Save Our Scheme

MORPETH residents and councillors are coming together in an attempt to salvage the town’s flood alleviation scheme.

A stakeholders’ meeting is being organised for next week following the worrying news that the £17million project is likely to be delayed.

The session will involve the Morpeth Flood Action Group (MFAG), Morpeth Town Council, Northumberland County Council and community groups and there will be Environment Agency representation.

A residents’ meeting was also held in High Stanners last night and efforts will continue over the coming weeks to press home to key officials and politicians the importance of the project, which would see upstream flood water storage areas and new defence walls built in the town centre.

At a meeting of the Northumbria Regional Flood Defence Committee (RFDC) last Friday, the agency confirmed that in the proposed budget for 2011/12, the Morpeth Flood Alleviation Scheme will not receive the £4million funding which had been anticipated.

There have been concerns since it was revealed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that the organisation’s flood management allocation would fall by 17 per cent next year.

Other options are now being looked at, including the possibility that there may be changes to the original plans to give a one-in-137-year level of protection — about the same as the September 2008 flood.

Area Flood and Coastal Risk Manager for the Environment Agency Ian Hodge said: “It is unlikely that the scheme will progress in the next financial year.

“The final decision will be made by the Environment Agency Board in February.

“Officers will continue to work very hard on the project and we will look into how it can progress in the most beneficial way possible if affordability issues mean it can’t be delivered in its current form.

“Other options we may need to consider to make the scheme less expensive include looking at the upstream storage and flood walls individually, phasing the current scheme over a longer period of time, or reducing the level of protection to one-in-100 years or one-in-75.

“We may also look for external investment from the private sector, including potential benefits-in-kind work from developers in Morpeth, and hold talks with the county council to find out if it can do anything.

“We understand the concerns of residents, but I don’t think this is the death knell of the Morpeth project.”

The scheme is still awaiting final approval that it meets the criteria for having a business case from the agency’s Large Project Review Group, which Mr Hodge says will hopefully be received at the end of the month or in early February to give officers greater clarity on how to proceed.

MFAG Chairman Alan Bell said: “We were half expecting it, but we are still devastated by this news.

“At best it will be delayed for a year, but we believe it is more likely to not go ahead in the form that the Environment Agency has been working to in the past two years.

“We are now very concerned that we will never get flood protection to a level that would have protected us from the flood in 2008, which would greatly worry everyone who experienced the devastation.

“This could also have a major impact on Morpeth as a viable working town in future years, as businesses and developers will be wary of another flood and the associated costs.

“We appreciate the efforts of the regional Environment Agency team and it’s very unfortunate that the financial situation has had such a major impact on Morpeth.

“We would like national agency people and politicians to come to the town to explain why there has been a delay to the alleviation scheme.”

The Northumbria RFDC, made up of councillors from authorities across the North East and Defra appointees, has written to the Chairman of the Environment Agency Board to the stress the importance of the Morpeth scheme going ahead as quickly as possible.