The defence scheme that would have protected Wraysbury

The defence scheme that would have protected four flood-stricken villages (Image: PA)

THROUGHOUT most of the 2010s, four riverside villages that have been decimated by flooding were sold a promise that there would be a major scheme put forward to better protect their homes and livelihoods.

It was called the River Thames Scheme (RTS) and it was conceived to protect thousands of properties and businesses initially from Datchet all the way to Teddington from flooding.

For the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead (RBWM), it would have protected about 3,700 households in Datchet, Horton, Wraysbury, and Old Windsor.

The four villages have a long history of heavy flooding – some even dating to the 1600s. The villages even flooded in 2003 and became the epicentre when many parts of the UK were effectively underwater in 2014.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) has spoken to RTS planners, parish councillors, and residents to find out what the RTS is, problems RBWM have faced, and where the scheme is now.

What is the River Thames Scheme (RTS) and how did it start?

The idea of a large-scale flood alleviation project along the Thames was floating around in the 1990s when the £110m Jubilee River flood alleviation scheme was approved.

It was designed to protect the largest area of undefended, developed floodplain in England near Maidenhead, Windsor, and Eton, by building three channels to offer better protection between Datchet and Teddington.

It also proposed to create new public open spaces and active travel routes as well as make some weir repairs in Teddington, Molesey, and Sunbury.

The need for a flood alleviation scheme accelerated after the devastating 2003 floods that impacted those communities, which happened not too long after the Jubilee River became operational.

Soon after, the Environment Agency (EA) drew up a ‘Lower Thames Strategy’ to mitigate flooding in those communities – that plan was the River Thames Scheme.

It believed one channel [channel one] should be set up in Datchet, another in Runnymede [channel two], and channel three should be set up in Spelthorne to help divert flood water away from at-risk communities.

The strategy was approved in 2009, giving the RTS permission to go to the next stage.

RTS officially kickstarted just two years before the devastating 2014 floods to outline the design and understand the economic benefits and how much it would roughly cost – an estimated £640m.

The challenge soon became a question of how cash-strapped local councils could pool millions of pounds to fund their part of the scheme.

Unlike the Jubilee River, paid for by government, it was decided RTS should be paid for partly by affected councils and stakeholders under the new rules called partnership funding.

RTS project director David Bedlington explained to the LDRS: “Back in the 1990s, it was understood that there was a flood risk from Maidenhead all the way to Teddington. At the time, the area covered by the Jubilee River, if you applied the funding rules of the time, that scheme stacked up and was affordable.

“Whereas further down where the current RTS was, if you applied the same rules back then, it wasn’t affordable. The big change that happened was about 2011 when the current partnership funding came in, previously the scheme was to be fully funded or not at all.

“So, if you got a scheme to the point where it was funded, that was great news because essentially all of the money was provided. But what it meant was that if you didn’t get funding, you had no chance of going forward.

“What partnership funding did was to say central government would contribute an amount to any scheme based on the benefits it provides but if local stakeholders want to top that funding up with contributions, then they can to get that scheme over the line.”

But Cllr Ewan Larcombe (National Flood Prevention Party: Datchet, Horton & Wraysbury) believes it is “unfair” that councils have put forward funds.

He said: “I have not ever found any legislation that covers partnership funding. I think it’s a concept that came out of peoples’ minds and has no legal support at all.”

Was the money pulled together?

Yes and no. Most of the funds were pulled together by the partners – with Surrey County Council managing to pool a whopping £270m.

The odd one out was RBWM. It claimed without permission from the government to put a flood levy on council tax to fund its part of the scheme, it could not commit to the project.

The council set aside £10m for flood defences and needed another £44m to fund channel one, protecting households from Datchet to Bells Weir.

Without those outstanding funds, it was decided, with regret, that RBWM leave the RTS in July 2020 and find another flood alleviation scheme it can afford.

When RBWM broke the news, this angered the villagers of Datchet, Horton, Wraysbury, and Horton, who believed the council had left them unprotected from the ever-increasing risk of flooding.

Datchet parish council chairman David Buckley said: “It’s like an asteroid is coming towards the earth, everybody knows it’s coming but they want to hide it from the public.

“This is the same sort of thing. The next flooding event is going to be catastrophic.”

The feelings were so strong that over 1,500 residents signed a petition urging the council to ‘honour its commitment’ and fund its part in the scheme.

However, financial officers deemed RTS to be unaffordable because it would cost RBWM £1.3m a year for the next 50 years to repay the borrowing.

The petition was narrowly defeated with 19 Conservative councillors voting to find another scheme to replace RTS.

David Bedlington insisted that RBWM will still see some benefit from the Runnymede channel. He said: “That [flood risk reduction] varies across the borough but broadly as you move downstream, the benefit increases.

“If we had a repeat of 2014, somewhere like Datchet, you might see a five to 10cm reduction in flood levels, in Wraysbury it’s 10 to 20cm, in Hythe End, it’s a 30cm reduction.”

Where is the RTS now?

Despite RBWM no longer being part of the scheme, RTS will still press ahead where planners are now developing a finalised proposal to gain consent.

This means it will go through rigorous examination periods by the planning inspectorate before it is rubber-stamped by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs.

If things go smoothly, construction could begin in 2026 – with the scheme operational in 2030. The cost of RTS is now believed to be £500m.

Before all this happens, a public consultation, which has just ended, was conducted to find out peoples’ views on what they would like to see on the proposed landscape designs on each part of the channels.

What will RBWM do now?

Datchet to Hythe End flood improvement measures are being developed to protect the four Royal Borough villages. What those projects entail is anyone’s guess as it’s very early in identifying relief measures.

The EA denied the LDRS’s request for an interview to find out what the scheme could entail. However, a spokesman said: “We are committed to reducing flood risk to communities along the River Thames.

“Although the proposed Berkshire section of the River Thames Scheme is no longer going ahead, we will continue to work with RBWM to reduce local flood risk in parallel with flood-protection plans in Surrey and south-west London.

“The Environment Agency is working with RBWM on Datchet to Hythe End Flood Improvement Measures, a partnership project looking at ways of reducing flood-risk for communities within the Royal Borough.

“We encourage people who live or work in flood risk areas to sign-up to our flood warning service via gov.uk/flood or Floodline on 0345 988 1188.”

Cllr David Cannon (Con: Datchet, Horton & Wraysbury), lead member for public protection, said: “We are committed to continuing to work with the EA, landowners and other partners to seek to manage flood risk and impacts in the Royal Borough, which we know is a very real concern for some communities.

“We are working in partnership with the EA to develop and deliver technically and economically viable, affordable and sustainable flood risk improvement measures in Datchet, Horton, Wraysbury and Old Windsor.

“This involves assessing potential longer-term options for reducing the risk and impact of flooding, including ideas suggested by parish councils and community groups.

“All flood risk management projects are complex, multi-stage, significant infrastructure projects and, as such, they take time to identify suitable options working with the community, secure the required permissions and raise the significant investment required from multiple sources in order for them to go ahead.

“This project is currently in the ‘identify options’ stage, which ends with Strategic Outline Case approval. We anticipate this stage will be completed in spring 2023.

“Options being explored include channel works, flood walls, embankments and other engineering works, flood storage, natural flood management and riverbed re-profiling and dredging. While work, quite rightly, has continued in other areas and in other parts of the borough, we are still very much committed to working on this project.

“While channel one of the RTS was unfortunately neither viable nor deliverable without either significant additional national funding, or the greater flexibility we sought from Government over council tax, our original commitment of £10m is still ring-fenced to contribute to alternative flood alleviation works.

“In the shorter-term, we are undertaking several shorter-term flood-related improvement and maintenance works at Wraysbury Drain, Datchet barrel arch and Datchet Common Brook. Work at the Wraysbury Drain has started and we will be commencing work at the barrel arch in the new year.

“When there are significant flooding incidents there is a multi-agency response involving the council, Environment Agency and emergency services in order to support those affected, and this was the case with the floods of 2013/14.”

Because RTS is in the next stage and is now designated a nationally significant infrastructure project, Mr Bedlington said channel one cannot be brought back into the scheme even if RBWM somehow puts the money on the table.

But under the Datchet to Hythe End project, a channel one 2.0, as it were, could be brought forward with some technical changes if project managers identify it as the best and viable option.

That could be wishful thinking for those Datchet, Horton, Wraysbury, and Old Windsor villagers who want channel one to come back.

One thing is for sure, the four unprotected villages will have to wait even more until a new scheme is implemented.

 

Story from:

Royal Borough Observer
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