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The Jubilee River story - 'There but for the grace of God.......'

This is a letter written on 21 November 2009 titled - Flooding?  ‘There but for the grace of God ………….’ (The continuing saga of negligent Government) circulated after the Cumbrian floods.  The letter is as follows.................


When it comes to flooding, just how many times can successive Ministers stand up in the House of Commons and cry ‘unprecedented rainfall’ before the nation realises it is being both misled and improperly served?  If they honestly think that the Climate Change Act will bring about a miraculous reduction in rainfall, then they live in cloud-cuckoo land.

For many people, the impact of flooding is a life-changing experience. Here (downstream of Windsor) we suffered serious flooding in 2003 for the first time since 1947.

Having first-hand experience of the physical and mental pain caused by flooding, I can do little more than empathise with the latest clusters of victims.  The flood waters may recede quickly, but the long-term and permanent consequences of such an event will last for many years, and the true costs will never be known.

I believe that successive Governments are negligent in failing to protect us from the consequences of a natural event and (using the Thames catchment as an example) I will explain why ……..

Within the Thames catchment, the primary purpose of the River Thames (and its tributaries) is to act as a drain, with any commercial, industrial and recreational benefits being a bonus.

Since the EA took over from NRA in1996, the centuries old practice of ‘flood defence’ has been replaced with ‘flood risk management’ where ‘risk’ is the combination of probability and consequences.

The EA claims to be reducing the risk of flooding, but in practice the probability of flooding is ever-increasing due to lack of watercourse maintenance, increased development and climatic variations.

Furthermore the EA has claimed that watercourse maintenance responsibility was confusing and needed improvement. In order to meet that objective the EA took over responsibility for over 3000km of Critical Ordinary Watercourses from local authorities, but then failed to ensure that those same watercourses were properly maintained.  Indeed riparian owners of such watercourses now have to submit applications to the EA for permission in order to implement maintenance works such as dredging. Unbelievably permission is sometimes withheld.   

The EA has only a ‘responsibility’ for flood defence and watercourse maintenance rather than a ‘duty’.  In my opinion the EA is not even fit to take responsibility for watercourse maintenance, being firstly encumbered by internal conflicts of interest (e.g. consideration of water voles, Depressed River Mussels and a multitude of ecological considerations and environmental impacts rather than considering the depressed people who have been flooded) and secondly believing that watercourse maintenance (and flood defence) can be conducted remotely from a keyboard in a warm, dry, safe, office.

The EA claims that the Thames is a natural river and is self-scouring.  The truth is that the Thames is extremely unnatural, being highly engineered, structured and controlled.  The water is normally unable to achieve the velocities necessary for significant material transport.  In fact over time, many of the structural flood arches have been blocked and back-water maintenance abandoned, aggradation has resulted in bed-rise and thus the ‘within banks’ flood water conveyance capacity has been greatly reduced over time.  Indeed I believe that even the ‘normal’ water level of the Thames has risen steadily during the last century in order to maintain navigation while avoiding dredging.

The EA claims that dredging ‘is not a sustainable solution’.  In fact when the EA took over from the National Rivers Authority, the EA ceased dredging and disposed of the dredgers and did not replace the existing Thames dredging equipment.  So apart from not having dredging equipment, the EA now has nowhere to dispose of dredged material.  Furthermore, the problem is compounded because low-level radioactive waste and other toxic run off (especially nitrates leaching from agricultural land) has been discharged into the Thames for over fifty years, therefore ‘hot’ and polluted Thames sediment may be designated as ‘hazardous liquid waste’ consequently being difficult (and expensive) to dispose of.

The EA claims to have a Catchment Flood Management Plan.  I will not burden you with the details, but in my opinion abandoning watercourse maintenance and flooding large areas of agricultural land in the upper catchment in order to reduce downstream flooding is not an acceptable solution.  Dependent on circumstances, flooded arable land takes months or even years to recover.  Why should farmers have to bear the uninsurable losses resulting from upstream flood water storage?

Having taken over responsibility for many watercourses (by re-designating critical ordinary watercourses as Main Rivers) the EA has failed to effectively utilise local knowledge and resources to in order to maintain the natural drainage process and thus reduce the probability of flooding. 

Under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007 the Environment Agency no longer has Crown Immunity from prosecution.  Companies and organisations can now be found guilty of corporate manslaughter as a result of serious management failures resulting in a gross breach of a duty of care.  The Act (which came into force in April 2008) clarifies the criminal liabilities of companies including large organisations where serious failures in the management of health and safety result in a fatality.  Maybe over time this will lead to a cultural change within the Environment Agency.

And as for flooding mentioned in the Queens Speech?   Her Majesty said ‘Legislation will be introduced to protect communities from flooding and to improve the management of water supplies.’  As I see it, the Floods and Water Management Bill was drafted primarily to meet the requirements of the European Directive 2007/60/EC of 23 October 2007 on the assessment and management of flood risks - with other bits just tacked on for convenience.  We will just have to wait and see, but don’t be too optimistic.  As far as I am concerned it’s about time the Government got its act together.  Instead of applying a policy of “flood risk management” it is imperative that this Government acts now to reinstate the policy of “flood defence” so that lives, homes, businesses and infrastructure are better protected when the flood waters rise. 


From Ewan Larcombe, 67 Lawn Close, Datchet SL3 9LA 

Tel 01753 544302  07968 661431