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 The JCBs have been withdrawn onto the higher ground of the existing car park, and heaps of building materials are abandoned in the water.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.

Upcoming talk on OFAS and wildlife

There is to be a talk, open to all, on ‘The Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme: Maximising the benefits for people and freshwater wildlife’ with Jeremy Biggs of Freshwater Habitats Trust and Penny Burt from the Environment Agency on Monday 26 November 2018 at 6.30 pm in South Hinksey Village Hall.

Saving Oxford’s freshwater habitat: FHT and OFAS

The Oxford Mail today carries an article about the Freshwater Habitats Trust’s (FHT) very positive involvement with OFAS:

Freshwater Habitats Trust is Saving Oxford’s Wetland Wildlife

Much more on FHT and OFAS here:

freshwaterhabitats.org.uk/projects/saving-oxfords-wetland-wildlife

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: Environmental meeting

OFA attended a briefing yesterday (22 May 2018) on the Environmental Statement which forms part of the OFAS planning application. This was organised by the Environment Agency (EA) specifically for local environmental groups. Penny Burt, Phil Marsh and Graham Scholey for the EA covered different aspects of the scheme, and provided updates on the various environmental assessments being conducted.

The scheme will result in the creation of a continuous area of marshy meadow either side of the new channel with various scrapes and ponds to enhance the habitat value. Overall biodiversity should be improved and strengthened.

But there are downsides. Rich grassland meadow in some areas will be lost, and while there are plans to create more of this habitat elsewhere in the scheme this is not without risk. Trees will be lost in some areas, though compensated for elsewhere. Some views will change significantly, e.g. along Willow Walk, and at Kendal Copse just north of Kennington.

Several useful comments were made by participants in the meeting about ways to enhance environmental benefits from the scheme which the EA will think about.

Ongoing effective management of the project will be critical and the Environment Agency is now exploring detailed proposals around this with various local wildlife organisations. OFA welcomes the idea of collaboration between the EA and local bodies, but is arguing that whatever arrangements are set up there needs to be a mechanism of accountability to the public, so that local interested parties can understand what is being undertaken, and what achieved – both for flood relief and for wildlife.

 

Seacourt and wildlife

The site for the proposed extension of Seacourt Park and Ride is designated under the Oxford Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) 2015-2020.  This is ‘An overview of actions to support biodiversity in Oxford City Council’s own estate and operations.’ Under this plan the Seacourt proposed extension site is designated as

  • a Conservation Target Area
  • a Habitat of Principal Importance.

It’s important habitat for many species including several badger setts. But, before the matter has even been before a Planning Committee for a decision, the City Council has cleared  the area over the last week or so. The pictures tell the story. What a sad disgrace.

See too http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/15698598.Council_accused_of_starting_work_on_park_and_ride_before_getting_planning_permission/

EDIT: and this recent video by the Oxfordshire Badger Group

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.

 

 

Maintenance and wildlife

We met with the Environment Agency (EA) and Jeremy Biggs of the Freshwater Habitats Trust (FHT) today.

We talked about articulating an environmental vision for the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme (the Scheme) which brings together the various initiatives which are planned and how these will be managed and maintained. This included possible bodies/corporate structures that might be involved in overseeing maintenance in the long-term, to deliver both flood risk reduction and benefits for wildlife. We are working towards a preferred option for the future management arrangements.

FHT is hoping to facilitate community involvement in the conservation of freshwater habitats within the Scheme area – for example by employing someone to liaise with local people, including schools, so they can be involved in wildlife science in the floodplain. Part of the funding has been secured by a generous offer of funding from Thames Water, and FHT and EA will now approach other bodies together.

OFA is about to send letters asking local businesses to contribute funding to help close the small funding gap that remains for the Scheme.

OFAS: Environmental meeting

Attended an environmental update meeting yesterday, organised by the EA with a number of local environmental stakeholders attending. A lot of thought is going into making the most of possible environmental enhancements that the Scheme can bring.

Led by Penny Burt of the Environment Agency we covered surveys, ecological trial areas, archaeology, low-flows and existing watercourses, fish passage, Hinksey Meadow, trees and bridges, habitat creation and access. Also mentioned was future maintenance – we felt that the plans were not nearly long-term enough and this was discussed.

For our part we are working closely with the Freshwater Habitats Trust. The Oxford area is rich in freshwater species, though there is, nevertheless, a long term decline: this Scheme could help reverse that trend. We’d like to give the public, including school children, a chance to be involved, including with data collection in the field – sometimes called ‘citizen science’.

The damselflies in the photographs are closely associated with the freshwater habitat.