Hopes rise for flood scheme

MORPETH’S flood scheme could get the go-ahead within months as councillors prepare to commit up to £12million to the project.

Northumberland County Council is planning to allocate between £7million and £12million over the next five years to push the project up the priority list for national approval.

Last week the Herald reported that Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said the Morpeth scheme did not provide sufficient benefits to secure full funding from national budgets.

But with the local authority’s proposal, the amount required from the central pot would be about half the anticipated total cost of £21million, including a contingency fund.

And campaigners hope that as the investment ties in with Government plans for flood work to be part-funded locally, the Morpeth project could be given final approval at the Environment Agency’s board meeting in October.

Morpeth Flood Action Group Chairman Alan Bell said: “Obviously this news brings much relief to everybody and we are delighted that Northumberland County Council appears to be taking a lead on this.

“It is the first big positive step towards getting the alleviation scheme.

“We must remember it has to go through the full council, but we hope that will be a formality and we expect councillors to recognise the importance of this not just for Morpeth, but the whole of Northumberland.

“We would hope that if the council guarantees this money to the Environment Agency it will go to its board meeting in October and the detailed design work could start straight away.

“We won’t be happy until the last brick is in place, but this is a positive step forward.”

The cash would be allocated through the council’s Medium Term Capital Programme.

The budget was initially set in February, but it has been reviewed following cuts in national spending and clarification from the Government that local authorities will be expected to contribute more of their own resources to projects if they are to secure national support.

Executive members will be asked on Monday to approve the additional expenditure and the preparation of a detailed business case, with risk appraisal. It would then go to the full council for approval.

The move follows calls by county councillor Glen Sanderson earlier this month for the authority to find the necessary funding.

He said: “I’m very pleased that the county council has listened to the points of view being made. I welcome the positive approach that the council has taken.

“We have had a number of public meetings run by the scrutiny committees where people have been able to reinforce the view to the council that an alleviation scheme is fundamental. Those views of the public have been heard.”

Council Executive member Ian Lindley said: “This is fantastic news. We have been lobbying for a long time, internally and externally, to get this sorted out, but given the very tight finances there are a lot of priorities out there.

“Thankfully, we have now got agreement that this is a key one and we need to make sure it goes ahead.”

Morpeth town councillor David Parker, who has raised the area’s flood concerns nationally, welcomed the council’s proposal.

“It is splendid news. It will mean that many people who were worried about the future can now face the future with a good deal of hope,” he said.

“It is planned to be over four years, rather than two, and the Environment Agency will be progressing it at a slower rate, but in spite of that, it is very good news.

“Everybody in Morpeth will be overjoyed to hear it.”

North East Flood and Coastal Risk Manager for the Environment Agency Ian Hodge said work has been taking place with the council to find the best way forward for the alleviation scheme, which is being assessed against new funding arrangements, and any financial decisions by the authority will be taken into consideration.

“Under the new arrangement, once a complete funding package is established to cover the cost of the work, the Morpeth flood alleviation scheme will be assessed and prioritised alongside all the other schemes in England and Wales,” he said.

“The Environment Agency’s board has proposed to review the scheme’s progress at its October meeting.

“We will continue to work hard with Northumberland County Council and other partners to find the best solution to reduce the risk of flooding in Morpeth.”

If the council approves the recommendations, the Morpeth funding will be part of a package of investment from the authority worth £42million.

It is also looking to contribute to the Morpeth Northern Bypass (South East Northumberland Link Road) scheme to try to win approval and funding from the Department for Transport, as well as invest in a new Ashington Leisure and Community Centre and address backlog maintenance in schools.

Council Leader Jeff Reid said: “Despite facing significant budgetary challenges, we have to invest in these vital local schemes because of a lack of funding from central government.

“If we don’t commit to funding things like the proposals in Morpeth they simply won’t happen. Even if we do approve these measures they are still not guaranteed to happen because we are waiting for decisions from the Environment Agency and Department for Transport on their contribution.”