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Only a £26M barrage can save Bridgwater from rising sea levels

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: February 27, 2014

By JEFF WELLS

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Volunteers pack sand bags in Burrowbridge, Somerset, which continues to be plagued by flooding

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Just £609,000 has been raised towards a £26 million barrier needed to stop Bridgwater being turned into a ghost town and being wiped off the face of the map by rising sea levels.

The Prime Minister and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson look likely to be told that a 20-year plan to build a Thames-style barrage needs to be brought forward.

Dan Rogerson, parliamentary under secretary of state for Defra, is likely to be told today that an expensive barrage or sluice on the River Parrett is needed sooner rather than later to win the battle for Bridgwater.

Although dredging rivers and land management will feature, Sedgmoor District Council and the Environment Agency are keen to ensure a long term engineering solution remains at the core of the report being drawn up by Defra and co-ordinated by Somerset County Council for the Government.

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Current plans to make developers and councils fund a £26 million Thames-style barrier across the River Parrett through a roof tax, means it will be slow going without Treasury help. The fund currently stands at £609.000.

But according to the Environment Agency's own predictions, not building the barrage would have dire consequence for Bridgwater by as early as 2030.

"As sea levels rise and the defence deteriorates, flood risks would increase significantly eventually, probably by the middle of the century, leading to abandonment of much of the centre of the town and the loss of existing residential and commercial areas," said one report.

"This approach would result in the escalation of uncertainty and this, with the loss of investor confidence, and lack of policy or infrastructure solution will result in the whole town being prejudiced and investment will be blocked and will withdraw.

"The community will face deteriorating property values and businesses will relocate. This will result in decline in its economic prospects and community viability which will not be politically acceptable.

"Bridgwater as an urban centre would not be viable by the middle of the century with this approach. If the defences are not maintained, £1.7 billion damage would be caused, representing the ultimate loss of approximately 8,400 homes and 800 non-residential properties. The scale of this loss would bring into question the viability of the town.

"Even if the current defences are maintained, increasing sea levels and the deterioration of the defences will cause almost £1 billion of damage."

The authorities have long favoured a barrage, but complicated Treasury rules designed to limit the Government's liability for defending coastal communities means most of the money has to be raised locally.

In sparsely populated coastal areas this will mean walking away from seaside hamlets, but Sedgmoor's £1,700 roof tax on new builds has been hailed as a shining example to the rest of the country of how local fundraising scheme can work.

Yet even if the cost of a barrier stayed the same and developers kept on building houses in a town at risk of flooding, it would take more than 40 years to raise the money without a large cash injection.

Even with "appropriate normal maintenance" engineers say the current defences have a further life of about 25 to 40 years" and the barrage is needed by 2030 to 2050.

Raising existing defences is not practical and would damage landmarks such as the town bridge which is earmarked for 7,500 more houses and many more businesses by 2026.

Nick Plumley, strategy development and change manager for Sedgemoor District Council, said so far the flood levy had raised £609,000 but it was a long-term plan and the authorities planned to apply elsewhere for funding once plans had been finalised.

He said: "There has been a longstanding commitment to providing a barrier on the Parrett for flood defence purposes, and this will therefore feature in the forthcoming Flood Action Plan for the Secretary of State.

"In light of the recent on-going flooding in Somerset, there is a need to revisit the original proposal for the Parrett Barrier, a barrage, in order to ensure that a barrage, rather than a sluice, remains the correct course of action and in any case, whether there is scope for bringing forward the project.

"The action plan is not yet complete, however, I expect it to include actions in the short term, this year, designed to answer these questions," he added.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency said the influence of tidal flooding on the River Parrett extends to Oath Sluice which is about ten miles from the sea and tidal flooding is perceived to be greatest risk to Bridgwater.

The flood risk to the King's Sedgemoor Drain, Huntspill River, River Axe and River Brue is mitigated through sluices.

"It is estimated that climate change and sea level rise will mean that severe flooding events on the River Parrett will be twenty times more likely to occur by 2060 and a one in 200 year flooding event now will become a one-in-ten-year event," said spokesman Paul Gainey.

"This forms part of the evidence base to inform the next stages of the Core Strategy and will be used to increase the understanding of flood risk issues due to the vulnerability across the district from both fluvial and coastal flooding.

"This will have implications on future development and the prioritisation of flood defence measures that may include a up-rating of existing defences or implementation of a sluice structure or even a tidal control structure or barrage."

Tony Whitehead of the RSPB said: "We understand businesses, people and farmers need to be protected. It is possible to do this in a way that doesn't damage the environment."

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