Thoughts on OFAS

Why do we need a flood scheme at all?

We have had five major floods since 2000 and climate change will make things worse (indeed there is evidence from Oxford University that it already has). Oxford residents, and the economic well-being of the City, will suffer badly if something is not done. While the scheme will cause disruption during its construction it is imperative that Oxford is protected.

But what about downstream, won’t they be worse off?

All the detailed computer modelling for the Scheme (and we have recently heard on the grapevine that a totally independent consultancy has confirmed this ) says that flooding will not be made worse downstream. We know that comparisons are made with the Jubilee River – this scheme is nothing like that. Indeed OFAS is actually increasing the capacity of the floodplain, which together with bunding and rerouting of flow will reduce flood risk to many hundreds of properties.

Is it a concrete channel?

No, it isn’t. What it is is a much more naturalistic 2-stage channel, used around the world for flood relief.

How will the environment be affected?

While there will, regrettably, be some environmental losses, we are pressing hard – collaborating with the Environment Agency, and with support from others, particularly the Freshwater Habitats Trust – for environmental enhancements as part of the scheme. While one cannot compare one environmental loss directly with another environmental gain we believe the positives will be considerable.

Maintenance.

It’s so important that there is a plan now for the very long-term maintenance of the Scheme. In our experience over the last 10 years  “if maintenance can be neglected it probably will be”. There are some honourable exceptions and we certainly have we have no criticism whatever of the local EA maintenance team, who achieve a huge amount with very limited resources. Others do nothing or very little unless goaded and embarrassed into action. This Scheme, being “natural” will deteriorate quickly if not proactively maintained. The initial intent was to plan maintenance for 10 years: that is simply not good enough for such an expensive and important project. We have proposed that maintenance be planned for in perpetuity by setting up a responsible, funded, local body, maybe as a charitable trust (or similar).

A Green group

thinks that Oxford could and should be protected by very different means – while they are short on specifics, their main idea seems to be that planting enough trees upstream in the Cotswolds would solve Oxford’s problems. It wouldn’t. Expert opinion at our 2015 Symposium of Natural Flood Management (NFM)  made that very clear. Even afforesting the whole of the Cotswolds (not that that would ever happen) would not do the job. Oxford is simply too far downstream for that. That’s not to say that NFM can’t work in smaller catchments, nor that it might not make a contribution.

Flooding land upstream?

The Environment Agency’s Oxford Flood Risk Management Strategy (OFRMS) suggests this may be needed one day if climate change makes things sufficiently bad. Involving as it would temporary flooding large areas of farmland and other land it is never likely to be easy to implement.

 

 

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Annual Public Meeting 2015

Our Annual Public Meeting on 19 November was well attended – we were delighted to welcome many members of the public, local councillors, representatives of all the local flood agencies, an Oxford University researcher and Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East. Nicola Blackwood, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, and Rodney Rose, Deputy Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, sent their apologies.

Adrian Porter began the evening by setting out our three key current objectives:

  • support for the proposed multi-partner Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme (Oxford FAS)
  • maintenance of existing waterways
  • that as and when the Oxford FAS happens, maintenance should be properly provided for from the start.

He went on to give an overview of the past year including our recent boat trip, with the Environment Agency, which identified necessary maintenance on Weirs Mill Stream: this work is being planned and funding being sought. John Mastroddi provided detail on the clearance under Munday’s bridge, which completes the project begun in 2013. Impending planning applications at Seacourt P&R and Oxford Four Pillars Hotel, both firmly in the floodplain, are on our radar.

Nick Hills, our Treasurer, told us that we had £346 in the bank, enough for several years at the present rate of spending! Nevertheless, being the good treasurer he is, he asked people to leave any donations as they left: this raised a very generous £110. Nick set out some of the things we’d been pleased to see in the year: among those not referred to in more detail later on were the permanent pipe under the Botley Road to allow pumping across the road without disruption to traffic (County and City Councils), Waitrose’s use of SUDS at their new shop and the successful public events for OFAS during the summer.

He explained how we support OFAS in principle and are contributing to the process along with the other partners – but always reserving the right to be a ‘critical friend’.

The first of our guest speakers, Joanna Grew from Network Rail, gave an account of their proposed Hinksey Flood Alleviation Scheme: this includes the clearing of culverts at Coldharbour (for which we have been pushing for some time), track raising and installation of new culverts. More detail can be seen in Joanna’s presentation downloadable here. You can download a leaflet about the scheme here.

James Playfair explained the progress of Thames Water’s ongoing sewer survey across Oxford, the Oxford Catchment Study. This is about to enter its second year: already some issues have been resolved including significant improvements to the pumps at Littlemore Pumping Station. The presentation can be downloaded here.

Last but not least Emma Formoy from the Environment Agency gave the meeting an up-to-date account of the Oxford FAS; Emma mentioned the possible wider benefits of the scheme, including for wildlife, and the crucial importance of rigorous modelling. More detail in the presentation downloadable here: this includes dates of the next round of Public Events in January 2016 when a consultation on the route options for the scheme will begin. These can be also seen in the Oxford FAS Newsletter – November 2015, perhaps more easily. In parallel with these events, people will be able to view these proposed options and partake in the consultation online.

Apart from these individual achievements and plans, what is remarkable, and heartening, is the considerable cooperation, for example sharing of modelling data, between these three agencies – i.e. they talk to each other! As one of us commented later, we have come a very long way since 2007. We are grateful to our guests for coming to talk and for all the work their organisations are doing. The sum (assuming they all reach fruition) will give Oxford a better, and more secure and sustainable, future.

Nick Hills presented Steve Smith, Engineer with Oxford City Council, with our Flood Star award for this year. This is in recognition and thanks for Steve’s sterling work on many flood schemes and smaller works over the years, as well as co-ordinating the Oxford Area Flood Partnership.

Peter Rawcliffe spoke about OFA’s suggestion for maintaining Oxford FAS: as this is to be largely a ‘natural’ channel it will be subject to inevitable deterioration – so providing both a problem and an opportunity. OFA proposes that a trust be established, in perpetuity, to manage for both flood alleviation and wildlife. Trustees could be drawn from the several stakeholders – landowners, local authorities, Environment Agency, academics and wildlife bodies – to name just a few. We believe this is a practical way to make the most of what the scheme offers Oxford and its residents and visitors. This 7km channel will be ever more essential to Oxford if climate change develops as predicted. Each km may cost £18 million to build. We need to treasure it: in our view a local trust with local accountability, and autonomy to manage as it sees fit, fits the bill.

Simon Collings discussed modelling: as mentioned above this is absolutely vital to developing the case for OFAS – both to be as sure as humanly possible that it will work and equally importantly that no one downstream will be disadvantaged. We recently attended a meeting at the School of Geography, Oxford University: Simon explained some of the potential pitfalls of modelling that we had learned of there, and suggested that community review of the OFAS modelling (assisted by expert modellers) be included in the scrutiny process. This in addition to review by academic modeller(s) which is already under discussion for the scheme and which we strongly support.

We thank those who attended for their support and we thank our visiting speakers for helping to make the meeting a success. Our thanks too to the West Oxford Democrats Club for generously allowing us to use their hall once again.