York floods
Emergency services navigate a flooded street in York, northern England Reuters

Large areas of York are under water as the Foss and Ouse rivers burst their banks after the Environment Agency decided against activating the River Foss flood barrier, which has protected York for almost 30 years. Cars and houses are waterlogged, with York's historic castle in danger as water levels creep closer.

There were desperate calls for volunteers to help fill sandbags at the council offices on James Street. The Islamic Relief UK organisation provided support to bag tons of sand and are seeking more helpers, while a joint "silver command" with the police and fire & rescue services, and other agencies, is being set up. Officials say they are looking for 10,000 more sandbags.

Local residents were questioning the decision by officials to open the flood barrier in York, leading to hundreds of homes being evacuated. Environment Agency officials said water seeped into the building housing the barrier, raising concerns over an electrical failure. They were worried that water could not be pumped out if the barriers were stuck on the "down" position.

"Why on Earth have they not maintained it? Why did they build it so it could get flooded when it is there to protect from flood?" Erica Hammill, owner of Hotel 53 told the Mirror. "It seems a pretty simple, straightforward question – how can you open a barrier that is there to protect everybody? Who on Earth designed it and why have they let this happen?"

Rachael Maskell, Labour MP for York Central said on LBC Radio: "The River Foss should have had a barrier which prevents the flooding on the north-east side of the city, but that barrier had to be lifted because of the risk of electrical failure.

"As a result of that, there was flooding where we would not expect to see water and that has been quite a shock to some of the residents in that part of the city. You have got to say, a flood barrier with electrics? You know that water will be involved and electricity and water do not mix.

"A lot of questions have got to be asked after the next few days. Today is all about making sure people are safe, looking after life. But there are several questions I know that I have got about communication, co-ordination, as well as the issues around barriers, and defences and pumps."

The River Foss flood barrier was built in 1987 to stop the city's two rivers, the Ouse and the Foss, from converging. An inquiry is expected to be launched regarding the Environment Agency's decision to not activate it.

York continues to face more problems with the water level set to reach 5.4m on Monday 28 December – the limit for the defences. More than 500 homes and businesses have been hit by the flooding, with 3,500 properties under threat so far according to York council.