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Summer Flooding and Reservoir Review

Volume 664: debated on Tuesday 3 September 2019

This summer saw significant rainfall that unfortunately impacted several communities. In June, properties and farmland were flooded after the River Steeping broke its banks leading to a quick response from the Environment Agency supported by the RAF. At the end of July there was significant rainfall which led to flooding in several communities. The flash flooding in North Yorkshire saw homes, businesses and farms affected as well as causing damage to roads and bridges resulting in travel disruption. On 1 August further heavy rainfall led to the spillway of Toddbrook Reservoir experiencing damage. This did not lead to a breach of the dam itself, but to ensure the safety of Whaley Bridge, a decision was taken by the local resilience forum to evacuate 1,500 people until the authorities could be assured there was no ongoing risk. The local community responded with grace and patience despite the disruption this caused to their daily lives, which we are grateful for. Recovery continues in both North Yorkshire and Wainfleet, where the local authorities are working with those affected.

In Whaley Bridge, everyone was able to return home within a week. The Canal and River Trust, supported by the EA, fire service, voluntary organisations, contractors and the RAF worked to reduce the water levels in the reservoir and shore up the damaged spillway with over 500 one-tonne bags of aggregate to effect a temporary, but stable, repair. COBRA engaged a panel of experts, led by GO-Science, to review and advise on the engineers’ safety report and immediate management of the reservoir, before the local resilience forum made the decision to end the evacuation.

A plan is in place to ensure the water levels are monitored and remain at safe levels until full repairs are completed. As the body responsible for Toddbrook Reservoir, the Canal and River Trust (CRT) is now fully assessing the damage and identifying the most appropriate long-term repairs to provide confidence in the long term safety of this dam. As the regulator, the EA will assess the proposals. My officials in DEFRA will also work with the CRT as they consider the long term future of the reservoir taking into account both the views of the local community and their legal obligations.

I wish to thank the Whaley Bridge residents displaced from their homes for their forbearance and patience in difficult circumstances. I also want to recognise and thank the emergency services, local authorities, the Environment Agency, our servicemen and women, contractors and the very many volunteers who responded in all of these situations to both mitigate the immediate impacts or risks and support those who were affected.

On 10 August the Government announced a £5.25 million package of support for these communities which included support to the local authorities for the extra costs, funding for bridge repairs and support to farmers for any uninsurable costs.

We have an excellent reservoir safety record in this country, but it is important that we learn from this incident to ensure such infrastructure, and the legislation that governs it, is and remains fit for purpose. To that end, I am commissioning an independent review which will investigate what might have led to the damage, whether there was anything that could have prevent or predicted it and identify any lessons learned. This review will supplement the future report from the Canal and Rivers Trust into their assessment of the factors that led to the damaged spillway.

Any lessons learned will be shared with other reservoir owners to inform their inspection and maintenance regimes, to be used to make recommendations to Ministers to update the implementation of current regulations, including inspection guidance, and/or to suggest any changes required to current reservoir safety legislation. I am expecting an interim report by the end of the year.

In advance of this piece of work the Environment Agency, as the regulator for reservoir safety, have contacted the operators of over 2,000 reservoirs since the Toddbrook incident requesting that all operators check that there are no safety concerns. The EA has identified eight reservoirs that have concrete spillways with some similarity to Toddbrook Reservoir and has followed up directly with the owners of these eight reservoirs to secure additional inspections. At this stage there is no indication of any concerns with any of these eight reservoirs. The EA is also carrying out inspections of their own reservoirs directly, and the Department is writing to reservoir owners and the local resilience forums to ensure they have up to date flood and evacuation plans in place.

Climate change and population growth mean that the risks from flooding and coastal erosion are increasing. That is why Government are looking to update the flood and coastal erosion policy framework to ensure that we can continue to manage these risks effectively into the future. By the end of 2019, the Government will set out their policies to better prepare the country for flooding and coastal erosion in a Government policy statement on flooding and coastal erosion. The Government will also set out plans for a step change in broader infrastructure investment through the publication of a national infrastructure strategy later in the autumn. Informed by this Government policy, the Environment Agency will update its national strategy for flood and coastal erosion risk management.