The Environment Agency plans to cut 90 lock- and weir-keepers on the Thames, their union said on Friday night.

The GMB union said a report in March will recommend the revival of an earlier rejected plan for a reduction in the number of lock keepers and a freeze on the recruitment of resident keepers.

The agency said on Saturday that budgets have yet to be confirmed so exact details of job losses can not yet be announced..

Frank Minal, GMB regional officer, said “With the River Thames flooded, and just a week after EA Chief Executive Paul Leinster assured the Government that there would be no cuts to front-line flood defences as part of the proposed 1,700 jobs cut, the GMB is shocked to learn that EA plan to table a report in March 2014 with plans to cut 90 residential keepers on the river.

"This will further increase the risk of flooding, potentially putting lives and property at risk. These unnecessary changes will see the response time to operate weirs and sluices increase from minutes to hours.

" A delay of only 20 minutes in fully opening weir gates and sluices can cause water levels to peak several inches higher than they otherwise might have done. To those living in low lying areas, every inch is critical, especially when watching flood water creep towards the front door."

The union said EA managers claim that they no longer needed resident keepers as they had over 200 employees on stand-by to respond to incidents on the Thames. But it said the claims have "been shown to be misleading, as none of those on stand-by are able to operate the weirs and many live hours away.

"All those who use or live by the river are aware of the critical work residents perform.  Living on site they are able to respond in minutes both day and night, often in atrocious conditions, to the threat of rising river levels or to give assistance to boats which are in danger of going over
their weirs."

The Environment Agency said in a statement: "“Our budget for 14/15 will be confirmed shortly. However, we are likely to reduce staff numbers from the previous forecast of around 11,250 at the end of March 2014 to around 9,700 by October 2014.  We will then aim to keep numbers broadly at that level through to March 2015 dependent of course on future funding.

“The planned reductions in posts will not affect the Environment Agency's ability to respond to flooding incidents and the Environment Agency will minimise the impact on other front line services through the changes.

“The detail of how different teams within the Environment Agency will be affected is not yet finalised so we will not comment further, but union, staff and customer engagement is planned across the Environment Agency over the coming months.”

The latest news follows earlier controversies over renting out lock houses and cutbacks which were put on hold after protests from river users and EA staff.

The union is now calling for a full Parliamentary audit of the Environment Agency Waterways Department.

Story updated January 11th 2014

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