LONDON — The British Army stepped in on Sunday to help evacuate hundreds of people from waterlogged homes across the country, as swollen rivers and heavy rainfall brought misery to parts of the north and unleashed a spate of political recriminations.
Accustomed to heavy rainfall, Britain has been hit several times by flooding recently, but the effects of the latest episode have spread beyond rural areas, leaving parts of York, Leeds and Manchester submerged.
Threatened by its two rising rivers, York became the focus for emergency workers over the weekend as floodwaters engulfed many shops and pubs and came close to the ancient city’s historical buildings.
The military, which had already been deployed in Cumbria, joined the police and mountain rescue teams in York on Sunday to help people from their homes and to bolster the city’s flood defenses with sandbags. Twenty roads were closed, and around 3,500 properties were thought to be vulnerable to the rising waters.
After a telephone conference with ministers and officials on an emergency committee, Prime Minister David Cameron promised on Sunday to send more troops to “do whatever is needed” in parts of the country stricken by floods caused by what he described as “unprecedented” conditions. “What has happened — the level of the rivers, plus the level of rainfall — has created an unprecedented effect and so some very serious flooding,” Mr. Cameron told the BBC.
On Sunday, Mr. Cameron’s office said 200 military personnel were being deployed to flood-affected areas, alongside the 300 already there, with a further 1,000 being held in reserve in case the situation worsened. His office also said hard-hit regions might receive special financial help.
The disruption to major cities has prompted a more general debate about the extent to which Britain is willing to invest in adapting to the effects of climate change.
Liz Truss, the environment secretary, conceded that flood defenses had been “overwhelmed,” and Mr. Cameron promised to review spending plans, attempting to pre-empt criticism of the country’s state of preparedness. “You should look at what you’ve spent, look at what you’ve built, look at what you’re planning to spend, look at what you’re planning to build, and ask whether it’s in the right places, whether it’s enough, whether we’re doing everything we can to try and help,” Mr. Cameron said.
Although flood barriers had made a difference, he added, “It’s clear in some cases they’ve been overtopped, they’ve been overrun, and so of course we should look again at whether there’s more we should do.”
With the government seeking to restore its finances to health since the global economic crisis, spending has been constrained, and critics argue that investment in flood defenses has suffered. Kerry McCarthy, the spokeswoman on environmental issues for the opposition Labour Party, praised the emergency services on Sunday and the “strength of spirit” within the communities affected, but she added that “so-called unprecedented weather events are here to stay.”
“The government must drop its complacency over the need for climate change adaptation,” Ms. McCarthy said. “It must also invest in maintaining flood defenses, rather than cutting them as they had planned, as well as look urgently at what else can be done to reduce flood risk in future.”
John McDonnell, Labour’s economic policy spokesman, said that “as politicians we must not just sit idly by watching these awful scenes on TV, but come together to act.” He called for a “cross-party approach to securing a long-term stable plan for investment in a program that enables us to adapt to climate change.”