TODAY is a red letter day for the Morpeth flood alleviation scheme as it has been formally approved.
After years of planning and worrying delays, the Environment Agency board has given the project the green light.
Hopes were high for the outcome of its meeting following a visit to the town by Flooding Minister Richard Benyon on Monday.
He praised local campaigners, the agency and Northumberland County Council, which could end up paying more than half of the scheme’s costs under the Government’s new flood defence project funding programme.
Insurance was also on the agenda as members of the Morpeth Flood Action Group (MFAG) spoke to him about the model they have come up with, in partnership with Morpeth Town Council and the Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade, to ensure that people in flood risk areas can afford cover for their property.
The alleviation scheme will cost up to £21million in total and £2million has been set aside by the Environment Agency’s Northumbria Regional Flood and Coastal Committee for 2012/13, with Northumberland County Council allocating £3.3million from its infrastructure investment package.
Changes to the flood funding process by Defra have allowed other organisations to make significant contributions and the Morpeth scheme – which includes new defence walls in Mitford Road, High Stanners, Low Stanners and around Oldgate Bridge and an upstream storage system on the Mitford Estate – was one of the first in the country to take advantage of them.
Mr Benyon said: “I can’t think of a community which has lobbied me more than this one about flood defences.
“The floods of 2008 must have been a horrific experience, but Morpeth residents have channelled the distress and anger they must have felt at the time in a productive way and once the defences are built and fit for purpose, it will lift a cloud from their lives.
“I’m glad that our new funding programme has allowed the scheme to progress and credit must go to Northumberland County Council for stepping up to the mark as it clearly felt it was an important priority for the area.
“I was very interested to see the reservoir plans at the Mitford Estate as it will prevent flood water in the river from reaching the town. It’s the biggest flood defence construction plan I have ever seen.”
The Environment Agency aims to submit a planning application for the scheme this summer and start construction work early next year.
It will provide a one-in-137-year level of protection for more than 1,000 homes and businesses in the town as well as reduce the risk of flooding from the Cotting Burn, Church Burn and Postern Burn.
Flood and Coastal Risk Manager for the North East Ian Hodge said: “The Minister is really keen to see this project go ahead, particularly as it’s a pioneering scheme in terms of how it will be funded.
“We have already set out on a detailed design and have held discussions with a contractor to make sure what we’re planning is feasible, so now that the funding has been approved we’re in a position to proceed immediately.”
County council Leader Jeff Reid said: “This is a very important scheme for the community of Morpeth and the council is pleased that, despite tough economic times, it has been able to commit funding to ensure that it goes ahead.
“We are working in partnership with the Environment Agency to develop a detailed design for the scheme.”
With new defences looking extremely likely, town residents in flood risk areas are now hoping that fair insurance measures can be put in place soon or they may find themselves unable to cover their property.
The Statement of Principles, which was agreed by the Association of British Insurers with the Government to ensure people living in flood risk properties can afford a policy, will end next year.
The Morpeth model involves a pool of money paid into by high-risk householders, but to enable people to afford insurance in these areas, they will only pay a percentage of the premium that they would be responsible for if there were no subsidy measures.
The other main contribution would come from the insurance industry and households not at risk would each pay a small amount.
MFAG Chairman Alan Bell said: “We’re pleased that the Minister allowed us to discuss our model with him.
“It will be interesting to hear what the Government has to say on the issue, but in the meantime we will continue to lobby our case.”
Mr Benyon said: “The Morpeth flood insurance group has shown leadership in trying to address the issue at a national level, which is very impressive.
“We are working hard with the insurance industry to come forward with an agreement and it will include flood insurance protection for those on the lowest incomes.
“We are very confident that we will get there and we will be making an announcement in the spring.”