Remember the risk of flooding

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By Barnstaple People | Thursday, October 28, 2010, 11:00

AT the end of October, 100 years ago, there were graphic reports in the Journal about the flooding in and around Braunton.

Caen Street, South Street and Church Street were flooded up to 3ft. The river bank of the Pill was washed away in three places; miles of protective sea walls were totally destroyed; and thousands of acres of Braunton marshes were covered to a great depth, destroying 200 sheep. Eye-witnesses said there was flooding as far as the eye could see around Velator, Wrafton and the Great Field.

The Braunton area had been flooded before and in 1894 a local boy called Corney fell into the River Caen and it was presumed he was carried out to sea after rescue attempts were unsuccessful.

There have been several flooding events in the area since then and, when I was a schoolboy around 60 years ago, it was common to go down to Velator during the spring tides and look with wonder at the flooding.

I remember the railway line, now Tarka Trail, being flooded too deeply for the trains to run. Then there was the awful mess of mud left behind and despair experienced by a friend living in a Velator cottage.

In 1953, working in Lowestoft, I saw the effects of serious flooding from the English Channel around the Thames estuary. Many lives were lost and much property ruined. Even the Dutch, experts at reclaiming land from the sea, suffered severely from this flooding disaster.

Three years ago I saw newsman Jon Snow on Channel 4 TV reporting from a half-built and flooded large housing estate at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. This was a small part of miles of flooding around the River Severn. A year earlier the local MP had asked in Parliament for the planning approval for this particular estate to be “called in” because the flood-plain location was unsuitable.

John Prescott, deputising for the prime minister at question time, said: “No – the country needs new housing.” It was not uncommon for the drying-out and clean-up of a local house there to take two years at an insurance cost of £40,000. But who pays when a house not fully insured gets flooded because it was built on a risky site?

The Environment Agency a few years ago found £1.3 million to pay for flood defences at Bradiford. And there have been regular improvements at Braunton. However, the Agency say that flood defences are no “cure” for flooding – they only reduce the risk, not remove it. The best answer is not to aggravate the problem in the first place.

Next time there is local flooding of buildings it could be that the government and local authority have no money for more flood defences. North Devon was not on the latest DEFRA list for part of a £5.3 million government grant to tackle local flood risk.

What about insurance paying for property damaged by flooding? The Daily Mail commented on September 8 this year: “Insurers are in some cases demanding homeowners pay the first £6,000 of any future flood claims. Others have cranked up premiums by more than 500pc.

Government promises to improve flood defences and stop building on flood plains appear to have been cast into the long grass. Insurers are asking why they should be expected to foot the bill for something that is likely to happen rather than something that may happen.”

The low-lying land around the Taw/Torridge delta is all a potential flood-risk area. A look at the 1809 Ordnance Survey Map (reprinted in 2006 by Timeline) shows just how much change has taken place by new development on this poorly drained waterside land.

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However, it is not only development on low-lying land that can create risk. A future worry must be the big civil engineering project of constructing 22 wind turbines, each the same height as St Paul's Cathedral, to go up on the downland around Fullabrook.

This is from where the rainwater drains down into the River Caen and Bradiford Water. The turbine structures require some 70,000 tonnes of hardcore foundation to be laid down which could probably affect the drainage. The electricity sub-station is to be built adjacent to flood ground at Knowlwater Bridge where the stream beneath conveys the filtered sewage from Marwood.

These drainage risks were glossed over at the Public Inquiry in Barnstaple four years ago, where local MP Nick Harvey spoke eloquently of his opposition to the Fullabrook windfarm because of the unsuitable location and technical details.

What are we to make of the scientific predictions of climate change? Will the sea level rise, by how much, and how badly will North Devon be affected? Apparently, records for the past 200 years show that ten of the hottest have been within the past 15 years; the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 200 parts per million in the Ice Age, is now 390 parts per million; above 450 parts per million and the weather is unpleasant for human life, and above 550 parts life becomes unsustainable, rapidly leading to what scientists call a “tipping point”. It should be remembered that climate change can happen very quickly: half of the Ice Age change came in three years.

This is the centenary of just one of North Devon's flood disasters, at Braunton, and we should never forget the far more horrendous Lynmouth floods in 1952. However, next time we read of the serious and recent flood disasters elsewhere in the world such as in Pakistan, China and America, we should remember we are not immune to the dangers of flooding here in North Devon or, indeed, in other parts of the south west.

We have to rely on the good sense of local planners and councillors not to nod-through risky new, or more intense, development on flood plains. Can we?


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