“This was actually the show home,” says Tracy Miller, squelching through the wreckage of her living room. A thick stench of damp fills the air, and ruined furniture is piled in heaps. “When we saw it, we thought, 'That’s the house for us.’ It was a nice development, handy for the town. It was just what we wanted.”
Mrs Miller, 40, owner of a local hair salon, and her policeman husband, Glenn, paid £152,000 for the three-bedroom house on the estate’s main entrance road. “We’d heard about floods in the past, but we were assured that it was no longer a problem. What they actually said was there was only a 'once-in-a-thousand-years’ possibility of us being flooded. Well, we moved in nine months ago, and it’s already happened.”
The land Glasdir now sits on has been flooding gently for years. Some locals say they’ve never known a time when it was completely dry. Sited to the north of the town, close to the River Clwyd, it was popularly known as the “wet field”, and people used to pick wild watercress here. Given Ruthin’s past flooding problems, few could have imagined it would one day be an estate of 150 houses.
Yet in 2005 the now-defunct Welsh Development Agency put it on the market as prime housing land, and shortly afterwards, Denbighshire County Council gave outline planning permission for 230 homes, a school and small businesses. The following year the site was sold to Taylor Wimpey, one of Britain’s biggest house-building companies, which set about creating its alluringly advertised estate.
Ian Smith, Taylor Wimpey’s regional managing director, says the company “accepted in good faith” the local authority’s assurance that the flood risk had been minimised. “When we bought the land the flood defence scheme was already in place,” he told The Sunday Telegraph at the Ruthin site office. “We were given to understand that it would work. What we don’t know is why it didn’t.”
Alarmingly, no one else seems to have much idea, either. David Smith, Denbighshire council’s member with responsibility for flooding, says: “All we know is that it shouldn’t have happened. There will obviously have to be an investigation, but it’s too early to start blaming anyone. Our concern at the moment has to be for the people who are affected.”
There are many of them, and they include people like Darren Williams, a 37-year-old social worker and his partner, Lucinda, who bought their three-bedroom town house for £145,000 and were among the first residents to move to the estate three years ago.
“We’d just got up, it was about 8am, and you could see the water swelling up in the back garden,” Darren said. “There was no way you could keep it out. It was absolutely heartbreaking, just standing there up to your waist in dirty water, seeing your house being wrecked. We’ve lost everything, basically. No one in their right mind would want to buy a property here now. It’s mostly young families and first-time buyers on this estate, and their homes are worthless.
“As far as I’m concerned the property was mis-sold. I grew up in Ruthin. Everyone knew this was a flood plain. I wouldn’t have bought here if I’d believed there was a risk, but we were all given a written assurance from the Environment Agency that the area was now safe from flooding. We should be entitled to our money back.”
Ruthin, an ancient hill town dominated by a 13th-century castle, was identified as a priority for a defence scheme after suffering three separate floods in 2000. When heavy rain falls on the Hiraethog Moors to the west of the town, the surplus water flows into the Clwyd, which, when the volume becomes too much, bursts its banks.
The £3 million defence scheme, which should have protected Glasdir, mainly consisted of re-directing a culvert to carry water away from known flood areas. Some locals were sceptical as to whether it would be sufficient – even for the houses then in place – but the scheme went ahead in 2003. Since then, hundreds more homes have been built around the town.
At about 6am on Tuesday, water began gushing towards Glasdir from the Clwyd, which runs just 150 yards away. As the residents slept, falsely reassured by the assumption that their houses were safe, huge accumulations of water began to swirl around the estate’s perimeter.
The first warnings came not from the emergency services, but from local postmen who saw the flood building up and went from house-to-house alerting residents.
“The postmen were fantastic, they even helped us move the furniture, but where was everyone else?” asked Sarah Davies, who moved in 18 months ago with her husband Mark. “There was no fire brigade, no police. People were screaming for help, it was dark, cold, the water was coming up all around you. In 20 minutes it was right through our house. There were children, pregnant women, terrified, crying for help and there was no one here. We were completely abandoned.”
Most of the local emergency services were on duty in nearby St Asaph, where hundreds of homes were flooded and a 91-year-old woman drowned. More than three inches of rain fell on the area in 24 hours – half the average November rainfall. Again, the town’s flood defences were overwhelmed.
Along with the anger and dismay, confusion reigns in Ruthin. Some Glasdir residents claim they were given the impression that the estate had its own additional defences, and David Edwell, the Environment Agency’s area manager, confirms that the developer would, in most cases, be expected to incorporate such a scheme. Taylor Wimpey insists, however, that its planning consent came on the basis that sufficient flood defences were already in place.
“It’s the usual thing,” says Mrs Miller, a mother of four. “No one wants to take responsibility, everyone blames everyone else, and it’s the ordinary people in the middle who suffer.”
The inquest now underway is likely to lead to some damning – and costly – conclusions. Keith Jones, director of the Welsh Institution of Civil Engineers, called last week for the whole question of building on flood plains to be re-examined.
“There are two worrying effects,” he said. “First, the development itself might flood, but also that the development takes up room where the water would naturally go, and that causes problems elsewhere.” He suggested that expert advice from civil engineers was being ignored by planning authorities, who were under pressure to release land for building.
“There’s a lot that needs explaining,” admits Ruthin’s mayor, Emrys Wynne, trudging the streets of Glasdir. “We just don’t know the answers yet. Perhaps the wrong kind of system was built. Perhaps it was simply overwhelmed by the amount of water. All we know at the moment is that it failed, and it’s a tragedy for these people.”