Online update on flood scheme announced

The Environment Agency will be leading an online engagement exercise later this month to update the public on the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme. Elements of the scheme have been redesigned because the A423 bridge (southern bypass) crossing the railway was found to have structural weaknesses. Problems with the bridge were identified by Oxfordshire County Council late in 2019 requiring a redesign of the flood relief project.

The replacement bridge creates an opportunity to accommodate the flood relief project in a way which is simpler, less costly and easier to maintain. Plans for replacing the bridge and for the separate flood scheme are now proceeding in parallel and in a coordinated way.

Because of the delays the Environment Agency has had to update various environmental surveys required for the planning application, and has also been taking the time to review some other aspects of the scheme design. The scheme retains the same overall design as in the previous planning application, with necessary changes made around the A423 bridge area. Full details of the changes will be explained online, including new videos from the project team and new visuals from 17 May and can be accessed from that date at: consult.environment-agency.gov.uk/thames/oxfordscheme.

The scheme will be submitted for planning approval in late 2021 and the full suite of planning documents will be available for public comment at that time. The May activities are intended to update members of the public about the scheme and be an opportunity to ask questions,  prior to the start of the formal planning process.

OFA is a member of the Sponsoring Group for the OFAS project and supports the proposals being put forward by the Environment Agency.

Earth Trust to advise on flood scheme

Back in February the Environment Agency announced a new collaboration with the environmental charity Earth Trust which will be giving advice on the environmental legacy of the project. OFA proposed a couple of years back that a local environmental charity be engaged, and we welcome the partnership with Earth Trust which has now been announced. We have been keen advocates of maximising environmental benefits from the OFAS project from the beginning and want to ensure these are maintained and built on through the life of the scheme.

Ian Nutt, Director of Programmes & Partnerships at Earth Trust, told OFA:

The Earth Trust is both delighted and inspired to be supporting the Environment Agency over the next two to three years with the environmental vision for the resulting wetland habitat created by the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme. As an Oxfordshire-based charity, our mission is to be the champions for accessible natural green (and blue) spaces for the benefits of nature, the environment and people. We are bringing our experience of developing wetlands on our own site (near Little Wittenham and Dorchester on Thames) and how people access and interact with them longer-term. We’ve just got started on this multi-year collaboration, and really look forward to engaging more with OFA and local groups who have invested so much time and effort into this major programme.

Initially, our role will be supporting the EA with developing the vision for the end result; thinking through how the new stream and wetland habitats can maximise biodiversity, whilst also being a practical landscape that allows for grazing, engaging with people and delivering a wealth of benefits for the local area.

Once the project has all the necessary approvals and construction is about to start an external environmental partner will be formally appointed for the longer-term. They will be responsible for the habitat management and enhancement in the scheme area, as well as maintaining relationships with local communities.

High river levels test flood preparedness

In the first week of February we’ve experienced the worst flooding in Oxford since 2014. The coordinated response from the Environment Agency and local authorities shows how far we’ve come in recent years in the management of flood events. We owe them a big thank you.

Back in the early 2000s flood management was reactive and often disorganised. But lessons were learned and we now benefit from much better levels of preparedness, and good cooperation between the various agencies. We also benefit from the infrastructure put in place to divert water away from houses, and from regular clearing of water courses of fallen trees and flood debris.

Bulstake Close barrier and pump

The high level of flooding this year has provided a robust test of flood management procedures. With UK winters getting wetter and wetter we can expect more of these type of events and bigger ones, so it’s important we continue to refine the response to make it as good as we can get it. This is something OFA is actively working on. The flood alleviation scheme is still some years away.

A major weak spot currently is the slow response of Thames Water to residents experiencing sewage leaks. We have had reports of sewers in various locations overflowing as a result of the high flood water. Householders reporting these problems have found Thames Water difficult to engage. OFA is raising these issues with the various bodies responsible for flood management. Oxfordshire MP Robert Courts has insisted Thames Water ‘must do more’ according to a BBC report. We agree.

Flooding from sewer South Hinksey

We also think communication to local residents during a flood event about what’s happening and what’s being done in response could be improved. These events are also an opportunity to educate residents, particularly new residents, about the nature of the flood risk in their area. OFA has initiated discussions about this with the Environment Agency and other interested parties.

At a local level the response in some specific communities can be further refined to ensure the most vulnerable households are known about, and receive timely and targeted help. The new barrier in South Hinksey had its first serious test. It did the job required of it but will need some further adjustments if it’s to be effective in a larger flood. The Environment Agency is looking at this.

We continue to be concerned about safety issues at the Seacourt Park and Ride extension once it is open. We believe there is a significant risk of cars being stranded in flood water there. The Seacourt Stream overflowed into part of the existing car park during the recent foods, leaving parked cars standing in shallow water. The bike rack by the bus stop was also flooded.

Cars standing in flood water at Seacourt P&R

Adrian Porter, from the OFA Steering Group, was interviewed on BBC Oxford on 5 February about the flooding across Oxford and about our ongoing campaigns.

Richard Thurston rejoins Steering Group

Richard Thurston, who was one of the founder members of OFA, has rejoined the Steering Group to provide additional capacity following the death of Peter Rawcliffe. Richard was very active in the early years of OFA but took a break to focus on his young family and a new and demanding job. We’re very pleased to have him back to the Steering Group. Richard lives on Osney Island.

Seacourt car park safety concerns

One important area of concern for us during the planning process for the Seacourt park & ride extension was the safety of users of the car park. The speed with which the site flooded on Christmas Eve underlines the risk here. In the planning application the Council argued that: ‘Historically, river levels have risen fairly slowly in this location even during extreme events, giving sufficient warning for mitigation measures to be put in place.’ But the recent flood did not conform to this pattern.

Are the Council’s safety measures at the car park robust enough? We doubt it. Had the park and ride extension been operating there would probably have been several cars bobbing about down there. Flood barriers were only erected by the City Council at Bulstake Close after the flooding had already happened.

At the peak of the flooding river levels were so high water from the Seacourt stream west of the existing car park started to encroach onto the parking area (see photo below). There were several cars parked there. Had river levels been higher these cars would have been stranded. Flood management plans for the park and ride need to be reviewed.

Seacourt car park extension flooding

The recent flooding of the extension to Seacourt Park & Ride is further evidence that the City Council seriously underestimated the vulnerability of the site to flooding. The area flooded rapidly during the night of Christmas Eve, and as of today is still partly inundated though water is now being pumped out.

View of the extension down the main access ramp on Christmas Day

The Flood Risk Assessment (FRA) submitted with the Planning Application stated: ‘An analysis of historic flooding incidents relevant to the site suggests that the site will currently flood roughly once in every 1.7 years and will remain out of operation for around 10 days during an average flood event.’ That’s just under 6 days a year average.

Over the course of last winter (2019/20) the site was inundated four times and for prolonged periods. This latest incident represents a further 12 days of flooding. In our opposition to the planning application we argued that the Council had grossly underestimated the likely extent of flooding at the site. Events seem to be proving us right.

Sewer flooding in South Hinksey

It is not uncommon for residents of Kennington, North Hinksey and South Hinksey to suffer from sewer flooding problems and these continued over the Christmas period with surcharges occurring on both the 24th and 27th December. Both dates coincided with the heavy rainfall events and result from Littlemore Pumping Station being unable to cope with the high volume of water.

The second surcharge was particularly challenging for South Hinksey residents as the EA flood barrier prevented the sewage from leaving the village. Thankfully the pumps the EA had already provided prevented houses from being flooded, but they couldn’t stop a pollution incident as the sewage discharged into the local water courses.

Several residents reported the incident to Thames Water, but their response time was well short of their two-hour target. We know of one call which was responded to eleven hours after being reported, and another which took a whole three days. We’d be interested in other readers’ experiences.

OFA Steering Group member Adrian Porter has once again raised the poor level of service with the Thames Water customer liaison team.

Christmas 2020 flooding

Residents in Wolvercote, West Oxford, North and South Hinksey and Grandpont witnessed significant localised flooding on Christmas day after a rapid rise in river levels over the preceding days. Between the 17 and 22 December, more than 25mm of rain fell across the upper parts of the Thames catchment resulting in high river levels on the Thames and the three main tributaries feeding the Thames – the Evenlode, Windrush and Cherwell. An additional 20-60mm of rainfall fell between the 22 December and the 24 December on the already saturated Upper Thames catchment causing a rapid rise in river levels on the Thames in Oxford. The large volume of water discharging from the Cherwell to the west of Christchurch Meadows, is thought to have caused flood water further upstream in Oxford to back up, contributing to a faster rise in levels than we typically experience in the city.

After peaking on Christmas day levels fell, but further rainfall on Saturday night nudged levels back up. The rivers seem to have stabilised since and levels are expected to fall in the coming days. The peak level of the recent flooding was significantly higher than those seen during last winter’s flood events. The Environment Agency has been actively monitoring the situation and flood barriers were erected in South Hinksey as a precaution. Flood Warnings were issued for Wolvercote, and for the New Botley – North/South Hinksey – Grandpont areas. There have been no reports of properties in the city flooding.

The speed at which river levels rose on Christmas eve is particularly concerning, as this limited the amount of time available to deploy defenses. This has potential implications for future flood management planning.

Peter Rawcliffe

It is with great sadness that we report the death of Peter Rawcliffe on 14 December 2020. Peter was a founding member of the Oxford Flood Alliance and he played a pivotal role in the organisation throughout its history. He did a great deal to advance the interests of flood affected communities in Oxford. Peter was a thoughtful and courteous individual, always willing to listen to others’ views. But also a forceful and determined advocate for what he believed to be right. We owe him a great deal. He will be greatly missed.

Photo: Kirsty Edmonds/Oxford Mail