News February 2014

Cllr Paul Harman attends the quarterly meetings of the Northumbria Regional Flood and Coastal Committee and those of the Tees Valley sub-regional committee where local schemes are monitored.

People in Darlington are  aware of recent flood damage in Port Clarence, Saltburn and Skinningrove and of the successful conclusion of flood prevention works in Neasham. The River Skerne is not currently at the levels which were so threatening at times in 2012.

As Darlington’s representative on the Northumbria Regional Flood and Coastal Committee I sit with very experienced officers of Local Authorities and the Environment Agency alongside independent scientists and ecologists, senior executives of Northumbrian Water and elected members from the Tees to Berwick.  The statutory role of the Committee is to give final approval to what goes into our £25million plus annual programme of new works and maintenance programmes.

The first thing to say is that coastal erosion from the sea, management of the many river catchments and increasingly dealing with surface water flooding, all require special techniques and a detailed knowledge of each particular locality. Most challenging now is the impact of severe weather events, sudden and very localised downpours and lack of capacity in our built up areas to absorb rainfall.

Add to that our demand for new housing estates which are often plugged into Victorian drainage systems and soon nowhere is free from flood risk. In fact, last year most damage to homes in the North East was not from rivers or the sea but from surface water running off roads, paved driveways, roofs and car parks. NWL have a huge programme of renewals but building the capacity to carry away what nature can sometimes dump on a small area in minutes is simply not affordable or cost effective. (What runs off our roads and fields also pollutes rivers with chemicals and silt)

The answer is to slow down the flow. With rivers it means, for example in Morpeth, building a dam many miles upstream of the town to hold back 1.5 million cubic metres of water in a tributary beck at times when the main river is already full. That major scheme will cost £23million. Because of the cost-benefit limits to government funding (Flood Defence Grant in Aid) imposed by the Treasury, the Morpeth scheme would not be possible without a majority contribution from Northumberland County Council and a smaller contribution from a developer.

Darlington’s financial contribution to the Local Levy programme is around £100,000 a year. This funds smaller works, like those currently under discussion to protect nine houses in Hurworth at risk from surface water flooding from farmland. What Darlington has received from the NRFCC includes £3m in Neasham and a proposed £2 million towards the Town Centre Fringe works to the River Skerne.

Is the programme an efficient use of public funds? Neasham came in well under budget through good management. At Seaton Carew the EA and local Hartlepool engineers have pioneered an ingenious new technique using earth walls costing much less than cast concrete walls like those at Redcar sea front. Every decision is carefully argued. The EA takes great care to educate elected members, who make the final decisions, in the issues before us.

The seriousness of what the UK now faces as environmental threats is now clearer to national politicians since the big floods of 2007, 2012 and early 2014 – and the recent periods of drought too.

We need to build resilience through sustainable urban drainage systems, slowing the flow of rivers, as we have done on the Skerne at Rockwell, working harder to persuade people to mitigate the effects of paving over gardens and driveways, planting more trees in our uplands and looking hard at the effects modern agricultural practices are having on the health of our rivers.

The recent EU Water Framework Directive brings together regulations on water quality, flood risk management, use and conservation of water and protection and enhancement of the environment.

We are learning that healthy rivers and water bodies, where plants, insects, fish, animals and humans work together to create rich and sustainable systems, will be safer too.

Finally, the East Coast tidal surge in December 2013 was several feet higher than the catastrophic one that cause so much death and destruction in 1953. The defences built over the last 60 years held up. But as the sea level rises and storms increase in frequency and intensity, we may have to give up defending some areas we have taken from the sea in the past. Or spend enormous sums in trying to defend them.

The North East is fortunate in having escaped the ravages recently experienced in the South and West of England and Wales. Our highly experienced technical officers are an essential resource in keeping us aware of threats and how to mitigate them.

Our aim is flood risk management. But the public must learn that we cannot eliminate all risk or indeed afford to compensate every property owner who decides to live in a flood risk area.

Each individual must also accept responsibility for their share of the damage caused to the environment by the way we choose to build, travel, work and consume. The role of public authorities is to use our best knowledge to protect citizens from naturally occurring events but also to regulate and plan where necessary to provide a secure and sustainable future for our communities.

PH Feb 14

 Coming soon:  Project Downpour – a scheme to retrofit a sustainable urban drainage system in Darlington


Skerne River Friends