Residents came together to call for scheme development action after the flood

The following article was written by Morpeth Flood Action Group chairman Alan Bell and Vanessa Braidwood, the group's secretary.

Friday, 7th September 2018, 1:10 pm
Morpeth Flood Action Group members marking up the flood level in High Stanners for the Blue Line Project on Morpeth Fair Day 2009.

After the flood waters receded, the Morpeth community began to ask questions.

It seemed as if nobody could provide satisfactory answers, and as a result rumours circulated and people became angry and confused.

At first, residents were busy trying to find homes to relocate their families and listing the personal property which had been lost in the flood.

When things began to settle down, a community meeting was held on September 29, 2008, at Morpeth First School in Middle Greens. Paul Hendy from the National Flood Forum and local councillors were invited to attend.

A second meeting was held on October 13, and it was then suggested that a flood action group should be formed.

The first Morpeth Flood Action Group (MFAG) meeting was held on October 21, with 17 people in attendance. Elections were held and a constitution was drawn up after the meeting.

It was agreed that the group would represent the community in protecting Morpeth from being flooded to this extend again, and find answers to the questions raised by the wider community.

This small group of volunteers brought together a variety of knowledge and a willingness to embark upon a steep learning curve.

It was quickly realised that MFAG would need funds to be able to attend conferences and meetings held throughout the country, learning from others how they had progressed their flood alleviation schemes.

The initial fund-raising effort was with the sale of a Morpeth Christmas card and 2009 calendar. Later operating expenses were raised with annual coffee mornings held at St Robert’s Church Hall and the Town Hall.

The group soon became acquainted with members of the Environment Agency working in the area and learned that initial work on a flood alleviation scheme had started in 2007.

The final design for this project had been expected to be approved in 2010, with the on site work to start in 2011 and completion planned for 2013.

However, plans had to be revised after the extent of the flooding on September 6 was realised.

At that time, funding for flood defences came entirely from the Environment Agency’s budget and they realised that their initial budget of £13million was far short of what was needed to protect the town.

When a change in Government occurred in 2010, there were more than 100 flood prevention schemes in the design phase, and only those already in the construction phase were allowed to proceed.

MFAG members realised that it was critical to find more funding if the flood alleviation scheme for Morpeth was ever to become a reality.

In February 2011, they convened a meeting of town and county councillors, Environment Agency representatives and other Morpeth town stakeholders to try and come up with a solution.

A furious letter writing campaign was initiated, involving school children and other residents, who were affected by the flood event.

These letters were sent to all the MPs at Westminster and chairs of the Environment Agency and other relevant agencies.

Richard Benyon MP, the flood minister at the time, personally read every letter he received and was very moved by these personal accounts.

Under the new funding arrangements, the Environment Agency and Northumberland County Council agreed that they would share the cost of the redesigned flood alleviation scheme for Morpeth.

Mr Benyon came to Morpeth Town Hall in February 2012, to announce that the scheme would be going ahead.

Unfortunately, after heavy rainfall on September 24 and 25, 2012, the River Wansbeck once again flooded parts of Morpeth.

The Cotting Burn had also caused flooding in 2010 and again in 2012, and there were fears that the new Northern Bypass would exacerbate this situation.

Site clearance at the Mitford Estate dam up-river storage facility began in February 2013, and the flood alleviation scheme was truly becoming a reality.

In High Stanners, the oak trees were removed from the lawn so that work could begin on raising the ground level and building a flood wall with manually operated flood gates.

The Environment Agency opened an office on Newgate Street and meetings were held with MFAG and other agencies involved every few weeks during the construction phase.

Members of the community were able to put forward their questions to MFAG members, who then sought answers at these crucial meetings.

While all this was taking place, Morpeth residents began to see their insurance premiums and excess amounts rising drastically. It was difficult to buy or sell a house and the fear of blight overtaking the town was a real possibility.

MFAG started a series of insurance surveys by making up simple forms for residents to complete and going door-to-door to deliver and then collect them.

It was learned that no other town in the country had carried out an insurance survey and the information received was invaluable.

At the same time, a small sub-committee also including Morpeth town councillors worked for long hours to produce The Morpeth Model insurance scheme.

The National Flood Forum adopted this model when putting proposals forward during the Government consultations, which were taking place at that time.

Parts of this were used in the Government’s resultant Flood Re scheme, which came into effect in 2016.

MFAG wanted to raise awareness of flood resilience within the town.

At the Morpeth Fair Day event in 2009, members highlighted the depth of the flood waters by taping a blue line around trees in High Stanners and on some of the buildings that were affected around the town.

The Blue Line Project created media interest and kept Morpeth in the spotlight.

In collaboration with the Environment Agency, they formed a group of flood wardens, who performed so exceptionally in the 2012 flood event that they were awarded the Mayor’s Special Award.

Today, MFAG members continue to liaise with the Environment Agency, Northumbrian Water and other agencies whenever situations arise.

On-going work includes the problems with surface water flooding in Middle Greens and other areas, as well as sewage and drainage issues arising from various new developments.

Ultimately, MFAG has achieved its initial goal of obtaining a state-of-the-art flood alleviation scheme for the town of Morpeth.

The flood alleviation scheme was tested in January 2016, when there was a period of very heavy rainfall, and Morpeth was spared from being flooded.

MFAG will continue to be the eyes on the ground whenever there is the risk of potential flooding and members will be available to find the answers to questions as they arise within the community.

MFAG will be at the community event on Sunday in the Town Hall, where some of the achievements of the past 10 years will be highlighted.