TORY leader David Cameron has thrown his weight behind the campaign to save lock-keepers' homes.

The Witney MP fears the sale or lease of 22 lock-keepers' properties in the region could leave local people more vulnerable at times of flooding. And he says the Environment Agency's plans would mean the loss of a valuable part of the region's heritage.

Almost half the lock-houses in Oxfordshire are to be sold or rented out under EA plans announced in the spring.

Local residents immediately rallied to the support of lock-keepers and their families, who they say were among the heroes of last year's devastating floods.

MPs have also called on the EA to rethink their plans, with a motion in the Commons tabled to draw the Government's attention to the impact of the disposal of the properties along the River Thames.

But the decision of the Conservative leader to speak out on the issue will give a major boost to lock-keepers. Mr Cameron said: "My concern is that the Environment Agency's plans underestimate the importance of on-site lock-keepers and the vital role they play in rural communities, like west Oxfordshire, where there is a higher risk of flooding. The real worry is that these plans will undermine the lock-keepers' ability to maintain the waterways and mitigate the effects of flooding.

"The lock-keepers' houses also form a valuable piece of British heritage, which would be lost if these plans were to go ahead. Together with my Parliamentary colleagues, I urge the Environment Agency to reconsider these proposals."

The proposals include the sale of a house at Rushey Lock and the leasing out of a house at Shifford Lock, both of which are in Mr Cameron's Witney constituency. Lock-houses to be leased out include those at Godstow, Culham, Wallingford, Sandford-on-Thames, Day's Lock at Little Wittenham, Buscot and St John's, near Lechlade.

A group of MPs joined lock-keepers at a meeting with the EA this month. A meeting is now planned with Waterways Minister Phil Woolas to discuss the EA proposals.

The publication of the lock-house 'hit list' raised fears of lock-keepers and their families facing real hardship, as they are forced to rent, thus losing the main benefit of a low-paid job.

The EA said it plans to sell the houses within five years as part of its national funding strategy. Lock staff occupy all the Oxfordshire properties rent free.

Eileen McKeever, EA regional manager, earlier promised that no lock-keepers would be moved out of their homes until they had another suitable house to go to.

She said: "We will still man locks to assist boaters with passage through the locks. In fact, we plan to have more staff on duty during the busiest times throughout the summer. And there will be no impact on how we manage flood risk - we will continue to operate weirs and manage water levels throughout the year as normal."