Holding back the tide

UNISON members working at the Thames Barrier represent the ‘epitome’ of public service

UNISON members working for the Environment Agency at the Thames Barrier represent “the epitome of the public service ethic at its very best”, declared UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis after a visit to meet staff who operate this iconic piece of British engineering.

“By day and through the night, seven days a week, UNISON members are part of a team doing an essential job – monitoring the ever-present danger of flood to London and being there to take action if needed.

“As Thames Barrier staff talk about what they do, it quickly becomes apparent that not only do they enjoy a generally good relationship with management, but that they are fully committed to their work and to maintaining the very highest standards.

“These members do a very different kind of job compared to most other UNISON members. I was intrigued to learn that the Barrier is not just about protecting the capital from a surge coming up river from the North Sea but also in helping to mitigate the impact of rain and possible flood coming downstream to areas to the west and in central London.

“This is a most important place protecting people who work and live in the capital and important places and facilities along the river such as the London Underground, St Thomas’s Hospital and the Houses of Parliament. And UNISON is at the heart of it.”

Mr Prentis was given a guided tour of the control room and the operational areas of the piers and the floodgates by operations manager Andy Batchelor who explained that the Barrier was designed to last until 2030 but will in fact remain operational until 2070.

“This extended life is testament to the work of the team who have maintained the Barrier over the last 30-plus years,” said Mr Batchelor who added that plans were already underway for replacement defences.

He said that the Barrier had been fully shut 175 times to prevent flooding  since it was built, including  50 times over the winter of 2013-14 – but so far only once in 2015.

The Environment Agency employs 87 staff at Thames Barrier in roles including forecasting tidal levels and monitoring other floodgates and defences along the river, as well as operating and maintaining the equipment.

During Mr Prentis’s visit, forecasting specialist Kim Farthing, the secretary of UNISON Environment Agency Thames branch emphasised the importance of experience gained on the job.

“We recruit people from environmental services and engineering backgrounds but it takes time to learn all aspects of the job and to become fully familiar with the sites where we operate,” said Mr Farthing.

UNISON member Steve East, the engineering manager, raised the issue of attracting younger people into the union.

Mr Prentis acknowledged that non-union staff benefitted from agreements the union had negotiated, but added: “We can, however, point out to them the added benefits of union membership, such as free life insurance and legal aid.

“Also young members can get involved via our organising space, which is proving very popular.”

They also discussed training and apprenticeships and the impact of the abolition of check-off if the Trade Union Bill becomes law.