More than 50 ‘severe’ flood alerts have been issued – the Environment Agency’s highest category warning
Britain is facing a new bout of "exceptional" bad weather, the environment secretary has warned, with heavy rain, strong winds and high tides forecast to arrive early tomorrow morning.

The warning from Owen Paterson came after a meeting of the Government's emergency committee Cobra, where ministers heard that the Environment Agency will issue "severe" flood warnings - the highest category available.

In London the Thames Barrier has been closed to protect those living along the river, and power companies and councils are being told to brace for the impact of the storms.

Mr Paterson told Sky News: "I have just chaired a further Cobra meeting as we have further bad weather coming in. We are looking to have a combination of exceptional rain, wind and a surge in sea and high tides and so there are nearly 50 warnings put out around the whole of the west coast and south coast.

"We had a range of ministers from right across Government attending the meeting, who will be working very closely with local councils, power companies, utility and transport companies, making sure that all of those organisations are absolutely prepared for the bad weather that is coming."

"Severe" flood warnings are only issued when there is a danger to life and property. A number are expected in coastal regions among 50 alerts in total, with the areas at highest risk to include the north and south coasts of Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, the coastline of Wales and the Isles of Scilly.

The Met Office said winds will gust up to 60mph and also warned of the flood risk, with ground already highly saturated from previous storms.

While today saw a brief respite from the string of weather systems hitting the country, tomorrow will see yet more of the sort of stormy conditions seen over Christmas.

The forecast comes as energy network companies are due to be questioned by MPs over the length of time it took to restore power to homes cut off during the festive period, when more than 150,000 houses were affected.

Pete Fox, head of strategy at the Environment Agency, said: "We are expecting flooding along the west and south coasts of England and Wales, due to a combination of strong winds, large waves and high tides, from the early hours of Friday and into the weekend.

"Coastal paths and promenades could be highly dangerous as there is an increased risk of being swept out to sea. People are warned to stay away from the shoreline.

"The Environment Agency is monitoring the situation closely, working alongside partners including the Met Office and local authorities. Environment Agency teams are out on the ground making sure that flood defences are in good working order, monitoring sea levels and preparing to issue flood alerts and warnings."

Five severe alerts have been issued for Devon. They are at the tidal River Torridge, from Weare Giffard to Bideford; the Taw Torridge Estuary; the River Taw, from Bishops Tawton to Barnstaple; north Devon coastal communities, including Westward Ho!, Combe Martin and Lynmouth and the north Devon coast at Ilfracombe.

Two alerts have been issued for Cornwall, along the south coast from Lands End to Plymouth, excluding Truro and Plymouth Barbican), and along the north coast from Lands End to Hartland Point, excluding Bude and Wadebridge.