It is a year after areas in Somerset, Boston and the Thames Valley were inundated. What measures have been taken to mitigate flood risk and repair damage caused by the great floods? Ben Cronin reports.
In January, business secretary Vince Cable visited the Somerset Levels almost one year to the day after severe floods affected the area.
Perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that he chose to visit the West Country rather than other areas that were equally devastated by last year’s unprecedented rainfall, such as Boston in Lincolnshire or the Thames Valley region. After all, the county’s problems attracted a disproportionate amount of media attention when the wettest winter in 250 years struck. As a result they were the source of some discomfort for the government as it came under fire for cuttting the Environment Agency’s budget.
Some would argue that this media storm and a rather vocal local community also had an overbearing influence on the engineering response to the crisis because they provoked a blunderbuss intervention from David Cameron, who announced that he was allocating an extra £10M to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs flood defence budget for the region.
“It was a very interesting time,” says Andy Burton, who sits on the ICE’s water panel for the South East. “We basically watched as the prime minister tore up 20 years of flood risk management policy for the Somerset Levels in an instant.”
Assorted members of the engineering community were most vexed by the decision to recommence dredging of the River Parrett after the public argued that more regular maintenance of the waterway would have averted the crisis.
At the time, Peter Brett Associates partner Ben Mitchell, who became something of a media spokesperson for the flood risk management community, said that science was being “thrown out of the window” with the decision to spend £6M on dredging the river, a move he feels was merely a sop to local communities.
“We basically watched as the prime minister tore up 20 years of flood risk management policy for the Somerset Levels in an instant.”
Andy Burton, ICE
So what happened in the region after the 24-hour news channels left and the media debate died away?
On a national level, the government announced £2.3bn of additional spending for UK flood defences in its Autumn Statement. At a local level, at the behest of the then environment secretary Owen Paterson, Somerset came up with a 20-year Flood Action Plan outlining how it would prevent similar flooding from ever happening again. This translated to Cameron’s decision to allocate the extra funding.
Axe Brue & Parrett drainage board clerk Nick Stevens explainsthe thinking behind the decision to dredge an 8km section of the Rivers Parrett and Tone.
Contrary to what Mitchell thinks, he says it was money well spent. “Locally we were promoting dredging as something that needed to be done in the particular location where it was done,” he says. “We saw, and had demonstrated over previous considerations and modelling work, that this was a good place to do it. With the prime minister’s visit, we picked up the funding and finished the work in October.”
But this isn’t the only work that has been carried out in the area. Stevens explains that the county council is in working on a Department for Transport-funded project to raise two critical highways to ensure they remain open in a future flooding event. The Internal Drainage Board (IDB) and the Agency are in the final stages of completing ring banks to protect Thorney Village and Thorney Pottery respectively.
Environment Agency Somerset Levels and North flood action plan manager Rachel Burden, adds that work is also nearly complete on a piled wall to protect properties in the village of Westonzoyland.
But it is the more proactive measures that are being taken which she wants to focus on. “Last year we used a watercourse called the Sowy and the King’s Sedgemoor drain, which is basically a relief channel for the River Parrett, to push more floodwater down through that system,” she says.
“To do that we had to mitigate any flood risk to communities down through there by putting in temporary defences. What we did last summer was to make those defences permanent so in the future if we need to use that system again, those communities have got those defences in place.”
The area bore witness to one of the largest pumping operations in Europe as the floods were at their height last year. Burden explains that the Agency has also developed a permanent pump platform with scale and scour protection where the King’s Sedgemoor drain rejoins the River Parrett at Dunball - site of the eight temporary Dutch pumps that were such a focus for the 2014 media coverage.
“There is a sluice that is closed at high tide to stop salt water feeding up through a freshwater system,” explains Burden.
“When that structure is closed, the freshwater coming downstream is tide-locked so they [the pumps] had quite an important function last year during the tide locking period to overpump the sluice.”
Money has also been spent installing electric pumps at the Northmoor pumping station to replace the existing diesel ones that had to be manned 24/7.
Burden emphasises that an equally significant amount of work has been done to repair existing assets. “The other side of it is the extensive programme of repairs to banks and spillways that were damaged as a result of being under floodwater for so long, or the wave action, believe it or not, of the standing water on the moors eroding the backs of the flood banks,” she says.
“There has been a huge programme of works, in probably 60-plus locations - kilometres of river banks needed to be repaired.”
Funding for these projects has largely come from very public interventions by central government but, as Stevens highlights, projects will increasingly have to be paid for by a combination of public and private partnerships.
“There has been a large effort by the Royal Bath and West of England Agricultural society which is campaigning and providing funding for flood risk issues,” he says.
“It’s not quite private but they are seeking funding from other organisations. It’s in its infancy at the moment but the idea is to provide a partnership to hopefully bring in more funding.
“They’re also looking to raise additional funding through a levy across the area - it would be local money administered locally on local priorities.”
- £10M from Defra for flood risk management
- £10M from Department for Transport for road raising schemes
- £13.1M of local growth deal money
- £500,000 from communities and local government
- £2.7M from Defra and Somerset partners for establishment of Somerset Rivers Authority
Meanwhile, Burden says the government has pledged £8M of local growth deal funding for enhancements and capacity improvements to the Sowy and King’s Sedgmoor system, which, she says, was so effective in diverting flow last winter.
At the same time she is working to engage local communities through social media and encouraging them to develop their own flood plans.
“We are working together to help them develop community flood plans, stores of equipment and flood wardens,” she says.
This level of engagement and activity begs the question as to whether so much would have been done if the government hadn’t been backed into a corner last year. It has also caused some to ask if the crisis changed the Environment Agency’s risk-based approach to flood management. Burton certainly thinks so, pointing to delays to plans for construction of the £90M Boston Barrier in Lincolnshire.
“In Boston there’s a big strategy to put in a multi-functioning river, flood defence and navigation structure,” he says (see box).
“And because they flooded the same night as Nelson Mandela died, the media wasn’t in the slightest bit interested, and they’re struggling to get the funding in.
“The Agency does tend to be quite reactive and quite sensitive to media concerns. If you want the truth, I think other places in the country have got a higher risk [than Somerset], and higher numbers of properties but that should all be established through the Agency’s outcomes measures approach.”
In response, the Agency’s director of strategy and investment Pete Fox does not exactly deny that the Somerset region was given preferential treatment. But he prefers to see the additional funding that the area has received as an exception rather than the start of a culture change at the Agency.
“The investment in Somerset was to meet a particular priority of the prime minister and it hasn’t resulted yet in any change to the way funding and prioritisation is made,” he says.
Fox points to the £297M pledged by the government to fund flood defences in the Thames Valley region just before Christmas as evidence that it isn’t being neglected - a sum that will protect 3,000 homes, according to a Defra press release. He argues that work has been slower to start in the region because the Thames is an altogether bigger proposition than the Parrett.
“The new investments in the Thames Valley will take some time to plan and prepare” he says. “For something on the scale of a major river catchment like the Thames, you need the permission of landowners and planning permission to mobilise a large civil engineering operation.”
Fox has Burton’s sympathy where the Thames Valley region is concerned. “There’s a lot of work looking at tributaries going into the lower Thames and the Environment Agency is trying to take a joined-up approach to a very complex area that is very flat,” he says.
“It’s been said that a 100mm or 150mm increase in the height of the Thames in Staines, once it goes up the bank, will go an extra half to three quarters of a mile inland, so, hydrologically, it’s quite a complicated area.”
If the £297M pledged by Defra survives the General Election, some if it will be put towards the Thames Estuary programme, reducing the risk to 8,219 properties. The rest will go to the Oxford Western Conveyance Flood Channel, reducing the risk to 1,200 properties; and the Lower Mole Flood Alleviation scheme reducing the risk to 3,064 properties in Surrey.
Announcements like this prove, at least, that last year’s events have brought flood risk management to the top of the political agenda, forcing the government to think about how it can fund stalled flood defence projects.
All of which brings us back to the choice of location for Cable’s visit to the Somerset Levels.
The secretary of state chose to visit a glass blowing company on an industrial estate that sits right next to the River Parrett - precisely the type of local business that might be called upon to contribute to additional flood initiatives.
Burton thinks this is way forward. “There’s clearly a strategy of getting businesses to contribute money to flood risk management,” he says. “Where flood defences are protecting a large industrial estate - those businesses that would benefit would be expected to contribute in a significant way. That has to be the right approach.”
Additional tidal flood protection in the Severn Estuary will be provided by the newly created Steart Marshes - claimed to be the UK’s biggest ever coastal realignment scheme. Work started on the the joint project by the Environment Agency and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in 2012, before last year’s floods. It has allowed high tides to enter 250ha of low-lying land for the first time in centuries through a newly excavated 200m gap in the Parrett Estuary coastal embankments.
“We recognise that in maintaining sea defences to protect people and farms throughout the country we’re going to end up reducing the amount of wildlife habitat,” says the Environment Agency strategy and investment director Pete Fox.
“So in certain areas around the country – and Steart is one of the first – we’ve created areas of inter tidal habitat to ensure we’re making provision for wildlife.”
But ICE South East water panel member Andy Burton thinks the scheme will also benefit people and farms.
“The Steart Catchment acts as a bit of a balloon for tidal levels coming in, so it will attenuate some of the tidal flooding going back up to Bridgwater,” he says.
The Environment Agency says the marshes will also protect key national infrastructure.
“The National Grid power lines into Hinkley Point power station are a key element of the national infrastructure protected by the scheme,” he says.
The long awaited Boston Barrier was finally approved by the government and awarded the remaining chunk of its funding in December last year.
But the project may not start until mid-2017.
Environment Agency project manager Nic Rowlinson said an application for a Transport & Works Act Order would be submitted to the transport secretary in autumn 2015.
“There will then an 18-month period where the transport secretary will consult over the proposals, which includes time for a public inquiry,” he said.
“If everything goes to plan, we aim to begin construction of the barrier in mid-2017 and complete it by December 2019.”