Ministers warned three years ago over flood defence failings

Water levels still rising as thousands hit by worst floods in modern British history

The government was last night accused of failing to act on its own advice to overhaul UK flood defences and drainage systems which first highlighted deep-seated problems three years ago.

As large tracts of central and southern England remained under water, leaving tens of thousands of homes without power or drinking water, the environment minister, Hilary Benn, announced an independent review into what is being billed as the worst episode of flooding in modern British history.

But it emerged last night that the government was warned in two separate reports that the plans in place to tackle flood risks were "complex, confusing and distressing for the public". In July 2004 the government said it needed to improve co-ordination between water companies, councils and the Environment Agency; then in 2005, the government also agreed to "work towards giving" the agency "an overarching strategic overview across all flooding and coastal erosion risks".

Ministers promised to transfer this responsibility by 2006.

Defra's own analysis has concluded that the current divisions of tasks lead to:

· A lack of information for those affected by flooding, with people passed between organisations and no one taking responsibility.

· Insufficient risk assessment because no single organisation has the incentive to carry it out.

· Development planning decisions being taken without a full understanding of the risks of urban flooding

· Separate organisations making investment decisions based on priorities in their own area of responsibility without considering the wider drainage issues.

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: "The government has been looking at an integrated approach for more than three years, but did not act on its own analysis in 2005. Ministers have been in and out of the revolving door at the department, and now we are to have another review to look at exactly the same issues again."

The concerns were raised as the Environment Agency warned the crisis would worsen and persist for at least 24 hours.

Eight severe warnings remained in place covering the Thames, Severn and Ouse , in particular the towns of Gloucester, Tewkesbury, Oxford, Abingdon, Reading and Bedford, amid the worst flooding in 60 years. Fifty other flood warnings were in place across England and Wales.

Serious flooding had already hit Oxford last night but it will be this morning before the town is over the worst. Bedford was expected to be badly hit early this morning and water levels in Gloucester were expected to peak at 20ft (six metres) tonight. The Thames, which has reached the levels of the Great Floods of 1947, was expected to peak at Reading tomorrow.

So far up to 350,000 homes have lost, or are at risk of losing, water supplies in Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Cheltenham as a result of flooding of the Mythe treatment plant, which remains out of action.

The water company Severn Trent sent more than 400 mini-tankers of water to areas in Gloucestershire. It handed out 150,000 litres of bottled water at various places in the area. Emergency services ferried in bottled supplies to trapped residents. Each "at risk" person has been given three days supply. The company asked for water to be used sparingly.

A total of 45,000 homes were without power, including at Castle Mead and Tewkesbury, after an electricity substation was turned off due to the rising water.

Mr Benn told the Commons up to 10,000 homes have been, or could be, flooded across the country, and 200,000 homes face losing power if Walham switching station in Gloucester is flooded. Armed forces were drafted in to help fire service and Environment Agency staff build a temporary barrier around the site and start pumping out 18 inches of flood water. The situation remained "serious". The Atomic Weapons Establishment at Burghfield, Berkshire, was also flooded but there has been no escape of radioactive materials.

After visiting Gloucester, Gordon Brown, used his first monthly press conference to link the situation to climate change and pledged to invest in coastal and flood defences. The government has promised an extra £200m to the Environment Agency over the next three years to improve flood defences, but the agency has said that £1bn a year is needed.


Patrick Wintour and Karen McVeigh

The GuardianTramp

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