Act now to end Britain’s flood misery

The floodgates are opened on Tuesday afternoon. By Tuesday evening they had been shut again.'Picture by Jane Coltman

The floodgates are opened on Tuesday afternoon. By Tuesday evening they had been shut again.'Picture by Jane Coltman

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There will have been many householders and business owners very relieved last week to see the new Morpeth flood defences pass their first real test.

Concerns were heightened as the level of the River Wansbeck rose after incessant rain — just as it had done eight years ago, and then again four years later.

Few could argue that our climate is changing and we are likely to see wetter winters so we must come up with solutions to protect homes and businesses.

This time, however, the new flood protection defences were in place, and they appear to have done their job. Without them the outcome could have been very different.

What was also crucially important was that the teams on the ground did their jobs splendidly.

We must credit the Environment Agency for designing a scheme that appears capable of giving the town the protection it needs, as well as allocating its share of the £26million cost. Nationally, the agency has come in for a great deal of scrutiny, but we must credit it for what it has done for Morpeth, without in any way becoming complacent that we have seen an end to flooding in the town.

Credit must also go to Northumberland County Council for finding the resources to plug a funding gap that threatened to scupper the scheme, which was officially launched just five months ago.

Environment Agency staff worked long hours in difficult conditions to monitor what was happening and to open and close the floodgates in High Stanners, and police, firemen and council staff gave their unstinting support. All deserve our wholehearted thanks.

Unfortunately, there were pockets of flooding, but we have to be thankful that things would have been much worse without the added protection.

Lessons can be learned from a review of what happened, one of which seems to be that people needed greater assurance that the way the defences were being operated was correct. The Environment Agency has since explained that the more water that can be allowed to safely flow through Morpeth before the dam is closed the better so that storage capacity is not reduced. Perhaps this needs to be communicated better, along with the timing of when the floodgates will be closed.

We also need to look at surface water issues and see what can be done to minimise pockets of flooding.

We must also not neglect to keep up the pressure on the insurance industry to offer homeowners and businesses cover that they can afford. I have written before about constituents contacting me after being asked for exorbitant sums of money to insure their homes, despite the flood defences being in place. Within the next few weeks the Flood Re scheme will come into force, which, it is claimed, will offer capped premiums. We will need to closely monitor whether that happens.

Nationally, the whole issue of flooding is at crisis level. What happened in the last weeks of 2015 and the New Year needs addressing with the utmost urgency and priority. Rain levels were unprecedented, but they could almost become the norm. Few could argue that our climate is changing and we are likely to see wetter winters so we must come up with solutions to protect homes and businesses.

As well as building better permanent defences, we also ought to be looking at alternative, and perhaps more natural, ways of managing flood risk. I have read suggestions to reinstate wet lands or divert water into woodlands and fields to slow the flow; of using logs or felled trees to interrupt the flow; or to plant more trees to take excess water from the soil.

None of what I have read suggests that this would mitigate against building new defences in areas at great risk, but may be worth investigating as part of an overhaul of how we manage the threat. Funding will always be an issue, as well as prioritising which communities need protecting first.

What we need is a top level independent inquiry into the UK’s preparedness to deal with the threat of flooding, as well as how we respond. It must consider levels of spending and develop the main elements of a nationwide flood risk strategy.

But we must act now, without delay, to ensure that we do not continue to go through this flooding misery that is devastating so many people’s lives year after year in Britain.

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