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The Jubilee River story - Daily Telegraph - 8 January 2003

 8 January 2003

River deep, tempers high by the Thames

A 100m plan to save towns from flooding has had dire effects further downstream where residents are now under water. Stewart Payne reports

As the river water began its menacing rise, at a rate faster than anyone could remember, Peter Mills and his neighbours looked anxiously from their windows and reached the same conclusion.

The Thames was not behaving as it should. Soon the water was lapping at his door. Then it was inside and within a few hours the ground floor of his riverside home in Wraysbury, Berks, was under two feet of water.

Down the road, Bill Kelly, 67, a retired Navy commander, was on the telephone to his son James, a former Royal Marine.

The water had risen above the concrete platform on which Mr Kelly's home was built. No matter how much rain had fallen before, it had never done that. Now it was creeping across the floor.

By the time James Kelly arrived he had to wade chest deep through the water to reach the home of his father and mother, Joan, also 67.

Grabbing a rowing boat that was bobbing about in the swirling current sweeping across the lawns, he hauled it to the front door and pulled his parents to safety.

Similar rescues were going on elsewhere in the area and along several miles of the Thames in the aftermath of the New Year deluge.

As the evacuees huddled in the homes of neighbours whose properties stood on higher ground, there was a consensus. This was not the result of nature, more likely the consequence of the interference of man.

The heavy rainfall of a week ago was the first test of the Jubilee River, a seven-mile artificial waterway designed by the Environment Agency and opened by the Duke of York last July.

Its purpose was to prevent the repeated flooding of riverside areas of Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton by diverting a large volume of water into the new waterway, past the three towns and back into the Thames below them - just above Chertsey and Wraysbury, the village from which King John waded to the island of Runnymede to seal Magna Carta.

At the weekend, some 112 properties in Chertsey and a further 50 at Wraysbury were flooded. At the Queen's estate at Home Park, Old Windsor - also just below where the new river rejoins the Thames - the floods were so severe that only four-wheel-drive vehicles could reach staff cottages.

Mike Smith, chairman of Wraysbury parish council, said the Environment Agency had assured the council just four weeks ago that the waterway would raise water levels by only two inches during very heavy rains. Instead, the levels over the weekend were three feet higher than during the floods of autumn 2000.

The inescapable conclusion for Mr Mills and his neighbours was that, in successfully preventing flooding upstream, the Environment Agency had simply moved the problem to their doorsteps. "We cannot prove anything and, if we manage to get through to the Environment Agency, they deny it," said Mr Mills, a 66-year-old retired personnel manager.

"But the fact is that this area has never flooded like this in recent memory. Even after the massive rainfall in the winter of 2000 the water only came in to a depth of just over an inch.

"This time our ground floor was covered by two feet of water and my wife Beryl and I have had to have pumps running for six days. The water came up so quickly we had little time to prepare.

"It has been the same for hundreds of householders and businesses in the area. When you choose to live beside a river you must expect some flooding, but we suspect that this is not just the work of natural forces."

Mr Kelly said: "I fear we have become the victims of a piece of well-intentioned but ill-conceived engineering. Despite all the computer predictions, the rainfall of the past week is the first real test. We are the guinea pigs.

"I listened to the minister responsible for flooding issues saying that if people wanted to stay dry they shouldn't live next to a river and at the same time New Labour was excoriating our neighbours up the road in Maidenhead for being in the 'Gin and Jag belt'.

"Is the Government now going to hold its Environment Agency to account for its apparent failings?"

Julie Young, 39, whose eight-year-old daughter Lauren is at home because her school is flooded, said: "I have looked on the Met Office website and as far as I can see we have not had as much rain as this time as in 2000. Yet the flooding is much worse. The only difference is that there was no Jubilee River then."

Joy Bell, secretary of the local Hythe End Road Residents' Association, agreed with her neighbour, David Rogers, a civil engineer, that there must be an independent assessment of whether the waterway was to blame.

"The Environment Agency is bound to defend its project so we need an outside evaluation," said Mr Rogers.

All the residents feared that if flooding became a regular problem the value of their riverside homes would plummet, mortgages would become impossible to obtain and insurers would refuse cover.

Mr Mills said: "We are delighted for the people of Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton that this time, for the first time, they were not flooded. But if this goes on we could be ruined. We want answers."