PREPARATIONS are under way to begin work on Morpeth’s £21million flood scheme after a key part was approved by planners.
Proposals to boost the town-centre defences were due to go before members of Northumberland County Council’s North Area Planning Committee on December 6, but the meeting was called off due to bad weather.
Initially, the authority said the meeting would be rescheduled to discuss the matter, but last Thursday the application was granted by planning officers under delegated powers.
The decision means work can start on the scheme early next year and officials from the Environment Agency, which is responsible for the project, are already preparing detailed work schedules.
Morpeth Flood Action Group Chairman Alan Bell said: “We’re obviously pleased that it has been approved.
“We were concerned that it might be put back to the January planning meeting because it required a lot of people on behalf of the applicant to be there and we couldn’t really see it being rescheduled quickly, but thankfully one of the objections was satisfied by the Environment Agency so it could be delegated to the planning officers.
“We will be keeping an eye on the detail and hopefully the Environment Agency will start setting up site at the end of January to start work in February.”
The plans provide for a mix of new flood walls, flood gates and embankments throughout Morpeth town centre, repairs to existing defences and the raising of ground levels. There will also be work to the Cotting Burn, Church Burn and Postern Burn, and at Lowford Bridge nine five metre-high poles will be placed across the river to trap debris.
However, the work is just one part of the overall project and a separate application for an upstream dam and floodwater storage area at Mitford is expected to be considered by councillors in February.
Mr Bell said: “The second part shouldn’t delay the overall scheme, but we are concerned that it hasn’t been approved yet.
“We understand that everything is in place for it and there are no hold-ups expected, apart from the actual approval.”
He added: “It just shows after what happened in September when there was further flooding that we need the scheme as quickly as possible.
“It won’t be until 2014 now when we get the full scheme so it will continue to be a worry for people until it is completed.”
Environment Agency Area Manager Ian Hodge welcomed approval of the project.
“Further flooding in recent months has demonstrated again the very real urgency for this project to get under way as soon as possible,” he said.
“I am delighted to be working very closely with our colleagues at Northumberland County Council to deliver this scheme. The planning authority has shown its support for our work in providing planning permission for the town’s flood defences.
“Flooding has a devastating impact on people’s lives and livelihoods, as we saw here in 2008 and again this autumn. We remain committed to building a scheme that will significantly reduce the risk of flooding in the future and I am grateful to the community for its support and advice in developing the design of this vital project.”
The alleviation scheme was given financial backing from the Government after the county council agreed to provide up to £12million for the work.
Deputy council leader Roger Styring said: “Northumberland County Council is happy to be working in partnership with the Environment Agency and we will continue to do so to see the scheme through to completion.
“We are providing up to £12million towards the cost of this scheme because we recognise how vital it is for the residents and businesses in Morpeth who have suffered from flooding.”
Morpeth town councillor David Parker, who chairs a working group on flood insurance, said: “I’m delighted the scheme has been approved. Obviously, there is the other part of the scheme still to be considered, but that will be happening soon. I think the reason it went through fairly easily is because although there were a number of concerns raised with the Environment Agency, it spent so much time consulting that it was able to work out any issues before even submitting the application.
“It is unusual for such a major application to be considered under delegated powers, which shows how well the Environment Agency had gone about the task of engaging with the public.”
Conditions attached to the permission include the need for the agency to provide sample panels of walls prior to construction, details of a surface water drainage scheme, a noise assessment, vibration plan and environmental management plan, as well as provision of a temporary parking area for workers.
Hydraulic modelling should show that the tree pole structure across the river will not increase flooding in the area.
The scheme is due to be completed in autumn 2014, subject to weather conditions.
However, in the meantime concerns remain about the availability and cost of flood insurance cover.
As previously reported in the Herald, talks appear to have stalled between the Government and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) about a new system.
The existing Statement of Principles, which ensures people in flood-risk areas can still secure insurance, is due to end in June and an alternative model has been proposed by a Morpeth working group whereby all policyholders contribute to a community levy.
Last week Mr Bell addressed MPs at a Parliamentary briefing to stress the importance of reaching an agreement.
“We were putting forward our model to make MPs aware of the situation and the need for something to happen,” he said.
“The MPs who came to the briefing were concerned and we will be lobbying MPs again on this issue.
“There is a need for something to be sorted out because there is an impasse between ABI and the Government and we are concerned that the Government will not go towards a pooling system. Without this it might make insurance available, but it won’t necessarily be affordable.”
Morpeth Town Council is equally concerned and following flooding in September wrote to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson stressing the need for talks to come to a fruitful conclusion. A further letter was sent last month.
The council has now received a reply to its first letter from Environment Minister Richard Benyon in which he says “intense, but constructive negotiations” with the insurance industry are ongoing to address the availability and affordability of flood cover.
He advises residents to “shop around” for the best quotes and said the flood scheme will be the best way to keep insurance affordable in the long-term.
However, Coun David Parker said the reply does not address concerns.
He said: “The reply is not very helpful because most of it is about something we all know anyway, that the flood alleviation scheme is going on and that in due course it will help to solve the problems for Morpeth in that it should mean insurance will not be so difficult to get.
“The Minister does make some reference to the fact that he is still talking to the industry, but it doesn’t really address the issues that we raised. It didn’t answer the basic question, which is what on earth is happening?
“We have not got a solution yet and time is running out. The Government needs to sort this out. We want some assurance as to what it is going to do about it.”