In 2014 large areas of Somerset and the Thames Valley were flooded, in 2015/16 Cumbria, Lancashire, Dumfries and Galloway took the brunt of it. Just the 2014 floods alone are reported as having cost the Country £14.5 Billion! The misery and ill health that is caused by flooding is difficult to comprehend until it happens to you, the disruption, the people who leave their homes, never to return, and the interrupted careers and schooling. The anodyne description ‘once in a hundred years event’ bears little weight with flood victims - particularly when it happens more than once in a short space of time!
In trying to find answers to some of the strange things that happened during the Thames Valley floods in 2014 (I was flooded at Egham) I have begun to realise that we really do not have a handle on land drainage or river management at all in this country. Whether people live in urban or rural areas our public policy is just not fit for purpose. Things need to change.
In 2002 the Jubilee flood alleviation scheme was completed; it is a channel that takes water from the Thames above Maidenhead then dumps it downstream at Datchet, just above Egham and Wraysbury. A key feature of the Jubilee is that it moves water down steam at a much faster pace than the Thames which runs alongside it. The value of it in terms of flood protection is that it protects the riverside mansions at Maidenhead, Bray and Eton but areas between Datchet and Staines have to deal with the much increased flow at times of flood.
You may wonder why on Earth such a scheme was ever even considered? It was actually only part of a 3 stage larger plan that is called the River Thames Scheme RTS which was kicked into the long grass by the Tories as soon as they came to power in 2010. The designers of the Jubilee were sued for the poor design but what is most shocking is that no lessons have been learned from their mistakes or from the flood events in 2003. 2007 or 2014; each time the Environment Agency (EA) have been asked there is no acknowledgement that anything at all went wrong. The Jubilee was originally meant to carry 215 cubic meters of water per second but it did not, it carries less than 180 cubic meters per second. This was probably a blessing for me and my neighbours but surely water flow was exactly what the Jubilee was designed to control? So much for the experts!
Should the RTS go ahead at some point in the future then the mistakes of the Jubilee should provide a guide as to what not to do. So far there has been no public inquiry in to the Jubilee despite it’s many problems and it being one of the largest and most expensive water management schemes in Europe. Many residents downstream from Datchet are convinced that the Jubilee river caused the sudden midnight inundation of homes and businesses from Datchet to Staines in 2014. Its’ second claim to fame is the huge new luxury housing estate that is now being built on the floodplain along the banks of both the Jubilee and the Thames by Maidenhead Bridge. Don't let anyone say that bad design didn't do anyone any good!
The drainage of the land further away from the river was also an issue in 2014. River water did not reach friends living 2 miles from me but they were still flooded: The medieval Mead Lake Ditch in Egham, is sandwiched between 2 raised landfill sites, the biggest one is 18 meters high and covers an area of 650,000 square meters, with no apparent managed drainage and question marks over permissions to fill that high. The ditch did part of it’s job in taking the water run off, but the culverts. supposed to channel water away into Thorpe Park were blocked and forced the water to run backwards up the ditch into the large residential area of Thorpe Lee and Egham Hythe. 3 years later Surrey County Council have still not arranged for the culvert to be cleared of silt and rubbish! The maintenance of culverts and the regulation of landfill sites is being ignored by the authorities in this era of extreme cuts. However the landfill taxes total collected over the years must be enormous and surely some of it should have been allocated to dealing with the problems the site created?
The river water was just one of the flood culprits in 2014. The lack of effective land drainage over many years had a serious influence on ground water and river levels and the lack of river dredging ensured that the Thames would not cope with the quantities of water entering it.
Two reasons are given by the EA for not dredging the Thames.
- ‘It does not stop flooding’ - tell that to Thames Valley residents who avoided flooding between 1947 and 2003, a period when 4 or 5 dredgers kept the channels clear. Only limited dredging takes place now when the pleasure boats report scraping the river bottom.
- ‘Dredging is bad for the environment.” This section of the Thames, has a mollusc called the ‘depressed fresh water mussel’ which can now be found around the UK. In 2003 it was the reason given for not dredging round Staines bridge. What about the ‘depressed human flood victims?’
Last but certainly not least is the question of what chemicals and gases can be released from landfill sites when they flood? There are hundreds of sites in the Thames floodplain and hundreds of thousands of homes right next to them; the case of www.truthaboutzane.com (the gassing of a child in the 2014 floods) is not going to go away until the parents and other residents get answers.
Public policy around land drainage and flood prevention is failing us all badly. Our rivers are our greatest natural land drainage channels and our Government has little understanding of them, the last time we had a Royal Commission on Land Drainage was in 1927! In those days there were fewer properties on the flood plain, fewer paved surfaces, less crop spraying, fewer homes built on or near landfill sites on the flood plain and global warming had not increased the instances of extreme weather. The Government promises to pursue the RTS but there is no evidence that it will do anything beneficial except provide more sites for luxury riverside housing developments. Residents of less prestigious, previously flooded housing estates are not prepared to be overlooked in this way.
We need the authorities of Surrey CC, Runnymede BC and the Environment Agency to fulfil their public duties. We need a public inquiry into the Jubilee river development to identify and correct the past mistakes and to learn for any future schemes. Perhaps more importantly we need a Royal Commission into Land drainage (free of political interference): Our water and waterways are far too important an issue to be left to politicians and political interests to direct.
Image: Luxury new housing being built on the newly hardened banks of the Jubilee river near Maidenhead bridge.