Transcript of ‘You and Yours’ Radio 4 programme –
Thursday, 12th May 2005
Roger Waite: A new flood relief channel for the
River Thames may have to be built to protect almost 30,000 people whose
homes are at risk of flooding. They all live downstream of a flood defence
project built three years ago – the Jubilee River, which cost £110M. It’s
emerged though that the design of the project was ‘modified’
in what is known as a value engineering project, in other words to save
money on the original scheme, and people living in homes that were flooded
in 2003 are convinced that this is one reason why another new set of flood
defences is now being suggested. Well Melanie Abbot can tell us more. Tell
us first Mel what the Jubilee River is?
Melanie Abbot: Well it’s a man-made channel and
is the Environment Agency’s biggest ever inland flood defence project. It
cost £110M. Although man-made, it was built to look as much like a natural
river as possible and was considered very innovative at the time. It’s seven
miles long and is designed so that water goes into the channel upstream of
Maidenhead in Berkshire and returns to the Thames, downstream of Eton. The
first time it was used it protected 1,000 homes upstream but 500 homes
downstream suffered the worst flooding since 1947.
Roger Waite: So these are the people presumably
who think this value engineering exercise, as the euphemism goes, is linked
to their flooding?
Melanie: Well, their confidence certainly hasn’t
been raised by these revelations about this cost cutting exercise, value
engineering exercise, and of course the phrase hasn’t gone down too well
with them either. A report written by the Contractors, Balfour Beattie,
describes how they and the Environment Agency at the time had a ‘get to know
you’ dinner followed by several ‘getting to know you really well’ drinks,
and during this time they reviewed every aspect of the design and considered
all changes, ranging from (the report says) the ‘conventional’ to the
‘bizarre’. Ewan Larcombe is a Parish Councillor in Datchet, one of the areas
which was flooded.
Ewan Larcombe: In 1999 the Client, that’s the
Environment Agency, the Designers, and the Construction Contractors, they
all got together and used this value engineering technique to change the
design of the Jubilee River. Now I am exceedingly unhappy about that because
in 1992, at the Public Inquiry, all these designs were on paper and they
were submitted in evidence at the Public Inquiry. The Inspector’s Report was
written, here we have the Environment Agency and their Contractors, working
together to change the design. Now that was never put before the public and
they have implemented design changes that I believe changed the performance
of the construction.
Melanie: Now the contractors, they said that
their value engineering exercise was designed not to change the quality of
the design, not to change the content of the design, not to change the
environmental impact of the design, but to do the same thing, but cheaper.
Is there anything really wrong with that?
Ewan Larcombe: You have only to look at the very
first time they put water through the Jubilee River in January 2003.
Significant segments of the construction were damaged. Surely there is
something wrong here? This is £110M world class award winning scheme that
fell apart the first time that it was used.
Melanie: And Ewan Larcombe (speaking there) does
think that there should still be a Public Inquiry into that flooding.
Roger Waite: And in the meantime we have these
new proposals being put forward.
Melanie: That’s right, there are five different
approaches outlined to tackle the problem: (i) it does involve building new
channels to divert the flow of the River Thames away from those areas liable
to flooding. This could cost up to £200M, it would take 10-15 years to
complete and would need to be approved directly by the Treasury. Another
suggestion is what is known as ‘river bed re-profiling’. Attempting to make
the river deeper and perhaps wider. There are less ambitious options such as
temporary barriers and an enhanced flood warning system. Now these
suggestions – the Environment Agency says in its announcement – are a direct
response to extensive flooding in January 2003 which affected those 500
Roger Waite: And what has been the reaction to
Melanie: Well, ‘luke warm’ I think would be the
word. Gillie Bolton, who lives on Ham Island in Old Windsor, she spent days
only being able to get to her house by canoe back in 2003. She now sits on
the pressure group ‘ThamesAwash’ which was set up to tackle the flood risks.
Gillie Bolton: We are delighted that they are
looking at these proposals, but so much more work has got to be done,
because they are talking about new channels, and in my opinion, until they
have the Jubilee River working properly and effectively, how can they
consider building new channels. They are talking about river bed
re-profiling and again, I believe that this comes in with the dredging, but
perhaps to a wider issue.
Roger Waite: Gillie Bolton, but is there real
clear evidence now to link the Jubilee River with the flooding of people’s
Gillie: There have been independent studies
carried out to show that the Jubilee River didn’t contribute to those
floods, but there has also been a study by independent engineers called
Atkins, which pointed to a long list of design problems with the channel, as
we reported on ‘You and Yours’ last year. These include things like a convex
weir, which arches the opposite way from what you would normally expect, no
mechanism to slow down the flow of water, and the report also said that the
channel was operating at only 80% of the intended capacity, and this is
interesting, because it was something predicted at the original Planning
Inquiry back in 1992, by Peter Ackers, a Civil Engineer, who has now
retired, but who assessed the plans at the time, and he wrote then "that it
would be very embarrassing for all concerned if the intended capacity wasn’t
achieved, saying that it’s not an issue that could be clouded over and any
deficiency would bring widespread and justified criticism", and I asked him
what prompted this conclusion.
Peter Ackers: It was the largest drainage scheme
that had ever been built and it had many novel features, it was in a very
sensitive area, and it was fairly obvious that if it failed to achieve its
objectives, then there would be plenty of people there to complain.
Melanie: And what in particular about the scheme
made it different from other schemes which concerns you, and perhaps led you
to believe that it may be quite difficult to predict the capacity of the
Peter Ackers: The fact that it was following the
latest good practice of very natural looking channels, fitting much better
into the landscape, but from the high prerogative point of view, that made
it very difficult to predict just what its flow capacity would be.
Melanie: Peter Ackers. And he also told me that
at the time, no research had been done into the capacity of natural flood
relief channels designed in this way.
Roger Waite: And what does the Environment Agency
have to say about all of this?
Melanie: Well I spoke to Ian Tomes, the Area
Flood Defence Manager, and asked him first what he thought about Peter
Ackers’ perhaps rather far sighted comments.
Ian Tomes: What I would say is that at the time,
the best available information was used to design the scheme. You have to
remember that the hydraulic or the computer model that was used, was right
back in the 1990’s, this was scrutinised by the Public Inquiry by hydraulic
consultants, and was found to be perfectly OK. What’s happened is that we
have the flooding of 2003 which has given us a lot of new information about
the Thames’ flows and levels, and if we designed the scheme now with that
new information, it may be different.
Melanie: To people living downstream then from
the Jubilee River that might sound almost as if they were being used
somewhat as guinea pigs for this scheme?
Ian Tomes: Not at all, as I have said already the
best available information that was available was used at the time.
It was scrutinised at the Public Inquiry by
independent experts and they didn’t have a problem with it.
Melanie: Why is there now then a need for this
new strategy to those people living downstream of the Jubilee River, they
have been saying that it does look like an admission of failure of the
Ian Tomes: No not at all, one of the highest
areas of flood risk in the country with nearly 12,000 properties at risk in
a 1:100 year flood event, is the area downstream of the Jubilee River,
between Datchet and Teddington, and that risk has always existed.
Melanie: What about this ‘value engineering’
exercise with something as controversial as the Jubilee River – how wise is
it to shave off the costs by changing the design or altering the materials
Ian Tomes: I think the first thing I would say
about that is that value engineering is not about driving down the cost,
it’s an error to think that it is. It’s actually a standard industry
approach really which has been used for many years on large construction
projects, it’s about optimising the mix of cost, performance and fitness for
purpose. The other thing I would say is of course that at a Public Inquiry,
the detailed design is never done before a Public Inquiry.
Melanie: But if it’s not about driving down costs
then why would the contractor (Balfour Beattie) write this report really
trumpeting how well they had managed to limit the cost of the project.
Ian Tomes: Well I mean, yes, the
cost is one element but its optimising that mix of both cost, performance
and fitness for purpose, so reducing the cost may be one outcome, but also
getting better performance and better fitness for purpose may be another
outcome as well
Melanie: Ian Tomes from the Environment Agency
speaking to me then.
Roger Waite: Thank you for speaking to us Melanie
End of discussion.