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The Jubilee River story - Milestones and progress to date (Dec 2005)

1 December 2005

 Ewan Larcombe, 67 Lawn Close, Datchet SL3 9LA

                                                                                   

The January 2003 Thames Flood event

– A brief review of milestones and progress to date and the way forward from Ewan Larcombe (Chairman – Community Support Group South)

It is now almost three years since hundreds of households downstream of Windsor suffered from flooding for first time since 1947 and the Environment Agency have spent that time vociferously denying that use of their newly constructed £110m Jubilee River (JR) and their failure to maintain the Thames exacerbated the 2003 flooding.

I am certain that the EA believed that the anger felt by local people would subside and claims of EA incompetence and/or negligence would quickly fade away with the passing of time.  Well unfortunately for them the reverse has happened and evidence has now emerged that brings the design, construction and operation of the Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton Flood Alleviation Scheme into question.  Obviously I am unhappy because not only is the publicly funded EA apparently responsible for sub standard design and construction, but they also continue to avoid accountability.  Whichever way you look the EA hierarchy are noticeable by their absence, avoiding difficult questions by hiding in their ivory towers and preferring instead to delegate (abdicate is a better word) responsibility to innocent, inexperienced, expendable minions.  Much the same can be said for Defra, the National Audit Office and the Ombudsman.

Originally dreamed up in the 1980’s, the MWEFAS planning application was the product of a time when the construction of physical flood defences was fashionable.  Big was beautiful, and if the project could be suitably adorned with environmental enhancements better still.  The plans were considered at a Public Inquiry in 1992, given permission by the Minister in 1995, and then funded through the Thames Regional Flood Defence Committee (Chaired by Mrs. Jean Venables).  Used only once in January 2003 at about 60% of design capacity, almost every structure and embankment on the channel sustained damage.  With repairs costing millions and ongoing into 2006, the channel is still unable to carry its design capacity.  Despite promises from the ‘experts’ to the contrary, this EA attempt to control nature at huge cost to the public purse resulted in consequences that were predicted by sceptical objectors at the Public Inquiry.  The fact is that when the Jubilee River flow-control structure at Taplow is opened, the floodwater that then by-passes Maidenhead and Windsor arrives downstream earlier, rises more quickly and ultimately peaks at a higher level.

Clive Onions, the ‘independent’ Chairman of the Flood Risk Action Group set up to investigate the causes of the flooding reported that the use of the Jubilee River only added a few millimetres of water downstream of Windsor, and omitted to mention the significant structural damage sustained during operation.  Clive has ‘moved on’ now (like many of his EA colleagues) and been replaced by Tom Crossett of the National Flood Forum, whose first actions were to change the name from FRAG to Thames Flood Forum, and to open the meetings to Press and Public.

While meticulously ignoring the facts, the EA continue to claim that the Jubilee River does not increase the risk of flooding downstream and that modelling is a precise science.  Unfortunately for them there is now evidence to show that the mathematical hydraulic models produced by the ‘experts’ and used to justify the scheme at the 1992 Inquiry were too optimistic.  Furthermore no sooner were the MWEFAS construction contracts placed than the EA were involved with their designers and contractors in a ‘Value Engineering’ exercise.  A new publication from the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) adds weight to assertions that any public lack of confidence in the Environment Agency (EA) is entirely justified.  The RAE (Professors Dodds and Venables) have now referred to the Jubilee River in their ‘Engineering for Sustainable Development: Guiding Principles’ published in September.  Principle 11 (of 12) states ‘Beware cost cutting that masquerades as value engineering’ and makes reference to the Jubilee River by saying ‘The wider implications of design changes made during construction may not always be easy to spot.’      

Briefly, here are some of the current unresolved issues with the EA:

·        Three years have passed, and still we await an agreed and unambiguous all-year-round Jubilee River operating procedure.

·        Re-instatement of a continuous maintenance and dredging programme for the River Thames.

·        The installation and use of an effective flood warning system, with special emphasis on downstream warning prior to JR operation.

·        The Environment Agency to stop moving the goalposts i.e. the ever changing hypothetical flood plain map that affects property values and leads to inequitable insurance premiums.

 

Here are some ideas for the future:

·        I do believe that in the same way that a Parish Council will monitor accessibility and the state of their public footpaths and maybe even maintain them on an ‘as required’ basis, they should also be responsible for the drainage ditches and flood banks within their parish, properly financed from central funds of course.

·        The River Thames Society has now recorded incidences of ground-water flooding, where rising Thames water permeates through the porous gravel bed and emerges in the low-lying areas.  There is an urgent need for groundwater management in selected areas, and I believe that this process should be combined with the drainage ditch and flood bank maintenance controlled by the local parish council.

·        Where the EA used to build and maintain flood defences, they are now in ‘flood risk management’.  It appears that the EA are currently suggesting that individuals and groups should be permitted to design, install and maintain their own flood defences.  Watch this space for some very interesting developments.

Hot off the Press:

·        As Chairman of the Thames Region Flood Defence Committee for nine years, Mrs Jean Venables masterminded the MWEFAS funding.  Mrs. Venables resigned in mid-2003 (note the timing!) and was then awarded an OBE for services to flood defence in the 2004 New Years Honours List and is now a Vice-President of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

·        Apparently the EA are about to survey the bed of the Jubilee River in order to determine whether any dredging is required!

·        I suspect we missed an opportunity!  ‘Making Space for Water’ was a consultation document that apparently did the rounds last year, being closed to respondents in November 2004.  I am not aware of any response to the document from RBWM (or any of their downstream parish councils) or the FRAG.  The Executive Summary was published in March 2005 and may be accessed on the Defra website or via www.jubileeriver.co.uk

 

Ewan Larcombe

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