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The Jubilee River story - September 2004 - presentation to Ciwem

(A transcript from the CIWEM Conference, Bretton Hall, Wakefield - 15 September 2004)

'The Jubilee River – simply nothing to celebrate here'

- presented by Ewan Larcombe.

Transcript begins:

If it’s alright I’ll record this because I haven’t got a script. A few bits of paper here – not this lot.

Any comments on the previous speaker? Thank you previous speaker! That was very interesting.

Who has seen a recent copy of the New Civil Engineer magazine featuring the Jubilee River? It’s in here somewhere, forgive me for a moment, so much stuff I can’t find it, I lost it! I might try that later, and there’s also The Times from Bank Holiday Monday, page 8, that’s 2 weeks ago. Is there anyone here from the Environment Agency? Or any of the contractors who were involved in the MWEFAS scheme? I can see one there, thank you, any others? I need to know who I’m talking to!

I am Ewan Larcombe and I come from a place called Datchet which is in Berkshire in the UK. I’ve lived within 3 miles of Datchet for all of my life. I know the place, I know the people, I know the problems. Datchet is a small Thames-side village lying approximately 20 miles west of London and downstream of Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton. I’m going to tell you the facts about the £110 million, world class, award winning, flood alleviation scheme. I wrote here ‘with shortcomings’, but that’s an understatement.

First a little bit of history, some technical stuff and the consequences to local people both during and since January 2003. The Jubilee River is a man made bypass scheme for Maidenhead and Windsor. The construction of the scheme in fact took large areas of traditional flood plain out of use. The Jubilee River is nominally 11.5 kilometres long, 50 metres wide and about 5 metre depth of water which rises by another maybe 3 metres when it’s up and running. It’s designed to look and behave like a normal river. It’s designed to carry 215 cubic metres of water per second. And it’s easiest if I give you the story in actually what is a chronological order.

But firstly, some important information to aid your understanding. The channel was only called the Jubilee River after opening in 2002, prior to that it was called MWEFAS, the Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton Flood Alleviation Scheme. So, for example, at the Public Inquiry, in 1992, the Public Inquiry was into the MWEFAS scheme not the Jubilee River. I’d just like to remind you that Windsor, Eton and Maidenhead lay upstream of Datchet. These are ancient towns that have developed on the flood plain over the centuries and it previously took thousands of years for those flood plains to be created and settle down. When you build on flood plain you should expect to get wet occasionally, I mean that’s just the reality. As town development intensified the periods between flood events reduced.

In the mid 1980’s a number of MWEFAS style flood alleviation schemes were considered by the National Rivers Authority. These schemes were justified on the basis of cost/benefit analysis. Therefore if the justification is there you put the scheme in, if it’s only a small village downstream then you don’t worry about it. But to my mind normally these schemes started at the bottom of the river and worked their way up. In this particular case the scheme was just imposed in the middle because of three towns that happened to be there. The construction is just the bit in the middle, sorry. The planning application to construct the scheme was raised in 1990.

Now, normally the local Parish Councils would be invited to consider such applications and to submit their views. But Datchet was not given the opportunity to consider this application because the channel did not enter the parish. The fact that it might affect the parish is irrelevant, it didn’t physically enter the parish. Fortunately, archaeological studies revealed traces of an Iron Age settlement on Agar’s Plough which is part of Eton College playing fields. Thus the proposed channel was diverted to avoid these remains. So they put an elbow in it and it actually came into the parish of Datchet. The proposed channel now entered Datchet and the Parish Council had to be consulted. Datchet Parish Council objected strongly to the application and organised a campaign against the proposal. Finally, the authorities reluctantly agreed to a Public Inquiry.

This Inquiry took place over 6 weeks in a place called Shire Hall, which was the county hall for Berkshire, as it was then. That commenced in October 1992. Formal statements of case and proof of evidence were submitted by all parties. The Datchet Parish Council technical evidence was given by Mr Doug Perret, a retired hydrologist, a resident in Datchet. And in fact I have here the original proof of evidence submitted by Mr Perret at the Public Inquiry. As Chairman of Datchet Parish Council I presented evidence on other aspects of the proposal. Mr Ian Thompson of Datchet detailed his own concerns at that time.

There are two important points here. I can’t stress how important they are. Anybody can have the opportunity to present evidence at a Public Inquiry. All they have to do is go there and present the evidence. More importantly, that evidence is a complete record of what happened at the time. Who said what, when, why, what the rebuttals were and it’s all in writing. It’s all there for anybody to see. And that record is very important for the future - for comparative purposes, so they can look back and say ‘Well, this is what they promised’ and this is what actually happened.

In 1995, some 3 years later, the inspector, the government inspector, approved the scheme but with two Ministerial Directions attached to it. One was that in years of low flow half the water should go down the Thames and the other half should be directed down the Jubilee River. The inspector also said that with regard to flow and level gauging, records should be maintained, well the devices should be put in and records maintained for the flows in the Jubilee River. I believe that it’s relevant that the National Rivers Authority were then, at about that time, were absorbed into the new Environment Agency. To cut a long story short, the Environment Agency constructed the MWEFAS which was opened in 199.. no, no, that’s not right, I wrote that wrong…. opened in 2002.

In late 2002 and early 2003, it rained …… a lot. In January 2003, many thousands of people, local people, were affected by flooding for the first time since 1947. The Environment Agency had opened the Jubilee River, control structure, water came out of the Thames at Datchet and other downstream villages. There was actually so much water upstream, the precipitation didn’t come out of the sky on Datchet, it came from upstream. And there was so much water coming downstream the Thames was of insufficient capacity at that point and the water just came out of the Thames. But of course Windsor, Eton and Maidenhead remained dry and the Environment Agency were able to claim that it prevented flooding of a thousand homes in that area. But they did have two problems after the event – there were a few repairs needed, in fact I believe they were actually trying to repair the Jubilee River while it was running. It was that bad, and of course they had a few angry people to try and pacify.

Soon after the event the Environment Agency conducted a series of road shows with the aim of explaining the causes of flooding. The road shows were not very successful, leaving a sceptical and dissatisfied public with many questions unanswered. Public confidence in the Environment Agency was not good and was about to get worse. The minister, Elliot Morley, refused to hold a Public Inquiry into the causes of the flooding. He refuted suggestions that the Jubilee River was somehow responsible for the flooding and accused the victims of ‘playing the blame game’. That was in about March 2003. I’m not sure whether the organisation, or the culture within the Environment Agency allows the whole truth to be transmitted upwards through the hierarchy to the Minister. My own MP did not appear in the House of Commons debate on flooding because he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. I can’t actually say any more about that, but maybe after the meeting.

It was agreed to set up a thing called a Flood Risk Action Group to look at the cause of flooding and other issues but there was no brief to consider the design and structural problems with the Jubilee River. The FRAG members (Flood Risk Action Group) were primarily political persons and I did get the feeling that an orchestrated political whitewash was actually up and running. The FRAGs investigated from June 2003 to March 2004 under the chairmanship of Clive Onions, from Arup, who was appointed by the Environment Agency.

In July 2003 I was informed that dredging for flood defence purposes ceased about 1995. It appears to me that when the Environment Agency took over the National Rivers Authority the first thing they did was cut costs, and that’s preventative maintenance. It is a fact that changes in rivers cross section affects flooding and the Environment Agency maintained that no significant changes had taken place to the river cross section. Well, to me, dredging is just one element of an ongoing preventative maintenance programme.

The FRAG report, that’s the mechanisms of flooding report, appeared in March 2004, and it came out with indecent haste. It was like unfinished, it was driven out with about 50 suggestions for improvements. I’ll just remind you it didn’t investigate the design and structural problems, but it did conclude that the Jubilee River did not aggravate downstream flooding. In spite of objections from the public, and with indecent haste, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead adopted the FRAG report in May 2004. At the same May 2004 meeting the Royal Borough adopted the updated flood plain maps showing the newly defended areas, where large chunks had been taken out of the flood plain and then shown as defended. This was the Royal Borough’s way of demonstrating their approval for the FRAG report, I believe. These maps had already been in use for two years and much development had been authorised on the basis of those maps. Over that time the Environment Agency had not been commenting on applications on defended flood plain, therefore a significant number of applications, planning applications, have been processed and/or approved without Environment Agency consideration on flooding.

The latest Atkins report, this one here, made an appearance in July 2004. The revelations in the Atkins report seriously undermined the conclusions of the FRAG report. I think I showed you this before – this is the FRAG report. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on, but it’s the FRAG report. The need for urgent repair works to the Myrke embankment was highlighted. The Myrke embankment is a man made embankment where they took the dirt out of what they called the Jubilee River and just built an embankment, and that embankment leaked. When the water came up in the Jubilee River the embankment leaked. Yes, the Atkins report clarified the seriousness and extent of the damage to the Jubilee River plus ‘design shortcomings’, no less. The Environment Agency commenced spending £1.3 million on repair works to the Myrke embankments without a planning application. Now the Myrke embankment is only 300 metres long. £1.3 million to repair something that should have been designed and built right in the first place and was only used once. That’s not right. As I said they did this without a planning application. Apparently they have the power to do this, but that’s not the point, these repair works should be subject to public scrutiny, and that’s at the local authority level and at borough level.

At the end of July 2004 I found evidence that Arup had been involved with MWEFAS during the design and construction phase. This put the FRAG independent chairman in a difficult position. Shame, shame. I do have a newspaper – ah, this one here – so this is Mr Onions, so Mr Onions picture on the front of our local newspaper. You can probably read the headlines here ‘Flood, sweat and jeers’ it says.

So, in August 2004, the Royal Borough adopted new maps, yet another lot of new maps, extending the flood plain back into those areas which had been shown previously as defended only 3 months before, and extending the main flood plain even further in spite of the Jubilee River having been built and put into effect. These new maps superseded the maps adopted only three months before. But, the Royal Borough – they did an about turn. They not only ‘expressed dismay’ at the Environment Agency, that’s a very, very serious thing put in the words of a diplomat, they actually did a complete U turn.

From January 2003 to August 2004 the Environment Agency enjoyed the wholehearted support of the Royal Borough. The Royal Borough U-turn means that the Environment Agency have yet another problem.

And what about the Jubilee River design, construction and operation? According to Atkins - the Atkins report over here, the Jubilee River appears to suffer from ‘significant problems’. It lacks a stilling basin, whatever a stilling basin is, that thing to stop the forces that were destroying the banks, undermining the bridges. It has unconventional design. A weir was built back to front, the water went over the edges of it and washed away all the banks. It appears to be unstable bank design along a significant distance of the Jubilee River.

The Jubilee River was only used once in January 2003 at about 60% of capacity and the entire length of the scheme sustained damage. I believe that authority and responsibility go hand in hand. What I find extraordinary here is that after something has gone wrong there is a distinct lack of accountability. Nobody says ‘It’s gone wrong – I am responsible, I am sorry, this is what I’m going to do to put it right. This is what I’m going to do to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.’

There are a number of individuals who should be required to face the facts. In no particular order:

Colin Martin, now he represented the NRA at the Public Inquiry in 1992. He made promises that have not been kept, and that’s a matter of record.

Jessie Gray, my local Borough Councillor for Datchet, who currently believes that the 2003 flooding was an ‘act of God’. I can only agree that the geographical location of precipitation and its local intensity could be considered to be an act of God, I don’t have a problem with that. But surely the operation of control structures to divert flood water from one place to another is man made. So who gave the orders to open the gates, and who actually opened those gates? And another important thing over what period of time did they open those gates? Were they opened slowly and gently, in little stages?

The Jubilee River was already damaged prior to January 2003, and the Environment Agency knew that. They hid that information for 15 months. The embankments at Datchet were substandard, a matter that was actually considered at the Public Inquiry in 1992 and ignored. These banks were permeable and unable to safely retain flood water. These banks were liable to both breach and collapse. Somebody put the lives of the people in Datchet at risk!

And as for Ian Tomes, I didn’t know he was going to be here, but I’m delighted to see him. What part did he play during and after this debacle? The government inspector at the Public Inquiry should be looking at what’s gone on here.

And I’ve not addressed the following issues:

The impact on house values and insurance costs

The issue of dredging and disposal of dredged material, and the lack of river maintenance.

Whether the Jubilee River will ever be capable of carrying its design capacity of 215 cumecs.

The legal implications of this fiasco, with the EA chasing the Jubilee River’s designers and/or constructors.

Will the EA be suing themselves for failing to operate the system properly?

And what about the developers, the builders, the householders and the house buyers and the insurers and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead?

The Environment Agency are currently taking powers over 440 COWS – not four legged things in the field, this is Critical Ordinary Water Courses, in the Thames Valley catchment. How the EA can consider this additional responsibility when they are unable to look after their existing assets is beyond me!

In conclusion, I was given a number of promises at the 1992 Public Inquiry. In particular that 200 properties in Datchet would be defended as a result of building the scheme. This area that was shown as defended on the maps actually flooded. Maybe somebody forgot to put the pumps in?

The Public Inquiry documents show flow and level gauging in Datchet. This was not even installed in January 2003 let alone working and recording things. And maybe the gauging at the top end of the Jubilee River washed away along with the bed and the banks. I believe the EA failed to comply with the Ministerial Directions on both flow rates and flow and level gauging requirements.

At the 1992 Inquiry I was assured by the experts that algae would not be a problem. For the second year in succession the Jubilee River has been covered from bank to bank with filamentous algae. What good are warning notices to children and animals, and how about people at night? This stuff looks like grass – grows absolutely solid from one side to the other, and 150 metres upstream.

And what about the issue of who regulates the regulator? Apparently this fiasco has permanently affected the lives and pockets of thousands of people. The Environment Agency continues to hide behind ‘we saved a thousand people’, sorry, ‘a thousand homes in Maidenhead’.

The Jubilee River has changed the attenuating characteristics of the system. To open sluice gates and allow flood water to be quickly redirected onto defenceless downstream villages is not acceptable, to me anyway. The Jubilee River may never carry its design capacity safely and the people responsible should be identified. The Environment Agency have used £110 million of public money, that’s your money and my money, to prove the saying that ‘nature always wins’. The Environment Agency will continue to spend for the foreseeable future trying to get the system to work, unless it’s actually closed. The behaviour of the Environment Agency has varied along a scale from just incompetent to gross negligence. Their credibility with the local population is just zero. And what happens the next time the gates need to be opened?

Until recently the queue to sue has just been getting longer. Here and now I’d like to give the queue to sue, the cue to sue.

I have sufficient material for a book entitled The Rise and Fall of the Jubilee River. And I’ve started work on that already. Believe me when I say this saga has a long way to run. Just watch this space. Thank you!


Transcript ends.



Documents submitted to the 1992 MWEFAS Public Inquiry.

JMP Consultants Ltd., Jubilee River report dated November 2003

Flood Risk Action Group report - chaired by Clive Onions – Mechanisms of Flooding Report - Volumes 1 to 4 – March 2004

RBWM Cabinet Meeting Agenda and Minutes for Thursday 24 May 2004.

RBWM Local Plan – Supplementary Planning Guidance – Interpretation of Policy F1 (Development in areas liable to flood) (June 2004) Revised Guidance.

Atkins Consultants Ltd – Jubilee River Technical Review – July 2004.

Atkins Consultants Ltd – Jubilee River Hydraulic Review – July 2004.

The Windsor Express – Thursday 12 August 2004 –Front page story about Clive Onions.

New Civil Engineer Magazine – 19/26 August 2004 – Cover story on Jubilee River.

The Times – Monday 30 August 2004 – Thames relief river ‘makes flooding worse’.

RBWM Cabinet Meeting Agenda and Minutes for Thursday 26 August 2004.

From: 'The Jubilee River – simply nothing to celebrate here'