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Thames Barrier

Volume 768: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the length of time for which the Thames Barrier will be fit for purpose.

My Lords, the current and future performance of the Thames Barrier has been assessed as part of the Thames Estuary 2100 plan. This plan, produced by the Environment Agency and stakeholders along the estuary, sets out how to manage tidal flood risk up to the end of the century. The plan is reviewed every five years. Based on these projections, the Thames Barrier is expected to protect London to its current standard up to 2070.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but he will be aware that the Thames Barrier was raised twice per annum on average in its first 10 years of existence and is now raised, on average, eight times per annum. It reached a peak of 48 times in 2014. As a result, in 2012, the Government decided that it was appropriate to extend the life of the Thames Barrier from 2030 to 2070. Despite concern about freak storms and rising sea levels, we know that the Government have been complacent over flooding in the cities of York and Leeds and the county of Cumbria. Why should we have any more confidence in their decision to extend the life of the Thames Barrier by 40 years?

My Lords, I reject the noble Lord’s accusation about the good will of this Government. To compare expenditure, this Government propose capital expenditure of £2.3 billion in the next six years. That compares with the previous Labour Government spending of £1.5 billion, a real-terms increase. It is a symbol and shows the record of the Government on flood defences.

Interestingly, the Thames 2100 plan started in 2006, under the previous Labour Administration. There have been 300 components to it, it is reviewed every five years and, from looking at it and having met the Thames Barrier manager and the Environment Agency officials, I am clear that it is a very strong plan. It involves climate adaptation, which is being reviewed consistently. Having had these meetings, I am confident that they have this in good order.

My Lords, it is often helpful to get the perspective of others who face similar problems. What discussions have the Government had with other countries which face similar problems?

My Lords, I am pleased to say that the Thames Barrier officials were the founder members of I-STORM, which is the International Network of Storm Surge Barriers professionals. Four very important barriers in the Netherlands, Venice and New Orleans all peer-review each other. Next year, all those professionals will be peer-reviewing the Thames Barrier. That is really important, and I thank all professionals around the world who will come to help us.

My Lords, I am normally a great believer in as much salt water as possible, but there is a slight element of complacency here. I know that a lot of work has gone into this—I was involved in the resilience work—but the speed at which things are changing is such that to say categorically that we need to do nothing with the Thames Barrier until 2070 seems a little over-hopeful. Does not the Minister agree that we may have to do something well before that, and that it will take a considerable time to put it in place?

My Lords, I apologise if I in any sense suggested that this would wait until 2070. As I said, the review will be every five years; it is essential that we keep up to date.

The plan is based on a range of sea-level rise scenarios in the estuary to 2100 from 0.9 metres to 2.7 metres; a lot is being factored in. I assure the noble Lord and your Lordships that this is being looked at rigorously. There are three sections of time period to the plan, so that varying work can be done at different stages, but the important thing is the protection of London.

My Lords, as a Treasury Minister I was much involved in the original decisions on the Thames Barrier. I very much wanted to make it part of a hydro-electric scheme, but my officials said that that would cause delay, the Thames would break its banks, the London Underground would be flooded and then asked whether I wanted to take that responsibility—so we are where we are. Will my noble friend consider whether in the plans which he has rightly set out a moment ago one should consider the possibility of using the tidal flow of the Thames to generate electricity, given the increasing claims for non-carbon-based fuel?

My Lords, I shall certainly raise this with my noble friend in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Clearly it is important that in this country we use many sources of alternative energy supply, and that is a very interesting concept.

My Lords, is it not the case that the barrier is increasingly being used to protect properties in the Thames valley to the west which are being threatened by rising river levels due to the unprecedented rainfall and not for its original purpose, which was to stop tidal surges from the river mouth to the east? It is now performing a very different function. Given the concerns that have been raised around the Chamber, there is concern that we are being complacent and that there is a further need to evaluate the risk if anything should go wrong. The national flood resilience review that has just been announced is to be chaired by Oliver Letwin. I thought that it was to review all our flood defences. Will it include a specific look at the Thames Barrier? If we are not careful and follow the line the noble Lord has taken there will be one review of the Thames Barrier and everything else will be looked at elsewhere whereas what we need is a concerted response to the whole attack.

My Lords, I am very pleased to confirm to the noble Baroness that with the Thames Barrier being a very important part of our national resilience infrastructure it will form part of any consideration chaired by Oliver Letwin to ensure that we are secure.

The noble Baroness is right that the Thames Barrier is used for tidal and fluvial reasons, but last year it was used only once and that was for tidal. It was used a lot during the big floods of 2013-14.