A mistake

While we wait anxiously to see whether homes, businesses and roads will flood, work on the City Council’s extension to its Seacourt Park & Ride has come to a very wet standstill.

Building a car park in a flood plain is not sensible. Work having started as the wet winter season approached, the site is now a lake and work has stopped. The JCBs have been withdrawn onto the higher ground of the existing car park, and heaps of building materials are abandoned in the water. If the construction had been completed much of the extension would currently be under water. All this while the City is on ‘only’ a Flood Alert, the lowest category of concern.

The construction costs are likely to be much higher than estimated because of the disruption caused by flood events of the kind we’re currently witnessing. Councillors ignored the reality of frequent flooding here when they approved the planning application, and now we’re seeing the consequences. The last official budget figure we’re aware of was around £4million; we have heard, from a usually reliable source, that the cost may have risen to around £6 million, even before the present flooding of the site. Is this a sensible use of tax payers’ money?

Flooding at the site began on  Monday, so it’s already been a working week that it would have been out of action if it had been built – that means lost revenue and an unreliable service. And time and money would then be needed for pumping out, clearing up and very likely making repairs before the extension could be safely reopened to the public. Further expense and further loss of revenue. Because the site is so low-lying, this will happen quite often.

Because it’s a car park and not a field there is increased risk to the public and to vehicles, and it remains to be seen how well the Council is able to manage flooding here. The water came up quite quickly at the start of the week, and in the interests of safety the extension would have had to be closed before that to avoid cars getting trapped in flood water, i.e. sometime early last week. And remember we are only on a Flood Alert, not a Flood Warning. Were people to try to enter even quite shallow floodwater to retrieve their cars things could go horribly wrong.

In the second photo above, from yesterday, you can see two large pipes floating in the lake, one in the centre, the other far over to the right against the boundary fence. If the flooding worsens these could float downstream and jam under the nearby bridge under the Botley Road, exacerbating flood risk. Were it already a car park, for pipes read cars.

We, and many others, fought this ill-conceived project hard. We hope the City Council will even now abandon it and restore the site to its previous state, as a valuable wildlife habitat, including for the badgers who have been driven out. To press on regardless means wasting ever more of Oxford’s citizens’ money, putting off for years any possible financial return to the Council, and meanwhile potentially both increasing flood risk and posing a risk to life and vehicles.

In denial?

The penny is dropping only slowly. It’s crystal clear that the climate is changing and with it the weather we can expect.

“Climate change: Warming signal links global floods and fires” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-50407508

But, despite this, adaptation is slow. Greenpeace report here that building in UK flood plains continues apace, even being proposed in areas currently well under water.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-50419925

OFAS and development

Development

People have suggested that the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme (OFAS, the Scheme) could lead to, or facilitate, new development in the flood plain, which would add to urbanisation and reduce the amount of open space in west and south Oxford.

OFAS is about reducing flood risk to existing properties, business and infrastructure. It is not being proposed with the goal of creating opportunities for future development. There are a few areas which would benefit from the scheme where some development or redevelopmentmight take place in future, subject to the normal planning approvals being obtained. But this is incidental to the flood scheme.

Osney Mead

One of the areas where it’s claimed development will be facilitated is Osney Mead. Oxford University has publicly said that it has aspirations to redevelop this area. It is an already developed site, hosting a large number of businesses currently facing risk of flooding.

The University are paying for an additional bund (and all associated costs) to be created along the western edge of Ferry Hinksey Rd. This additional feature will increase protection from flooding for businesses currently operating from Osney Mead, and has been taken on board by OFAS for this reason alone. Any redevelopment would be of a brownfield site. Proposals for redevelopment would have to go through the planning process, demonstrate consistency with the existing Local Plan, and show they do not increase flood risk.

Elsewhere

The main area in the flood plain that is not presently built on, but which will be protected by OFAS from flooding in future, is on the river (east) side of the Abingdon Road, south of the hotel and including University College sports ground and Cowmead allotments.

This area (about the size of Osney Mead) will be protected by a bund along its eastern edge. We understand it would be very difficult, and more costly, to put the bund closer to the road. But even with the current OFAS design there is no certainty that this land will be developed.Any plans to develop these sites would be subject to local planning permission, and while OFAS could make the conditions easier to meet, it does not follow that development will happen here.

The vast majority of the flood plain will continue to flood – and that will be essential for the Scheme to work as planned. Although the Scheme area, where changes will be made, does not occupy all the flood plain meadowland, these flood meadows are nevertheless an integral part of the scheme design and need to be able to flood as they do now.

There will be no change to the Green Belt around Oxford as a result of the construction of OFAS.

The open, green flood plain meadows will be no more open to development than they are now, indeed arguably the fact that they will now be part of a specific, designed and paid-for flood scheme will make development there much less, not more, likely.

And if, as intended, the scheme area is expertly managed for wildlife, by organisations such as the Freshwater Habitats Trust or BBOWT, as well as for recreation (including fishing), the greater its chance of resisting the threat of unscrupulous developers.

There are other recent posts relating to OFAS –

Clarifications and explanations

Gravel mining – Be careful what you wish for

An Oxfordshire gravel mine, 2018

OFAS – clarifications and explanations

We’re aware that there are some misapprehensions around about the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme (OFAS). The items that follow aim to clarify some of these points. Where necessary we have sought answers from the Environment Agency to be sure our facts are as accurate as possible.  We’ll be adding to these points, so check back.

See also a later post on OFAS and development

And posts on gravel mining: Gravel mining – Be careful what you wish for and An Oxfordshire gravel mine, 2018

#1 Willow Walk

Misapprehension

“The proposed 60 metre bridge over the ‘channel’ in Willow Walk will destroy over one third of the Walk.”

Fact

The new bridge will continue from the existing Willow Walk track, just raised slightly higher, and will span 19 metres.

It is designed to take existing vehicles and future maintenance vehicles. It will meet cycleway and British Horse Society standards and be built for a 100-year life span.

Thirteen individual large trees (12 white willows and one ash) and part of two groups of smaller trees will be felled to install the new bridge over the new channel. Willow Walk is about 400m long and a stretch 170m long will be cleared in the middle of it. Once construction is complete 20 white willows (10 on each side of the path) will be planted to reinstate the avenue of trees.

#2 Monks Causeway

(called North Hinksey Causeway in the planning documents)

Misapprehension

“Monks’ Causeway to the Fishes will be no more.”

Fact

Both the formal public right of way (North Hinksey Causeway or Monks Causeway) and the informal right of way will be maintained near the Fishes pub. New footbridges will be installed on both to allow access across the new channel.

See Planning Statement: 4.3.3 Recreation and public access.

#3 Transport of excavated material

Misapprehension

“100,000 tons of gravel are planned for extraction and removal along the single track entry point for cyclists, pedestrians and cars for the rugby, archery and tennis clubs through North Hinksey Village. At 25 tons a truck that is 8000 journeys there and back.”

Fact

There are no plans to transport gravel or any other excavated material through North Hinksey village.

#4 Seacourt Stream

Misapprehension 

“The Seacourt Stream will be damaged as the new ‘channel’ takes the flow away. It will have the potential to become a weed choked and rat infested ditch running behind gardens and the garden of the Fishes pub.”

OFA Comment

The published map is, unfortunately, unclear. It makes it look as if what’s said above is indeed the case.

Correct version

The existing Seacourt Stream as it runs behind the gardens along North Hinksey Village and behind the Fishes will remain the main channel, there will be no change under normal conditions.

The new channel below Willow Walk is not a new first-stage channel, it is a flood relief channel (sometimes known as a swale) which will only come into play during a flood: thus it acts exactly like a second-stage channel for the Seacourt Stream but at a distance from it. The swale is raised compared to the Seacourt Stream so water will only enter the swale when levels get high in a flood. 

The Bulstake Stream is higher than the new swale, so there will be some back-flow from that stream into the swale, reaching about as far as Willow Walk (depending on conditions).

Sketch map to follow.

#5 Trees along North Hinksey Lane

“The Botley Road warehouses were allowed because of the tree cover to the view from North Hinksey Lane. These trees will now be removed.”

OFA Comment

We don’t know the planning history so can’t comment on that. 

As far as the present scheme is concerned it is true that the trees on the left bank (i.e. left as you go downstream) of Seacourt Stream in Hinksey Meadow would be removed – that’s in order to take as little of that meadow, with its special MG4 grassland, as possible, while still allowing a two-stage channel for flood relief. There’s been a lot of discussion about this and it seems the best compromise.

On the other hand the trees on the right bank of Seacourt Stream, beside North Hinksey Lane, will not be removed. 

In addition, new trees will be planted along the field boundary by the warehouses – and in the old paddock by the stone arch bridge on Willow Walk.

#6 Dredging 

“Please dredge and clear the rivers and streams which have not been dredged for 40 years”

OFA comment

Whilst dredging can be of some small benefit during normal flows, a river channel is simply not large enough to contain the high flows associated with extreme floods, even if it has been dredged. Dredging gives the impression that something useful’s being done but the reality is that it’d be largely fruitless here and certainly not enough to significantly reduce flooding from a major flood. Dredging’s not without its downsides either – for example, and not surprisingly, it seriously damages riverine ecosystems, especially when done repeatedly.

Dredging the Thames would not significantly reduce flood risk to Oxford. It’s also worth noting that surveying has shown that the River Thames bed is largely stable. Areas dredged deeper would soon silt up again. 

The low-gradient, slow-flowing, braided watercourses of the Oxford flood plain are particularly prone to silt up again quickly after dredging. Dredging would have to be done frequently to do anything at all and even then it would not answer. If it would we’d be all for it, but it won’t.

There are a few specific locations, mainly associated with bridges and culverts, where local silting does need to be dealt with (see #7 below).

#7 Flood plain outflow

“Please … unblock the outflow from the flood plain by the old Abingdon road”

OFA comment

We have been working for over 10 years to achieve just that. We have had considerable success – a new channel and weir at Towle’s Mill, large new culverts under the railway access road at Redbridge, removal of a redundant level crossing bridge, improvements at Munday’s bridge under the railway in Kennington, and clearance of  blocked culverts under the railway at Coldharbour. Certainly these together must have helped in low level flooding – but more is still needed for bigger floods. Climate change predictions suggest these will be more likely in future. 

OFAS in fact provides just such further measures. As a preliminary, a new culvert was installed (taking advantage of the line being closed anyway) under the mainline railway in 2016 – this will be brought into use as an integral part of OFAS. Still to come, OFAS proposes new large culverts under the southern bypass to pull water through the floodplain; the channel banks of Hinksey Drain will be widened right up to Munday’s bridge to increase capacity, and the channel under the bridge itself will be further cleared.

Together these will greatly improve the outflow from the flood plain.

#8 Trees

“The scheme will destroy up to 4000 trees, a fact hidden by the reference in the proposal to ‘groups of trees’ being removed”

We have consulted the EA on this.

The short answer is that the tree-planting proposal results in more woodland within the scheme after completion than at present.

The long answer is here.

Edit, 6 December 2018: there is now an update on trees and OFAS here.

#9 Two stage channel

Misapprehension

“The two stage channel makes very little difference and there are better options. “

OFA response

Modelling of the scheme, with the two stage channel south of Botley Rd down to Abingdon Rd bridge removed, was undertaken by the EA. This appears as Appendix Q in the planning documents. This shows that without the two stage channel, whilst water levels are reduced from the current conditions they do not reduce as much as with the two stage channel which helps improve flow through the flood plain. Without the two stage channel the levels could still cause flooding in Osney Mead, Osney Island, Earl and Duke St and in the area of offices just west of Seacourt Street (the Minns estate). In the scenario without the two stage channel water levels south of the Devil’s Backbone (footpath to South Hinksey) are lower than with the two stage channel due to the redistribution of flows, with more water passing down the River Thames and increasing flood risk in the New Hinksey area. The alternatives which have been suggested – putting more water into the Seacourt Stream where it leaves the Thames would add water to the area where flooding is happening and would make the situation worse. The option of more culverts under the Botley Rd would potentially help move water from the north side of the road into Hinksey Meadow and would reduce the scale of the channel modifications near the Minns Industrial Estate however this would not be as cost effective as the currently proposed scheme and would not reduce levels downstream of Willow Walk.

OFA believes the two stage channel is required for the scheme to work.

Secretary of State on Seacourt

Re Seacourt P&R extension application, we were informed on 9 March as follows:

“The Government remains committed to giving more power to councils and communities to make their own decisions on planning issues, and believe that planning decisions should be made at the local level wherever possible.  The call-in policy makes it clear that the power to call in a case will only be used very selectively. The Secretary of State has decided, having had regard to this policy, not to call in this application.  He is satisfied that the application should be determined at a local level.”

The Secretary of State in question is the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid. Of course his decision is disappointing to us.  The Secretary of State in 1998/99 did call-in, and refuse, a very similar application on the same site. The guidance on not building in the flood plain has become much tighter since then, following Sir Michael Pitt’s report on the nation-wide floods of July 2007. The permission that Oxford City Council has given itself is contrary to both national (NPPF) and local planning policy.  Note that the Secretary of State has not in any sense approved the plans, he has merely not intervened, leaving the decision to the local council.

We believe the Council has pushed through a perverse decision, contrary to planning guidance and a very great deal of substantial and principled opposition from local residents and local organisations. We believe that the Council may come to regret its decision. We will continue to make that case.

Objecting to Seacourt P&R extension – our latest comments

 

We remain strongly opposed to the planning application by Oxford City Council to extend its Seacourt Park and Ride into Oxford’s vital flood plain. There has been a nibble, nibble attrition of the flood plain over many years leading to worse flooding. That the City Council should itself be seeking to extend a car park into the flood plain that protects our city is quite extraordinary.

Here are our latest comments:

OFA comments on FRA Nov 2017 Final

OFA comment on PS Addendum Nov 2017 Final

Redbridge vs. Seacourt P&R from south + Maps

Letter to EA 30 November 2017_final

Lime stabilization considerations Nov17

Another letter about Seacourt P&R

Our letter published in the Oxford Times, 29 December 2016

We wrote recently about Oxford City Council’s proposal to extend the Seacourt Park & Ride into the flood plain, providing 658 extra parking spaces.

Now we read that the very same council wishes to abolish 270 parking spaces at Redbridge in order to develop a recycling facility. The core argument put forward by the City Council to justify their proposal at Seacourt is that extra car parking is so badly needed that it should be allowed even though the expansion site is in Green Belt and functional floodplain, and despite the fact that it is clearly contrary to national planning guidance and could put vehicles and people at risk during a flood. The Redbridge plans now make nonsense of the special case being advanced for Seacourt.

If that is not enough, the budget for construction of an extension at Seacourt has recently doubled from about £2 million to £4.1 million. The City Council Executive Board papers for 15 December 2016 show projected net revenue from the Seacourt Park & Ride extension of £160,000 a year, and this relies on an increase in parking charges from £2 to £3 possibly starting in autumn 2017.

At this rate the investment would take more than 25 years to pay back. If this figure assumes that the car park remains fully operational and doesn’t ever flood, when in reality it will do so virtually every year causing closure and expensive maintenance, the payback time will be even longer than 25 years.

We are discussing our concerns with the City Council as we believe that their proposal is ill-conceived and unjustifiable and that it should be abandoned before any more money is spent.

Letter to the Oxford Times (8 Dec)

Letter from us published in the Oxford Times of 8 December 2016

The proposed extension to Seacourt Park & Ride is one of the worst planning proposals we’ve seen for some time. In 2013, after much public consultation, the City Council adopted a Core Strategy to guide development in the city over the next period. Core Strategy 2 includes the statement: “Greenfield land will not be allocated for development if any part of the development would be on Flood Zone 3b.” The proposed extension to the Park & Ride is a greenfield site in Flood Zone 3b, the functional flood plain. How can this be? The planning documents don’t explain. Although the documents include a review of relevant local policies, Core Strategy 2 mysteriously doesn’t get a mention. What’s driving the application is a worry about short-term problems with traffic congestion on the Botley Rd pending completion of new Park & Rides at Eynsham and Cumnor. How does this short-term need justify departing from core strategy? National planning policy is designed to encourage local authorities to take a strategic approach to planning, thereby avoiding the need for this kind of last minute quick-fix nibbling away at the floodplain.

Apart from the obvious conflict with planning policy, the application is riddled with errors. The Flood Risk Assessment says that the most recent flooding event at the site was 2008, ignoring the major disruption in the winter of 2012/13, and the serious floods in early 2014. The FRA completely fails to take account of the fact that the site floods frequently, and proposes a design which will quickly degrade as a results of flood damage and silting. There is serious risk in the event of a major flood of large sections of the car park breaking up and washing into the flood channel. It’s a nonsense and needs to be stopped.