GMB understands that you will be receiving today from Environment Agency (EA) managers, a report from the so-called “River Thames Lock House Study Group”.

GMB represents every single residential lock and weir keeper bar one and we have taken the unusual step of writing directly to you. This is because the report you will receive is, in the opinion of the Union and our members, flawed and we do not recognise it or its findings.  Despite our repeated requests, GMB was not invited to be part of the “Study Group” and our expertise and opinion were excluded.

We call on you to instruct Environment Agency officers to withdraw their report in favour of a new study, to be carried out jointly with the Union to arrive at a definitive, empirical based assessment of the value or otherwise of residential lock and weir keepers to flood defence, drought, safety and all other matters relating to the EA’s responsibilities on the River Thames.  Such an approach would be a vehicle by which we could do our business in private and arrive at a fair evidence-based conclusion and would guarantee that you, and we, can address the following concerns we have set out below:

The Chairman of the Environment Agency had the right to expect to receive a detailed report which accurately reflected the costs and benefits of reducing the number of resident lock and weir keepers and renting out lock cottages. The report is neither accurate nor detailed and is not fit for the purpose intended.

The evidence in support of employing a resident keeper at every site is overwhelming. The fact that none of this evidence is contained within the report cannot be an oversight.

Lock and Weir Keepers, and their Union, will ensure that the Chairman and the public are made aware of all relevant facts. Our report will provide evidence which can only lead to the conclusion that E.A. managers’ claims of substantial savings were fictitious and that increasing the response times to out-of-hours incidents does put lives and property at risk.

We will highlight that senior E.A. managers repeatedly made misleading public statements contrary to the Environment Agency’s Code of Conduct.

Our report will be evidence based and will be supported by way of water records, daily manning sheets, rotas, health and safety reports, incidents reports, emails, memo’s and financial accounts.

The in depth knowledge and expertise of Lock and Weir Keepers was crucial in exposing the errors- both in judgement and fact - Waterways managers made in 2008, when they recommended to the previous Regional Director that he could reduce the number of residents and rent vacant lock houses, without any impact of safety or flood defences.

Information and advice provided by our members assisted the new Regional Director Howard Davidson to conclude;

"We have listened carefully to staff, MPs, river users and those who live in the flood plain, who all raised objections to our original proposals announced earlier this year.

"We have carried out a full review into this, and as a result, we have reached the conclusion that keeping a resident lock and weir keeper at each of our 45 sites along the Thames is the sensible way forward to enhance how we manage the river as safely and efficiently as possible."

There can be no good reason for denying Lock and Weir Keepers the opportunity of participating in the current review, other than to prevent them from exposing the weakness of the current policy. A failure to involve staff  has meant that the Group could only call for operational advice from the same Waterways managers who had provided discredited information to the previous Director.

Claims that this policy would result in savings in employment costs of £32,000 for every resident post removed, took no account that the operational void would need to be filled by a relief – whose employment costs are £32,000. The result: little or no savings.

In what can only be seen as an attempt to create the illusion of savings, Waterway managers manipulated manning levels, so as to increase employment costs at residential sites and allocated operational costs away from the non-residential sites.

It is ridiculous for Waterways to have claimed that increasing the response time to incidents from minutes to hours, would not affect safety or the E.A’s ability to effectively manage river levels.

In an attempt to justify this claim, Environment Agency managers created a mythical standby, of between 250 and 400 employees (depending upon which manager was interviewed), who they claimed responded to out-of-hours incidents on the River Thames.  It is the intention of our members to put the Environment Agency to a strict test of evidence.

The “Housing Groups” terms of reference allowed them the scope to consider relevant information collected from other lock sites. How the Group managed to come to the conclusion that incidents in which Resident Lock & Keepers saved lives, was not relevant is beyond belief.

E.A. managers on the Group were aware that Environment Agency Health and Safety policies required all incidents to be recorded, analysed and the lessons learned applied across the organisation. These managers should have insisted that Waterways made all relevant health and safety information available.

Had this information been available to the Group, it must be beyond doubt that the report would have highlighted to the Chairman the considerable risk incurred by reducing the number of Residents.

Incidents which were recorded on SHERMs include:

·          Boy saved from flood water                                     Resident position under threat          

Boy saved from flood waters by Resident Keeper as he was being swept towards the weir pool

·          Man saved from swollen river                     Out of hours

Man saved from swollen river by Resident Keeper after he had fallen from his boat

·          Rowers & coach swept onto weir                Out of hours

Resident Keeper closes in weir and assists emergency service, after schoolboys were forced against the weir and their coach swept through the weir

·          Boat in trapped on weir                               Out of hours

Resident Keeper closes in weir and assists emergency services

·          Boater suffers broken ankle                         Out of hours

Resident Keeper raises alarm and assists emergency services

·          Boater suspected broken pelvis                   Unmanned lock during core hours

Injured person lifted back onto boat and taken to next manned lock for assistance

·          Boater suffers multiple fractures                 Out of hours

Relief keeper assists emergency services, having arrived at site early

·          Boaters swept through weir                                    24 hour site

Duty keeper raises alarm and assists emergency services

·          Boat trapped on weir                                               Out of hours

Resident closes in weir, raises alarm and assists emergency services

·          Fire threatened lock house                          Out of hours

Resident keeper raises alarm and assists emergency services

Had the Chairman not intervened and prevented Abingdon Lock House being rented out, as was first planned, it is highly likely that the Environment Agency would now be involved in an entirely different type of review.

The first draft of the report makes clear that the Group relied on NIRS to identify water level management incidents. It is from this data they deduced no water level incidents had occurred.  This is hardly surprising given that these incidents are not recorded on NIRS. Though Waterways managers were aware of this oversight, it seems they did not feel it necessary to inform other members of the Group, or ensure that these incidents were recorded on this system.

Though staff repeatedly raised concerns, it wasn’t until twenty two months into the two year review that Waterways advised that water level management incidents should be recorded and as yet they have still to issue this directive to their staff.

Records provide irrefutable evidence that a failure to operate weirs in time causes water levels to rise or fall to the extent that it has a detrimental effect on navigation, property, river dependent businesses, water extraction and wildlife. From this evidence it is clear that increasing the response time, from minutes to a “goal” two hours could lead to low lying properties flooding unnecessarily.



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