Is it time for the Billing Aquadrome floods to be discussed in the council chamber?
The residents who live in mobile homes on the caravan park have had to be evacuated twice in the space of six weeks
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By Sarah Ward
“I am penniless. They (the owners) have got us by the short and curlies. How the hell do you get another home, when all our money goes here?”
That’s what Gemma told NN Journal when we visited the Billing Aquadrome site on Saturday afternoon. At 1am that morning as air raid style sirens blared, residents had to evacuate their mobile homes and make their way to safety - either leaving the site completely to find refuge with friends or family, or going into the on-site entertainment hall the Venue. On Saturday afternoon, the Venue was still busy with families, some with newborn children and many with dogs and other pets and tensions were getting frayed as people tried to find out what was going on.
For Gemma and her young family, and many others, Billing Aquadrome is their permanent home. Under the rules of the agreement residents are not allowed to live there for 12 months a year and so move off site for three weeks during January. They are supposed to have another home and say this is not their main residence, but for many it is. Many had just returned at the start of this month, six weeks after the last evacuation, only to be faced with another rush to safety.
After water levels rose in the Washlands reservoir, the sluice gate was opened again - sending the flood water down the river valley to their homes.
“This is not a holiday park - let’s face it” said Gemma. “They know we don’t have any other home.”
Gemma moved in the month before lockdown in February 2020.
Since then she has had to evacuate three times and says she is now starting to feel like a failure as a parent, as her daughter is starting to become anxious whenever it rains, in case they have to be evacuated again.
She pays £5,000 a year in ground rent (she had to pay it this month before she was allowed back on site) and then another £600 a month on the finance for her mobile home.
“This was supposed to be a good home,” she says. We were going to pay off the caravan and then live here relatively cheaply but it is not working out like that.
“This is a lovely place to be in the summer, but it is starting to become a nightmare in the winter.”
She said many who live on the site will not speak to the media because they are frightened of a backlash from other residents.
The site was built in the 1940s and sold on by the Mackaness family in the mid 2000s. It was bought by the Royalelife group in 2021, but the company went into administration last summer.
The reason the caravan park became flooded is because it’s in the flood plain of the River Nene and is downstream of the washlands reservoir.
Built in the late 1970s, the reservoir has two storage areas -the online storage area, which the River Nene navigation channel runs through, and a second storage area within the old gravel pit - and can store 2,400,000 m³ of water.
There is no one organisation responsible for managing flood risk, instead policies set by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affair are then delivered by the risk management authorities, which are made up in this region of the Environment Agency (EA); Lead Local Flood Authorities (the unitary councils); water and sewerage companies and the highways authorities.
Following the January evacuation, the EA’s area flood risk manager for Northants and Lincolnshire Ben Thornely said:
“Flood risk management in the Northampton area is complex – Northampton Washlands Flood Storage Reservoir acts to reduce risk downstream of Northampton by allowing us to control water a lot of the time. When we have flood incidents, and the reservoir fills, it can get to a point where we no longer have the ability to manage the flows downstream – its at this point the levels downstream of Northampton Washlands increase and Billing Aquadrome and Cogenhoe Caravan Park can flood as large parts are built in the floodplain.”
A document provided to NN Journal by Ben Thornely which explained the workings of the washlands flood management system said:
“Very exceptionally during extreme flood conditions, the reservoir can no longer be used to control levels on the river. It is then possible that the water levels reach a point where the Main Control sluice is fully open and water starts to spill over the emergency spillways, as happened in 1998.
“During extreme flooding there is simply too much flood water entering the reservoir - just like a bathtub that has more water entering than can be drained. At this point it is inevitable that flooding of downstream flood plain areas will occur, including areas of flood plain in Billing Aquadrome and the Nene Valley.
“Critically, as part of the Environment Agency’s managed approach to minimising the impact of flooding, at no point is a decision taken to deliberately cause downstream flooding. The Environment Agency does all it can to delay the onset of such extreme flooding and the impact on risk to life and property. We work with other partners including the management team at Billing Aquadrome and Risk Management Authorities to ensure that disruption is minimised.”
While the document refers to ‘exceptional flood conditions’ in which the reservoir is over capacity -this has now happened twice in just the space of six weeks.
In the 1998 Easter floods two women died. Chalieo Spence was swept to her death from a narrow boat at South Bridge, and Frances Fisher of St James drowned in her home by rising flood water. The damage was considerable with 2,400 homes affected in the St James and Far Cotton areas of Northampton and 5,000 cars written off. The former borough council’s own expenses were estimated at around £6m.
The unitary council
As the lead local flood authority, West Northamptonshire Council has responsibility for managing local flood risk as well as carrying out investigations into local flooding and publishing the results. It also appoints two members to the Anglia North Regional Flood Committee, Cllr Phil Larratt and Cllr Pinder Chauhan - which decides where the money that comes into the region is spent. At the most recent meeting (read our report here) Cllr Larratt did not turn up, or send apologies, despite Billing Aquadrome having been flooded out only weeks before.
When the flood management was discussed by the council’s scrutiny committee last February, it was noted that there were ‘staffing issues’ in the flood management team.
In November the authority was advertising for a number of roles, such as a flood manager, but in January it had not appointed any permanent staff. Consultants are currently doing all flood work for the authority.
Late yesterday West unitary leader Jonathan Nunn said a task force would now be set up to look at solutions:
“We are so pleased to hear that the water levels have receded and residents have been able to return to their homes at Billing Aquadrome following the flooding over the weekend.
“Emergency services partners, including our Council, fire and police service worked alongside on site management to support the evacuation of residents alongside an absolutely tremendous response from local community volunteers including The Red Cross and 4X4.
“Around 60 residents stayed at a sheltered venue there overnight on Saturday and were provided with emergency bedding and hot food, with others staying with relatives until they were able to start returning to their homes later on Sunday.
“Whilst the health and safety of residents at Billing Aquadrome is ultimately the responsibility of the park owners, we and our emergency services partners will always step in to respond and support in incidents where there’s clearly a high risk to people’s welfare and wellbeing.
“For the sake of those residents who continue to be affected by flooding at Billing, we cannot allow it to keep happening and there needs to be a sustainable, long-term solution to addressing these issues. We cannot stress how difficult and challenging that will be, given that this is part of the floodplain there to protect houses and businesses in the wider area.
“Alongside supporting the site’s owners in improving their emergency response plans it’s important we also work with other partners including the Environment Agency to identify the challenges and opportunities that will help us do this. We are therefore taking steps to set up a task group that will look at these issues.
“We are aware there have been challenges around the site’s ownership arrangements and believe a more settled long-term solution would result in the park’s plans and ability to respond becoming stronger and stronger with less reliance on the public purse.”
Long time campaigner for improved flood defences in Northampton John Goodall, says there is a solution to prevent Billing Aquadrome flooding, but it will take funding.
“It needs a much bigger reservoir and a widened river channel. What is happening is that once the system is bank full (as it is at the moment) any time we get a big rain storm, the reservoir overspills and they have to open the sluice gate. Then Billing floods. That is ridiculous. It can be fixed, but it looks like no-one wants to pay for it.
“You only need heavy rain in the next two to three weeks and the whole site will be flooded again.”
He said in 2003 a report by Professor George Fleming pointed out the issues and risks with the current system and the improvements that were needed, but the former county council did not heed it. He says the regional flood committee needs to put some substantial resources towards the Washlands flood improvements.
And deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats group on West Northamptonshire Council, Cllr Jonathan Harris, said the flooding issue needed to be looked at across the unitary area in the light of climate change.
“Ultimately we are going to be seeing a lot more of this [type of weather]. Therefore we should be doing everything we can to both mitigate, but also we need to be making adaptations.”
He said he would like a summit to happen where the issue of flooding and the impact of climate change in the area could be discussed.