The Environment Agency has denied there are proposals to end residential lock-keeping on the non-tidal River Thames.

But its says a study group is currently examing the future management of the river " both with and without resident lock and weir keepers."

The agency was responding to union claims last week - reported by River Thames News - that the EA wanted "rid of residential lock keepers". The GMB said any cutback would endanger lives and increase risk of flooding.

The study group was set up following protests when the agency announced plans to rent out lock-side houses, traditionally occupied by lock-keepers.

The latest EA statement said :" In response to this our chairman, Lord Smith, agreed to form a joint study group made up of boater representatives from the Thames User Group (navigation) and Environment Agency managers.

"The group is examining the management and operation of a number of our lock sites, both with and without resident lock and weir keepers, to help understand the implications of renting vacant lock houses.

"The lock house study group is still active and has not yet reported on its findings, so there is no feasibility study or recommendations / proposals around the future of River Thames lock houses at this stage. Lord Smith capped the number of lock houses to be rented at five, and this is still the case.

"We will continue to be open in sharing information and will keep Environment Agency waterways staff, their union representatives and our customer representatives fully informed of progress.”

Michael Shefras, who represents the Thames User Group on the study group said "Our position is that there should be a dedicated lock- and weir-keeper at every lock".

The GMB union and many boaters say it is essential to have staff living on the river for safety and to control river levels.

Earlier the union said it aimed to " alert the public of our members' grave concerns on new proposals to end residential lock keeping along the River Thames."

The union said the proposal was contained in a feasilibility study and would result in a response time to local incidents increasing from around 15 minutes at present to a target of two hours.

Frank Minal, GMB regional officer, said “This new feasibility study is flawed as it fails to properly identify costs and does not take into account information critical to public safety and flood prevention.

"An examination of the study shows that the Environment Agency’s claims of a £256,000 saving are vacuous. In particular the data provided fails to consider the last 12 months inclement weather and the potential for continued periods of drought or heavy rainfall which was identified as a major issue by the Environment Agency’s Chairman, Lord Smith of Finsbury, earlier this week.

" As far back as 2011 GMB offered suggestions which would have saved the Environment Agency £200,000 whilst improving frontline services and flood defence capabilities. These suggestions have been ignored.

"It is clear that over the course of the last 12 months rapid response times by residential lock and weir keepers have saved lives. The proposed two hour response target will put safety on the river at high risk and increase the risks of properties being flooded.

"The costs and risks associated with replacing highly skilled residential keepers with inexperienced agency workers have not been properly considered. The Environment Agency’s proposals would lead to a worse service, which costs more money to operate. They are not in the interests of those living near or using the Thames. ”

Story updated March 12th 2013

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