Forget about it

A NEAR 4,000-name petition calling for urgent flood defences for Morpeth has effectively been dismissed by the Government over costs of the work.

In February, the Herald led a campaign calling for the promised £17million flood alleviation scheme for the town to be reinstated in budgets after it was confirmed the project had been ‘deferred’.

A total of 3,915 people signed our petition, while school pupils wrote letters outlining their own concerns for the safety of Morpeth following the devastating flood of September 2008, which affected around 1,000 homes and businesses.

But three months after the documents were sent to Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Caroline Spelman, the Herald has received a letter from Ms Spelman stating that the flood protection scheme is now unlikely to ever secure full funding from the Government.

The Secretary of State says that the Environment Agency has already spent more than £2.3million on emergency works in the area, but the main project does not show sufficient benefits to justify the cost ahead of other schemes around the country.

She writes: “Although I understand that there is still a flood risk in Morpeth that needs to be managed, we do have to prioritise funding.

“The Morpeth flood defence scheme has not been included in the Environment Agency’s indicative list of schemes progressing this year because the benefits delivered per pound invested were not sufficient to attract funding ahead of other proposed schemes across the country.

“These other schemes represent better value for money for the taxpayer and if the Environment Agency were to fully fund the Morpeth scheme at this time it would result in these other projects, that deliver benefits to more people, being deferred instead.”

Ms Spelman says discussions have taken place between Environment Minister Richard Benyon, Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery and the Environment Agency to find a way forward by reducing the cost of the project or finding funding elsewhere, while £100,000 has been provided from the local levy fund to develop plans.

She adds that there are moves to change national allocations for flood defences whereby the Government will no longer meet the full cost.

She said: “Instead of meeting the full costs of just a limited number of schemes, the proposed new system could make Government money available to pay for a share of any potential scheme, depending on the benefits it would bring and the damage it would prevent.

“The remainder could then be met by reducing project costs or bringing in additional sources of funding to reflect the local private benefits of flood defences.”

Ms Spelman says the Government is analysing the responses to consultation and will make announcements on any new system in due course.

Chairman of the Morpeth Flood Action Group Alan Bell said he is disappointed at the response, but not surprised as residents have received similar replies to their own letters.

“This is typical of all the responses that everyone has been getting. They tend to be dodging the issues and giving just standard replies. I haven’t seen anything positive,” he said.

He added that a Defra report on Flood and Coastal Resilience Partnership Funding states that the new funding arrangements will begin now for all projects seeking financial approval, with allocations based on the number of households protected and the damages being prevented, and deprived areas getting higher payments.

“The Defra document that has been released confirms that the proposed flood defences have to go through the new funding system, even though it is not set up yet and there is supposed to be consultation.

“The fact is we have got £10million to find,” he said.

Morpeth town councillor David Parker, who chairs the area’s flood insurance working group, said: “The response is very much like those that the flood action group has had back. I’m bitterly disappointed.

“Morpeth needs this scheme desperately. The town’s future is put at risk by the scheme not being in place and I just hope that in due course it is going to be possible to get it started.”

Environment Agency Chairman Lord Smith responded to the Herald’s petition within weeks, thanking the community for its support for the proposed flood alleviation scheme and saying that work was under way to try to find alternative sources of funding for the work.

Earlier this month we reported that members of Northumberland County Council were pushing the authority to help fund the scheme to the tune of up to £10million.

In the aftermath of the 2008 flood several politicians and senior officials, including Mr Clegg, visited Morpeth and agreed that the flood alleviation scheme must be a priority.