Focus on town’s flooding history

Left to right: Dr Paul Crook, Jon Hargreaves and President Andrew Hamnettz
Left to right: Dr Paul Crook, Jon Hargreaves and President Andrew Hamnettz

Morpeth Rotary Club

Jon Hargreaves of Morpeth has had long experience in the water industry and became chair of the Northumbria Regional Flood and Coastal Committee in 2013.

Trained and educated as a microbiologist at Durham University, he became managing director at Northumbrian Water, then MD at Northumbria Lyonnais International.

He left the North East in 2000 and moved to Scotland, where he became chief executive of Scottish Water.

He woke one morning to see his garden summer house two gardens away on top of a wall, so he has some personal awareness of flooding. He knows that many others have been harmed and had their lives ruined by floods.

There has been flooding throughout history but there is mounting evidence of climate change.

Whether it is part of a natural pattern or man-made does not matter as much as the need to deal with the consequences. Conditions are different to the past and new approaches are needed.

According to Mr Hargreaves, flooding is a central issue that must be taken much more into account. It can have a big effect on mental health.

It cost £60 million to fix the last coastal floods, but it could have been £600million.

The ‘not in my backyard’ reaction can have negative effects. A group of people said they would not accept a large wall where they live and so a decision was taken not to build a flood defence.

No political party has ever taken the issue seriously. This year it has had much more coverage in the south and politicians have promised the earth but delivered nothing concrete.

Historically, the Wansbeck has been one of the most flood prone rivers in the UK. In the past it was advantageous to build a town on a river – it provided drinking water, travel facilities, power and defence.

In 1609, a large flood destroyed the town from the bridge to the Abbey and in 1739, a major flood washed away the dam at Morpeth where three mills used water power.

In 1782, a massive snow melt caused the biggest flood so far, the water reached 12ft through the town.

There was a flood in 1829 shortly after they had decided to replace the bridge and had started to build. There was then four years of flooding that regularly damaged work on the new bridge.

In 1839, the flood was up to first floor level at East Mill. A haystack from Morpeth was washed four miles out to sea and two days later ended up on Newbiggin beach.

A cow was seen floating upside down in the water with its feet sticking up, but it got out at Sheepwash, still alive. There were no properties at High or Low Stanners in 1826, but by the 1900s, with the industrial revolution, they had been developed with factories, gas works and houses (stanners means a place where silt settles).

Twelve recorded floods caused damage and then little happened for about 60 years.

A big surprise came in 1963 with a major snow melt as the ice had been 10 inches thick on the river. A total of 480 houses and 28 shops, factories and businesses were flooded.

Flood defence works were done by Morpeth Borough Council at Low Stanners, Bennetts Walk and St George’s Church.

Protection at High Stanners was rejected as they did not want their view spoilt.

These works brought protection for an additional 319 properties and cost £140,000.

Three burns – Cotting, Church and Postern – run into the Wansbeck and each can flood in its own right, whatever the river is doing. The Cotting Burn has more floods than the river but has had little work done.

In 1969, it was suggested that it should go into a culvert under the church but the culvert was not big enough to take a flood. It needed to be diverted at Dogger Bank or into a bigger culvert, but the council was against this so nothing was done.

In 2008, the biggest flood event took place with 14ft of water flowing through Morpeth. It affected hundreds of properties and cost about £20million.

Morpeth had the first agreed matched partnership funding in the UK for a flood defence scheme, although a consequence of this is that many developers want to come to the town to build houses.