THEY had to fight tooth and nail, but Morpeth’s flood defence campaigners can finally celebrate.
The town’s flood alleviation scheme has been formally approved by the Environment Agency’s board and construction work is set to start early next year.
It had looked in jeopardy when funding was withdrawn last year, but a partnership arrangement between the agency and Northumberland County Council has enabled the £21million project to proceed in its original form.
Local businesses that were flooded in September 2008 have also voiced their delight and one of them is now calling on the insurance industry to take the development into account for its policies as soon as possible.
The scheme will provide a one-in-137-year level of protection for more than 1,000 homes and businesses in the town, as well as reduce the risk of flooding from the Cotting Burn, Church Burn and Postern Burn.
Morpeth Flood Action Group Chairman Alan Bell said: “Its future looked bleak 12 months ago when the project was shelved following cuts in Defra’s budget for capital expenditure on new flood defences nationwide.
“That we have now achieved a long-term solution to the town’s flood problem is the result of the combined efforts of many people and organisations.
“These include the councillors and officers of Northumberland County Council, who demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to Morpeth in raising a local contribution of up to £12million, the Northumbria Regional Flood and Coastal Committee and regional officers of the Environment Agency who have worked hard on planning the scheme and promoted its importance to the agency’s hierarchy, constituency MP Ian Lavery for his persistence in raising the matter at Westminster and elsewhere whenever the opportunity arose and Morpeth Town Council and all community groups, media outlets and individuals who campaigned so effectively to raise the profile of the scheme.
“The approval of the funding is an important first step.
“We now look forward to working closely with the Environment Agency team to ensure that the implementation of the scheme provides the best possible flood defences without impacting too heavily on the historic character of our town.”
The group is also pressing the case for a fair flood insurance model as a new programme is needed once the Statement of Principles, which was agreed by the Association of British Insurers and the Government, ends next year.
The owners of the Newminster Cottage B&B in High Stanners, Paul and Zoe Gillie, were among those hit by Morpeth’s worst flood on record in September 2008 and were closed to guests for almost a year.
Their insurance premiums went up from £900 a year to £2,500, and the issue is preventing them from carrying out an extension.
Mr Gillie said: “We’re absolutely thrilled that the flood defence scheme is going ahead.
“Once it is completed, it will give people in the town peace of mind because the 2008 flood is still fresh in residents’ minds. Every time there is heavy rain, it’s a bit like a circus as people gather to look and point at the river.
“The Morpeth Flood Action Group has been absolutely tremendous on this. I ts members have been like a dog with a bone in campaigning for the project. They have certainly done the residents of Morpeth a great service.
“We can only hope that this will make a difference with insurance as it is currently holding us back.
“Now that the flood defences are guaranteed, we believe the industry should immediately factor this in to its future policies, but our gut feeling is that these guarantees will not come until the scheme is completed. If we’re right, the Government should step in and ensure that residents and business in Morpeth and other places with schemes being built can get affordable cover in the meantime.”
The project includes new defence walls in Mitford Road, High Stanners, Low Stanners and around Oldgate Bridge, and an upstream storage system on the Mitford Estate.
Changes to the flood funding process by Defra have allowed the county council to make a significant contribution and it has allocated £3.3million for 2012/13, with £2million set aside by the Environment Agency.
Council Leader Jeff Reid, said: “This is a very important scheme for the community of Morpeth and the council is pleased that, despite tough economic times, it has been able to commit funding to ensure that it goes ahead.
“When we became aware that the only way the scheme was going to be delivered was if we provided a significant amount ourselves, it became a priority for us and we looked again at our Medium Term Capital Programme to find the money.”
Almost 4,000 people backed the Herald’s petition to save the flood defence scheme, which was launched when the town did not receive its expected £4million of funding for 2011/12.
And local schoolchildren penned letters about their own experiences of the 2008 flood and the need for defences to be installed without delay.
Mr Lavery said: “This result has been achieved by people pulling together and a particular mention must go to the Morpeth Flood Action Group, which has continually badgered those who could make things happen to keep the scheme high on the agenda.
“I think the letters and pictures from Morpeth schoolchildren had a big impact as they spent a lot of time and effort saying why the project needed to be built. Along with the petition, it showed that the whole community was concerned about it, not just the people living in high flood-risk areas.
Morpeth Mayor Phil Taylor added: “This news is a great relief to the whole town. Morpeth faced the prospect of becoming a ghost town in future years if the scheme was scrapped.”
The project is scheduled to finish in autumn 2014.