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Norfolk flood sirens face the axe

PUBLISHED: 07:02 08 July 2009 | UPDATED: 10:40 06 July 2010

Sirens that have protected people living on the Norfolk coast from the threat of serious flooding since the second world war are poised to be axed by the end of the month.

By ED FOSS and RICHARD BATSON

Sirens that have existed since the second world war to warn people living on the Norfolk coast about the threat of serious flooding are poised to be axed by the end of the month.

A recommendation from senior officers at Norfolk County Council after a three-year study into the sirens' future use has urged councillors to make a final decision and scrap them - because they are unreliable, likely to cause panic, unfit for purpose and cost £42,500 a year to run.

Last night, there was a furious reaction among campaigners who have been trying to save most of the 57 sirens and a pledge to see the bitter row through to a successful conclusion. The campaigners insist the sirens are an essential back-up to the main Environ-ment Agency telephone warning system and should be upgraded.

Their campaign has been fuelled in part by concerns about what would happen if there was a repeat of the east coast floods of 1953, which killed 100 Norfolk people, and many other less serious flooding events since.

The sirens' death knell appears to have been sounded in a report to next Tuesday's Fire and Community Protection Overview and Scrutiny Panel at Norfolk County Council.

John Ellis, the county's head of emergency planning, says in a report that the legal duty to warn people of flooding lies with the Environment Agency, while the responsibility for evacuating people lies, ultimately, with a group chaired by Norfolk police.

The report details how a decision was delayed for a year at members' request to allow for consultation with coastal communities, and outlines the views expressed by the Environment Agency and Norfolk police - who both say they cannot see any situation in which they would ever use the sirens.

Mr Ellis' report recommends the committee asks the council cabinet to withdraw the flood sirens from service at midnight on July 31.

That would be in line with the findings of a cross-party scrutiny group which examined the issue last year, says Mr Ellis.

His report says the group concluded that unless MPs could persuade the police or Environment Agency to change their stance, the county council could not justify spending tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on retaining and maintaining a system which would never be used.

It also says emergency planning officers in Norfolk believed the sirens were not fit for purpose, the system was not reliable and the messages they gave, if heard, were not clearly understood by the community.

"Any sounding of them could cause confusion and panic. This in turn could leave the emergency services to deal with secondary incidents, thus not allowing them to effectively manage an evacuation process," says Mr Ellis.

Harry Humphrey, cabinet member for Fire and Community Protection, said: "In March it was agreed to give the MPs more time and to make a decision in July. It now seems apparent that the agencies have not been persuaded and therefore the recommendations of the working group should now be followed."

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said yesterday he was "disgusted" by the plan to scrap the sirens, which would appal coastal communities.

Paul Morse, leader of the Liberal Democrats at County Hall, called the proposal "a slap in the face of the people".

"As the councillor who represents Walcott, an area which experienced flooding in 2007, I know the importance of the flood sirens in keeping Norfolk's residents safe," said Mr Morse.

He also accused the Conservative administration at County Hall of a U-turn: "We are just 32 days into a new council and already this administration is breaking their manifesto promises.

"They categorically stated that they 'will fight Environment Agency plans to shut down the flood sirens', yet they announce that they plan to withdraw funding for them."

David Callaby, the Lib Dem's spokesman for Fire and Community Protection, said: "The public were consulted on this very issue and strongly requested that the sirens be kept in service."

Marie Strong, who has been a leading campaigner during the flood sirens battle and was voted in as a county councillor for the Wells division last month, will take her place on the Fire and Community Protection panel for the first time next week.

She said: "It's absolutely appalling; I knew inside myself this was going to happen, but we will carry on with our campaign.

"I'm optimistic about the future of the flood sirens - after all, it's common sense to keep them."

Maurice Gray, from Walcott, said the levels of anger about the prospect of losing flood sirens were as high as ever in the village.

"It seems as if they got the county council elections out of the way and then threw this out."

The meeting will be held at 10am on Tuesday in the Edwards Room at County Hall.

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