£21 million Whittlesey Washes flood defence programme

OVER £21 million of government money is to be spent on improving flood defences at the Whittlesey Washes, after a welcome u-turn by the Environment Agency following pressure from local MP Steve Barclay, the Middle Level Commission and the Whittlesey Internal Drainage Board.

The original proposal from the Environment Agency at a cost of between £3 million to £5 million was to downgrade flood defences by installing a slipway at the South Barrier Bank east of Whittlesey.

This would have weakened the barrier at a specific point, allowing for a controlled breach should extreme weather occur, and reduced flood protection around Coates, Eastrea and Whittesey, but was seen as a cheaper option rather than repairing the bank to the original protection level along its full length.

This proposal sparked major local objection. Steve Barclay MP, with the support of the Middle Level Commision, Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs), the NFU, and local residents, mounted a campaign to make the Environment Agency change their plans.

This campaign highlighted potential breaches in procedure if the spillway option was pursued without adequate local consultation, as a result of which the Environment Agency commissioned a new survey of the Whittlesey Washes and agreed to a series of partnership meetings.

The new survey revealed changed costs which closed the gap between the two main options, and this was discussed at partnership meetings held by the Environment Agency in January and May this year.

The partnership meetings reviewed the cost benefit implications of a number of different options, in particular the original spillway (where the estimated costs had increased following the further survey), and a full repair of the reservoir bank championed locally.

The Environment Agency has now recommended a new scheme which will see the bank as a whole repaired, in line with the wishes of local campaigners. This means that there will be over £21 million of investment to reinforce the whole length of the Whittlesey Washes bank, which will secure higher level flood defences for many years.

The £21 million will also need to be topped up by local contributions of around £3 million from landowners, the local authority and IDBs to complete and maintain the project. However this split of costs between government and local contribution is far more successful than other schemes in the region, reflecting both the legal status of reservoirs and the effectiveness of the local campaign.

Mr Barclay said: “I am delighted that the Environment Agency has reached a decision in line with the wishes of our community. Their initial scheme would have meant a significant increase in the flood risk for many of my constituents around Coates, Eastrea and Whittlesey which was not acceptable.

“The new proposals mark a significant shift by the Environment Agency which shows they have listened and engaged constructively since concerns were highlighted with them, and I am grateful to them for doing so.”

He added: “The £21 million of government funding means 87 per cent of the total cost of the scheme will be paid centrally, which is a good deal for local people when compared with the 50 per cent government funding secured in Huntingdon for flood protection work underway there.

“This higher level funding reflects both the legal status of reservoirs which place tougher requirements on the Environment Agency as owner, and also the effectiveness of the local campaign in making the case for why this repair work is needed.

“I am grateful to the Middle Level Commission, the Whittlesey Internal Drainage Board, and local farmers in particular for their expertise in highlighting the importance of the Whittlesey Washes to flood protection locally.”