MP calls on Parliament to save Welney

AN MP told the House of Commons that unless the Government intervenes, Welney will be cut off for even longer periods and probably face an increasingly dangerous situation . South West Norfolk MP Christopher Fraser raised the issue in Parliament on Monda

AN MP told the House of Commons that unless the Government intervenes, Welney will be cut off for even longer periods "and probably face an increasingly dangerous situation".

South West Norfolk MP Christopher Fraser raised the issue in Parliament on Monday in a debate with Ian Pearson, minister for climate change and the environment.

He lashed out at the Government for failing to address flooding problems in the village which had cut off Welney for 80 days since last November.

"If no help is forthcoming, it is inevitable that businesses will close or relocate, leaving another rural community with no amenities," he said.

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Water on the Ouse Washes floodplain has risen to cover the A1101 leaving it impassable for most of the 2,000 vehicles who would normally use it each day.

Mr Fraser secured the debate in order to call on the Department for the Environment to fund the resumption of dredging of the Bedford Rivers to remove the silt which has accumulated, so raising the level of the river bed and reducing the volume of water which can pass through.

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Mr Fraser told the minister that the poor state of the rivers and sluices was causing the rivers to breach their banks and spill onto Welney Wash, an area designed to deal with emergencies not annual flooding.

Mr Fraser said this week: "The government has announced that the Welney Wetlands site will be abandoned and a new area created to replace it at a cost of £15m.

"Yet the minister told me in the House of Commons that the cost of dredging the river would be £4-5m and the cost of raising the A1101 some £6m-7m.

"The Government has its priorities all wrong.

"I was extremely disappointed by this and other answers that I was given during the debate.

"The minister admitted that we face a serious problem, but failed to offer a solution."

- Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of fen flooding in South-West Norfolk, which is of great concern to many of my constituents, especially those living close to the Ouse washes. I pay tribute to the community representatives and local residents who have worked so hard to find a solution to the problem, particularly borough councillors David Pope and Vivienne Spikings, and Welney parish council chairman Ken Goodger and his council colleagues.

No community has been more deeply affected by the flooding than the residents of the village of Welney. Once again this winter, the inhabitants of this rural community have found themselves isolated by flooding up to 3 ft deep across the A1101, which traffic surveys show is used by more than 2,000 vehicles each day in the dry season. For more than 80 days since last November the road has been impassable. The flood waters receded at the end of January, but the respite was short-lived and, once again, the road is under water.

The duration of the flooding is not unprecedented, but it has been significantly worse in the past seven years compared with a decade ago. According to the Environment Agency, between 1990 and 1997, the road was flooded for a total of 100 days; in the past seven years, it has been impassable for almost 300 days. This season, it seems probable that the road will be flooded for more than 100 days. There is an escalating trend—an extremely worrying one that reflects the problem of climate change that we all face. With global warming likely to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather and winter rainfall, it seems inevitable that unless the Government step in, residents of Welney will be cut off for even longer periods, and probably face an increasingly dangerous situation.

The result of flooding is that, for increasingly long periods, local businesses are denied passing trade. They also lose custom from those living on the other side of the Welney wash, because residents face diversionsof 20 miles in each direction. That is a massive inconvenience for them and for others trying to use ever more congested alternative routes through the county. The loss of trade is keenly felt by local businesses, such as shops, pubs and, importantly, rural post offices.

What assessment have the Government made of the economic impact of the annual flood on South-West Norfolk and, in particular, the Norfolk fens? What assistance is available to those who are suffering? If no help is forthcoming, it is inevitable that those businesses will close or relocate, leaving yet another rural community with no amenities. I should also like to the ask the Minister, given the increase in housing planned for the area and Norfolk generally, what guarantee the Government can give that plans will take account of the fact that a significant detour is inevitable when the A1101 is impassable. Will that be borne in mind when infrastructure projects such as new schools, hospitals and other services are planned?

In the past, steps were taken to increase the flowof water along the Bedford and Hundred Foot rivers. The construction of Welmore sluice was intended to increase the outflow by 50 per cent. and residents were assured that the built-in water jets would prevent silt from reducing its operational effectiveness, but I am told that the sluice gates across the wash, particularly those in the north such as the Denver sluice, will soon be sealed shut by silt. Welmore sluice is little better. The problem is now so severe that a former flood defence manager has told me that there will be problems getting boats into the locks from the middle level. Will the Minister confirm whether that is true? What steps are being taken to clear the channels?

The catchment flood management plan issued by the Environment Agency highlights the fact that the Great Ouse is

"very sensitive to sediment problems",

and notes that those tend to

"accumulate in or around in-channel structures such as bridges, culverts and outfalls, reducing the ability to function properly, and thus increasing the risk of flooding as the river channel’s ability to hold and convey water is reduced".

It continues:

"The tidal Great Ouse River, particularly from the Wash to Earith shows significant sediment accumulation...regular maintenance to clear accumulated sediment is required."

Yet the Environment Agency’s approach to the river is inconsistent. Fallen trees, urban debris and an abundance of reeds are, in addition to the sediment, causing severe blockages in some main river channels. This regularly leads to local flooding and can significantly heighten the likelihood of a major flood incident. As the Minister will know, all landowners are required to pay a general drainage charge to the Environment Agency, and in return, it maintains some stretches on their behalf. However, in other areas, it insists that the responsibility fall to the landowners themselves. There seems no rhyme or reason why some areas receive preferential treatment. However, the Environment Agency is clear on one point. It states emphatically that dredging is inappropriate because

"significant silting of the river may reoccur during or within a short time of completing any dredging".

To my constituents, such an argument seems absurd. If the level of silt deposits is so great, that surely strengthens, rather than weakens, the argument in favour of regular dredging.

During the period before the Environment Agency’s assuming responsibility for the river, a dredging programme was in place. At one stage, some 15 to18 drag lines were in constant operation. Since the agency took charge, these operations have ceased. Surely it cannot be a coincidence that since that time, the severity of flooding in the Welney wash has, as I said earlier, increased enormously. If silt is preventing one part of the system from working properly, does that not place excessive strain on other sections?

I emphasise that we in South-West Norfolk are not looking to blight other communities downstream. What we are calling on the Government to do is to recognise that the bottleneck at Welney is just a few miles short of the sea, and we want them to find ways of moving the floodwater that few miles extra to the coast.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this debate is that although a great deal of money has been spent protecting areas along the River Ouse in Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire from flooding, no money is being spent on protecting much of the section in Norfolk. Why do the Government find it acceptable to take steps to alleviate the problem of flooding in Bedfordshire, but abandon the people of Welney to cope with the consequences? To them, it seems inevitable that the bottleneck around Welmore, aggravated by the huge silt deposits, could dramatically increase the severity of any future floods. Local people also think that it increases the likelihood of a breach in the tidal floodbank, the consequence of which could be catastrophic.

The question is: how can the Government appear to put a higher value on the lives of people further upstream than on those further downstream in my constituency, in terms of money going into flood alleviation projects? Once again, the people of Norfolk find themselves at the wrong end of the Government’s priority list. [Interruption.] I note that the Minister is laughing at that comment, but for the people who live with this problem daily, it is no laughing matter. Residents and parish and district councillors are gravely concerned that if the current trend continues, lives will be lost and homes made uninhabitable. The lack of adequate flood warning has on several occasions endangered livestock, as well. Given the speed with which the waters rise, if no action is taken it will be only a matter of time before a tragedy occurs. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the local flood embankments and the tidal floodbank can cope with the predicted future increases in floodwater levels? What assessment has been made of the need for an early warning system?

The Environment Agency claims that dredging would have significant environmental consequences. Surely significant environmental damage will occur if no action is taken?

The wetlands have deteriorated drastically over the past three decades, owing to excessive flooding because the Environment Agency has failed to maintain the rivers. That poses a grave threat to plant and animal species in Welney wash. Having destroyed the existing area through the neglect I have just mentioned, the Government propose spending £15 million to create new wetland. Is not that another short-term and short-sighted fix that ignores the greater long-term problem? The proposal starkly demonstrates the fact that the Government are simply turning their back on the problem. Will they search for a new site each time the old one becomes unviable?

The draft management plan states:

"The nature conservation value cannot be allowed to decline any further."

Clearly doing nothing is not an option, nor is simply abandoning the current wetland. Instead of spending the money on new wetland, the Government would, without doubt, achieve more by spending it on addressing the problems in the current wetland area. More than a decade ago, it was assessed that the cost of dredging a new central channel along the most severely affected eight miles of the tidal river would be approximately £300,000 and that the work would take eight days. That would have enabled the river to flow more freely and assisted the natural process of clearing the remaining silt, so I urge the Government to reconsider that option.

The issue of paramount concern to my constituents in Welney is the state of the A1101. In recent years local roads such as the A141 and A10 have been upgraded. Work has even been carried out on the bridges at either end of the wash road, yet the A1101 has remained almost untouched. The residents and the parish council would like the road access across the wash raised so that it is passable. I hope there is an engineering solution that can overcome the subsoil problems, but if not, what other solution can the Government offer local residents? What assessment have the Government made of the cost of such modifications?

The alternative would be to build an entirely new road with culverts, which would be difficult and more expensive given the protected nature of much of the area, but of course if the Government were able to support such a scheme local people would welcome it. In either case, neither Norfolk county council nor the East of England regional assembly is in a position to foot the bill, nor should they have to do so. Our armed forces do a magnificent job swiftly laying floating roadways across rivers in war zones and areas of conflict and disaster, so why is that solution entirely beyond the Government’s capabilities on home soil when there are problems such as those in the fens?

My constituents feel excluded and frustrated by the apparent lack of interest in their predicament. They feel desperately let down by the Government and are extremely frightened for the future. The current consultation is a case in point. It took my office two weeks, three phone calls and two e-mails to track down a copy of the draft catchment flood management plan, which, unlike those for other rivers, is not on the Environment Agency website. I was sent the wrong document, told that the most recent document relating to the Great Ouse was published in 2005 and then sent a summary with no indication of how to obtain the full document. That does not seem to be the comprehensive public consultation that such an important issue warrants. I should be grateful if the Minister could ensure that the document is, at the very least, made available online.

There have been sustained problems of neglect, buck-passing and lack of leadership on the issue. To date, the Government’s policy has been entirely passive. A strong proactive approach is desperately needed. The Government designated the Ouse washes a statutory flood storage reservoir and in doing so condemned the people of Welney to annual flooding. The Government therefore have an obligation to offer a solution to the local community.

I have chosen to raise the issue in the House of Commons because the Government are ultimately responsible. I sincerely hope that the Minister will not simply pass the buck to the Environment Agency, as has happened so many times before, although not by this Minister but when things were devolved to other organisations. I remind him, even though he probably does not need reminding, that the agency was appointed by the Government and is accountable to him and to the Government.

It would also be unacceptable if the buck were passed to the local authority as an issue of local priority, as other issues, such as the road infrastructure, have been

in Norfolk. Government legislation is the single cause of the problem and they are responsible for providing a solution to local people.

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) on securing this debate and want to assure him that, as a Government, we take flooding extremely seriously. Flooding is a traumatic experience that is costly in material terms and in disruption to people’s lives and also psychologically in terms of stress and worry.

In recent years, we have made a great deal of progress in improving our management of flood risk and in understanding and taking into account the possible future impacts of climate change. We estimate that between 4 million and 5 million people live in areas at risk of flooding with assets totalling some£250 billion, and the probability of flooding is likely to increase as a result of climate change and sea level rises.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall policy responsibility for flood risk management in England. We work in close partnership with the Environment Agency, which is the principal operating authority for managing these risks. Measures to manage the risk include the building and maintenance of defences to reduce the probability of flooding, but go beyond this to embrace a range of approaches for reducing the consequences of flooding when it does occur. These include public awareness campaigns, flood warning and emergency planning, together with seeking to avoid increasing risk through inappropriate development.

We are currently engaged in the most thorough review of flood risk management policy for many years in the cross-government "Making Space for Water" programme. Among other things, we are considering responses received to our public consultation on extending the Environment Agency’s role in terms of a strategic overview of coastal flood and erosion risk. We are funding a number of projects looking at developing ideas for novel ways to improve the management of flood risk, including 15 pilot projects to help identify improvements in the area of integrated urban drainage. We are also aiming to encourage better resilience and resistance for buildings and emergency infrastructure.

We have increased funding significantly in recent years and DEFRA will provide £436 million to the Environment Agency for flood risk management in 2007-08. Notwithstanding the increased funding since 1997, there will always be the need to prioritise which proposals should receive funding first, and the operating authorities, principally the Environment Agency, work with communities to find solutions to flooding problems, which are then prioritised through an objective system to make sure that the country gets maximum benefit from our investment. It is clear that we could spend the agency’s budget many times over and it is important that we have a rigorous system of assessing what the overall priorities are and what the best benefits will be from the investment that we make as taxpayers.

To turn to the specific problem highlighted by the hon. Gentleman, I recognise the inconvenience that is clearly caused to residents of Welney and others by closure of the A1101 by floodwater. It might help if I briefly expand on the context. The Ouse washes, across which the Welney road—the A1101—passes and where the flooding occurs, is an area specifically set aside for storage of flood waters. It covers an area of about 2,000 hectares between the banks of two watercourses and was constructed by the Dutch engineer, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, in the 1600s to drain the fens.

The area is a statutory flood storage reservoir under the Reservoirs Act 1975. It is designed to reduce the risk of large-scale flooding of the fens and it is still needed for that purpose. It stores flood water that would otherwise cause overtopping of river banks and flooding elsewhere. The area receives water from rivers and tributaries that pass through Buckingham, Milton Keynes, Newport Pagnell, Bedford, St. Neots and Huntingdon. The washes transfer flood waters from Earith in the south to Welmore lake in the north, where the waters are discharged through Welmore sluice into the Great Ouse tidal river to flow out to sea.

I understand that flooding of the A1101 depends mainly on the volume of water entering the Ouse washes at the Earith sluice. Following heavy rainfall, large volumes of water have to pass from Earith over the washes, including the road, to get to the outfall into the tidal river at Welmore sluice. The Environment Agency operates the Earith sluice within parameters that are designed to keep the sluice operating optimally to avoid flooding elsewhere and that cannot be overridden except in exceptional circumstances.

I should emphasise that the flood storage area is working as it was designed to work—that is, transferring large volumes of water that would otherwise flood homes and land out to sea. As the hon. Gentleman recognised, the impact of climate change in the future is likely to increase those peak volumes, as winters become wetter and storminess increases. There is no practical way to stop the flow of water across the Ouse washes. It is my understanding that the only practicable way to reduce the risk of the road flooding would be to elevate the road. That was one of the solutions that he suggested. I understand that the cost of doing that would be between £6 million and£7 million, based on 2003 estimates, which would have to be updated. This is clearly a matter for the local highways authorities in the first instance.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the sluice operation. The Welmore sluice, which assists the draining of the washes, was reconstructed for improved operation in 1999 at a cost of some £5 million. With three sets of large gates, it is 50 per cent. larger than the old sluice. It allows a one-way transfer of water through gravity discharge from the Ouse washes into the tidal river when the river is low enough to allow that, while preventing water from flowing in the opposite direction back into the washes when the river is high.

The problem of the silting up of the sluice itself is managed by water jets to clear any build-up, which is then further washed away by the flow of water through the sluice. There are two drainage pumps at Welmore and provision for additional temporary pumps. These evacuate lower levels of flood water off the washes in

the spring when gravity discharge is no longer effective. They are not designed to evacuate large volumes of winter flood water off the washes. Welmore lake sluice is currently fully operational. It is able effectively to discharge flood water from the washes down to a level below that of the Welney road—the A1101. That is, when the inflow of water at Earith ceases, Welmore sluice will effectively clear the road of flood water.

The Environment Agency does not believe that the flooding of Welney road is directly related to the height of the tidal river caused by the level of silt. The ability of the Welmore sluice to discharge water is dependent on the low tide level in the tidal river. In the sense that silt raises the height of the river, it does reduce the discharge efficiency of the sluice. However, the fact remains that the water still has to cross the road to get from Earith to Welmore. As things are now, Welmore is currently able to clear the road once water has ceased to enter at Earith. So, the solution to the problem works at the moment and we do not believe that clearing the silt will have a significant or major impact.

The majority of the silt deposited in the river comes from the tide as it comes in and out twice a day. The fact that the outgoing tide is slower than the inward tide causes silt to be deposited in the channel. The extent to which that happens is dependent upon natural river flows. Silt is currently raising the level of the river bed, as a result of low water flows out to sea caused by two very dry winters and summers. The bed levels are higher than those experienced in 1996-97, which followed another prolonged drought period. However, by contrast, after the wet winters between 1998 and 2003, river bed levels reduced by over a metre, which demonstrates the natural silt-clearing effect of sustained winter flows.

Ian Pearson: I will come on to the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked.

I understand that the proposal to de-silt to adequate levels would cost in the region of £4 million to£5 million and would take a number of years to complete. As the Environment Agency has stated—the hon. Gentleman noted this in his speech—significant silting of the river could recur in a short time, perhaps even while the dredging operation was being carried out. The option thus does not seem to be sustainable. However, as a result of the build-up of silt between Denver and Salters Lode, in an attempt to improve navigation—I stress the word "navigation"—the Environment Agency plans to plough part of the river in the next few weeks, which involves disturbing the silt on the river bed to assist its transport back out to sea. The agency will monitor that work to determine how effective it is and whether it might have some applicability to improving the outflow from the Ouse washes.

The Environment Agency recognises that silt in the tidal river is a long-term issue that might be worsened by the impact of climate change. That is why it is undertaking a study to develop a tidal river strategy,

which will consider options for managing silt in the tidal river over the next 50 years. The study should report in late 2008.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the amount spent on increasing flood defences in Norfolk compared with other counties, such as Bedfordshire. In the past five years, the Environment Agency has spent in excess of £12 million on improving flood defences in Norfolk alone. That was significantly more than the amount spent in Bedfordshire in the same period. The annual spend on the tidal river for the stretch about which are talking is in the region of £200,000, which is for asset and structural maintenance work and pumping costs.

The Environment Agency has not undertaken a specific assessment of the cost of the Ouse washes flooding. However, the hon. Gentleman will probably be aware that a 2003 report for Norfolk county council on the viability of improving the A1101 concluded:

"The actual cost of disruption is not possible to quantify because of the various and diverse nature of traffic using the road and the wide spread of alternative route options".

The hon. Gentleman asked what assistance the Government could offer to those affected. The Environment Agency is not considering offering additional assistance to those affected by the closure of the road, other than by giving advance notice of a closure and reopening the road as soon as possible. Warnings that the road is flooding are given as soon as is practicable and whenever water starts to encroach on the road. The general view is that it would be difficult to provide earlier notice because the situation is dependent on rainfall, flow rates, catchment conditions, the discharge capability of the tidal river and tidal influence.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about new housing development. It is the view of the Environment Agency that road flooding would need to be considered as part of the planning process. Additional development in the area might affect the economic viability of improvements to the road and the washes, so that would be a factor to be taken into consideration.

The hon. Gentleman talked about climate change. Climate change and weather pattern changes are part of the ongoing tidal river strategy review. Until that review has been completed, we cannot really provide information about any change to the frequency and duration of flooding of the Ouse washes and, hence, the A1101. However, such work is being actively pursued through the tidal study.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is meeting the Environment Agency later this week. I am sure that it will be pleased to discuss the problem in more detail. I thank him for bringing the matter to the attention to the House. He has rightly raised this important issue on behalf of his constituents and I wish him all the best in pursuing it with the Environment Agency.

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