Fears have been expressed over the possibility of escalating drowning instances in Berkshire's River Thames after ongoing staff cutbacks at the Environmental Agency.

Kevin Brandstatter from the GMB Union emphasised the increasing correlation between drownings and diminished staffing at locks and weirs.

The scope of concern encompasses a variety of factors including inadequate operation of weir gates, poor maintenance of river banks, ongoing staff shortages, and consequential impacts on community safety.

An experienced lock keeper, who wishes to remain anonymous, highlighted the underlying issues linked to the role, stating: "A lot of the lock keepers on the Thames are residents so they’re based at one site but cover other sites as and when needed.

"There should be a full quota of residents at every lock but there are vacancies currently not being filled.

"On top of the vacancies, the Agency is not providing enough of the travelling lock and weir staff.

"The ones that are left are having to cover more locks and weirs to try and hold it all together."

The role of a weir keeper is critical in maintaining safe water levels and preventing flood risks.

The keeper revealed the adverse consequence of insufficient staff, stating: "The longer you leave the gaps between weir operations, potentially the more dangerous the flow and the height that the river gets in the meantime.

"With weirs not being operated in a timely manner, you do find that areas are becoming flooded more often and that’s causing damage to the river banks."

The lock keeper underscored the potential risk factors for the public, especially in regards to unsound river banks.

"Some of the drownings in Reading are because people have fallen in on damaged river banks and that is one of the consequences of the Environmental Agency’s lack of maintenance."

Addressing the issue of staffing and increased responsibilities, the lock keeper explained, "We’re not able to perform the tasks and roles we normally could which help keep the public safe and we’re not being given the support from the environment agency to cope with the fact that we’ve got less staff.

"The expectation is that we should be performing exactly the way we have been with nearly a quarter less staff."

In light of the challenging circumstance, the lock keeper emphasised the crucial role of lock keepers in intervening and saving lives stating, "Accidents that are prevented because of lock keepers are hundreds every year across the course of the river.

"They are actually preventing someone from going into the river and getting people out."

Moreover, the current staff cuts have decreased the number of lock keepers from 108 in summer 2008 to only 66 today.

The minimum recommended for the summer months is 90 staff and currently, there are only 63.

Resident lock keepers are down to 43 from a recommended 45 and full-time lock keepers are down to 10 from the required 14. 

Addressing this issue with profound concern, the lock keeper said: "The most challenging thing for me is the genuine concern that someone is going to get hurt or worse...That’s quite an unpleasant pressure to be under."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Environment Agency stated: "To provide additional support during the busy boating season, we have recruited an additional 10 staff to help...Public Safety Risk Assessments are undertaken at all our sites to ensure the public can remain safe whether there is a lock keeper in attendance or not."

However, Kevin Brandstatter, GMB National Officer, held a strong stand against the agency, expressing: "These staff changes have been made with no notice and without speaking to the people who know – the lock keepers.

"GMB believes the Environment Agency has failed in its legal obligations under the health and safety act to undertake proper risk assessment at each lock affected.

"We are calling for the agency to abandon these ill-thought out and dangerous cuts."

Indeed, between March and May 2024, five bodies have been pulled from the River Thames by emergency services.

This marks the highest number of water fatalities and drownings in years, highlighting the severity of the matter at hand.

Advocating for improvements in staffing, operational efficiency and overall public safety, the GMB union continues to exert pressure on the Environment Agency to reverse these dangerous cutbacks.