Special report: Region's flood risk committee calls for change
After the county’s wettest early winter for 100 years and the mass evacuation of a Northampton mobile housing estate, the regional committee responsible for flood management says things need to change
“These sort of events were supposed to be one in fifty years. It has barely been four years since the last one. So we have got to start thinking on those terms - that this is going to be the norm as we get drier summers and wetter autumns and winters. I think we have to completely reappraise how we look at the main rivers.”
Mark Leggett, member of the Anglia North Regional Flood Committee, January 19
“We can’t carry on doing things we have been doing, otherwise we will be in the same position, again and again. We need fundamental change.”
Eddy Poll, Chair, Anglia North Regional Flood Committee
Since October, Storm’s Babet, Ciaran and most recently Henk have wreaked havoc on the region. River water levels and rain gauges have topped levels never recorded before and this past three month period is the wettest seen in Northants for more than a century.
Earlier this month 1,400 people had to be evacuated from Billing Aquadrome when the floodplain the park sits on became engulfed by water from the River Nene as after a period of intense rain the sluice gate upstream had to be opened to prevent the water flowing back into the town.
It is the second time in four years the park has been flooded.
On Friday the region’s flood committee met for the first time since the storms hit and many voiced their concerns that the current level of infrastructure and funding is just not enough to handle the wetter winters being brought to the region by climate change.
Here we take a look at the current situation and how the flood risk in our region is being managed.
Regional Flood and Coastal Committees
The country is divided into 12 Regional Flood and Coastal Committees (RFCC’s), with Northamptonshire part of the Anglia North RFCC, whose geography runs from Lincolnshire down to Northants. It encompasses the River Nene as well as the River Welland which starts in Leicestershire and swathes of Lincolnshire Fenlands.
The committee has responsibility for protecting communities from flooding and coastal erosion and works with the Environment Agency (a public body) to manage the flood risk system.
Local councils are designated as lead local flood authorities and the RFCC has local councillors from across its region on the board. The West and North Northamptonshire councils both have two councillors each on the committee from the ruling Conservative parties; Pinder Chauhan and Phil Larratt from the West unitary and Andy Mercer and David Brackenbury from the North unitary.
However the committee has largely been operating in obscurity, as despite being members, the unitary authorities do not publicise the meetings or their agendas and the Northants committee members do not publicly report back to their local authorities about what has been discussed.
Despite the recent major flooding in the town he represents, Cllr Phil Larratt did not attend last week’s meeting or send his apologies.
The regional situation
The wet stormy weather has seen record rainfalls across the region. At Friday’s meeting Ben Thornely, the Environment Agency’s (EA) area flood and coastal risk manager, gave an overview of the current situation:
“On top of already having wet catchments we then got a huge amount more rain.
“As we sit here in January, 80 per cent of the rivers across the country are flowing at exceptionally high levels for this time of year. So we are sadly not out of the woods yet and we need to stay incredibly vigilant for the rest of the winter.
“Some of the rainfall totals are incredible and certainly it has been the wettest period of three months. There are parts of the country, including ours, where it has been the wettest period for over 100 years. And that is linked to climate change - we can’t deny that. Warmer, wetter winters - we are seeing more moisture held in the air - therefore more rain.”
The Anglia North RFCC includes the Fens - a historic marshy region managed by a series of drainage channels. It was clear at the meeting that many of the Lincolnshire members are becoming increasingly frustrated at the way their county’s agricultural land is submerged in flood water.
The priority when it comes to flood risk management is to protect lives, so areas of agricultural land come second to built up residential or industrial areas.
Eddy Poll, the long-time chair of the committee, said:
“This is not just farmland. It is a man-made factory. This is the biggest open air factory in the UK. It provides food that we all eat. You would not let factories flood like this. People would be in uproar if all these businesses were being flooded. They are fields that are people’s livelihoods and it is food that we need.”
“We need to stop chicken farming and get round to duck farming.”
Leigh Edlin, the EA’s area director, said the recent succession of storms had ‘brought a spotlight to our part of the country and some of the funding challenges we have in terms of how we manage flood risk.
“Since Storm Babet we have had the chief executive of the Environment Agency to the patch, the chair, the minister for floods and the secretary of state have all visited communities and visited EA agency staff.
“They have seen first hand the challenges of managing flood risk in what is a lowland pumped environment and how our unique landscape means that drawing down the funding we need to do the sort of flood risk management we would like to do is very very difficult.
“It is limited at best. We want to seize this opportunity and really amplify these messages.”
In total during the recent storms, 11 flood assets were breached - although none of the breaches were in Northamptonshire. There are thousands of flood assets across the county from flood banks to large pumping stations.
Eddy Poll said the major floods are now coming so frequently that the region does not have time to recover and repair the damage before the next disaster hits.
He said: “Four years is insufficient time to recover and in the middle of that there has been this huge increase in electricity and fuel costs. That is an incredible burden that has been placed on the flood risk management authorities around here and nobody seems to have taken account of that and done anything. It is our job to put it all together and think about it and make the person who controls the purse strings do something about it.”
“For me we can’t carry on doing things we have been doing, otherwise we will be in the same position, again and again. We need fundamental change”
Leigh Edlin agreed and said the repeated use of the phrase ‘unprecedented’ to describe recent flood events is ‘wearing a bit thin’.
The flood committees decide which flood risk management schemes are built and where the maintenance funds go, and are funded largely through central government cash, but also through local levies imposed on councils.
Since 2006 to the current financial year there has been £567m from central government funding and £30m from local levies going to the regional flood committee. This year the Anglia North committee has £43m to spend on capital projects however just a small portion of the sum is being spent in Northants.
In the North £322,000 is being spent across four schemes with the biggest scheme being £175,000 worth of improvements at the East Brook culvert in Kettering. There is just £80,000 being spent in the West on two small scale projects.
The national report referenced in the meeting papers said that nationally there was a ‘declining trend’ in asset condition.
Lack of investment
Since 2017 the Anglia North committee’s members have agreed to the lowest annual increase of council contribution to the local levy than any of the other 11 flood committees. For six successive years the former county council (and then the successive unitary councils) have agreed just a one percent maximum increase on the funds they provide to the RFCC, which has been far outstripped by inflation and is well below the annual five per cent increase both unitaries have taxed on residents.
Currently the contribution for North Northamptonshire Council is £328,000 and the West is £307,000.
At the meeting the committee agreed to impose a levy of 2.5 per cent for the financial year ahead, which will bring in a relatively meagre £40,000 to the £1.8m annual pot levied locally.
Northamptonshire - The Billing Aquadrome situation
At the meeting Ben Thornely gave an update about Billing.
“It is really important that we recognise that these aren’t just caravans in the normal perception of caravans. While this is regarded technically as a holiday park, what we have now been informed of is that at least 95 per cent of people who live there regard it as their full time residence - their home.
“So it is really important we don’t regard them as just caravans. There are also some fairly vulnerable members of society that live in Billing Aquadrome - so risk to life has to trump everything we do.”
Cllr Pinder Chauhan asked what the plan was for Billing and what kind of investment was being put in.
“We can’t stop the flooding, but what can we try and do to minimise it at the very least?”
Ben Thornely said:
“Billing Aquadrome is really complex for a variety of reasons. Obviously it's in the flood plain, so it is always going to be at risk and climate change is really going to create a challenge there. The park itself has two water courses that go through the middle of it but it also has the River Nene in that location, which goes past it and it is the River Nene that predominantly floods it. So the whole of the park is very hydraulically connected to the river. So defending it would be almost impossible, let alone finding any flood storage.
“The focus needs to be resilience - as we have been doing in the last few years, working with the park management team to help them be more savvy to managing the flood risk on their site. We are going to be revisiting the flood plan - which is there flood plan but we helped them draft it up after the 2012 when the site was evacuated.”
A report last week by Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee warned that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has no overall numerical target for the UK’s level of long-term flood resilience, and so cannot know if it is progressing in its 2020 ambition to create “a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal erosion risk.
It found flood protection will be provided for at least 40 per cent fewer properties than planned, according to Environment Agency (EA) forecasts. This is due to factors including inflation and the bureaucracy associated with approving projects. With the programme’s success relying on the completion of many large projects where the EA has only medium or low confidence of delivering by 2027, the committee said it was concerned the number of properties better protected could turn out to be even fewer than the current revised-down forecast of 200,000.
Find the full report here
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