unequivocal announcement of further support will be welcomed by lots of people in Berkshire.
Questions about the Environment Agency
In the face of these floods, it's understandable that people have started to ask difficult questions about the effectiveness of the Environment Agency. We will need answers to lots of different questions in order to learn the necessary lessons for the future. But we cannot get sidetracked by a political row as the waters are rising.
We should be wary of turning this catastrophe into a political blame game at the worst time possible. A game like this will mean very little to people who don't have somewhere warm and dry to sleep, can't wash or cook and don't have access to clean water. Right now, nationally, we need to pull together and concentrate on helping people in the way the residents, like the councillors and wardens in Berkshire have demonstrated.
The time will come for making recommendations and learning lessons and I'm not about to let this issue drop. I want answers and I want action, but only once the imminent danger has cleared. We will need some distance before we are able to find all the answers and this process will need to be level-headed, scientific and fair to everyone involved. I have previously called for an independent review into the actions of the Environment Agency - and I'm doing so again today.
Review of the Environment Agency
Over the last few weeks, it has become clear that lots of people have lost faith in the Environment Agency - both in the agency's ability to protect them and to act in their interest. Many people have said to me that they feel that the agency hasn't done enough and may actually have made the situation much worse. This is a great shame because there are many hard-working frontline Environment Agency staff who are playing an absolutely crucial role in the area monitoring and managing flood levels. They have always been professional, knowledgeable and well informed.
In the next few months, I believe we need to commit to a full, thorough and speedy review of the Environment Agency's actions during the last few months and their role in general. This review should tie up all of the important unanswered questions, and it should be undertaken in a calm and scientific way.
This review should look at whether the Jubilee River contributed to flood levels downstream this year. There are reasonable concerns that the Jubilee River diverted too much water and flooded Ham Island, Datchet and Wraysbury when in Maidenhead the Thames was nowhere near capacity. It will also need to answer questions about the length of time it took the Environment Agency to warn local people about the floods and whether dredging could be a possible partial solution.
This process would not only help restore faith in the agency locally, but help us understand how we can improve the Environment Agency operates. It should be able to tell us whether the agency needs extra funding or more internal flexibility to allocate its resources effectively.
It would also help us find a long-term solution for flooding risk in Berkshire and the rest of the Thames Valley. This might mean a return to dredging, fast-tracking the construction of the extension of the Jubilee River to Teddington or other measures. I'm sure there will be no silver bullet and that this will take time and thought, but we must commit ourselves to this process so that next time we're more prepared.
But before we can find long-term solutions we need to get people to safety. We need to focus on people, their homes and their future. I for one don't want politicians and others to waste valuable energy on petty disputes when people in this country are suffering.