The government has announced £60 million of funding for the next stage of the River Thames Scheme, which is designed to provide flood protection at key points alongside the river in Surrey.
A number of low-lying areas are prone to being flooded by the river as it meanders downstream towards London, with climate change increasing the threat and meaning that existing defences such as banking, flood channels and sluices will no longer be enough to deal with the threat.
The Environment Agency and Surrey County Council are leading the plans, which are aimed at cutting the flood risk for 11,000 homes and 1,600 businesses lying close to the river.
This latest award of cash takes the amount spent on the scheme thus far to £285 million and is part of a projected £501 million vision to make the 21st century Thames Valley a place people can live and work without facing a severe flood risk. £270 million is coming from Surrey County Council via its Flood Alleviation Programme and other local councils are also involved.
Surrey County Council leader Tim Oliver said communities living by the river can look forward to a “brighter future” in the knowledge that the council, Environment Agency and other partners are “working hard to reduce the likelihood of their homes and businesses flooding”.
Firms working on the projects may soon be contacting groundwork equipment hire firms in London to provide the machines to dig new trenches, drainage channels and extract the soil needed to build up banking and carry out other works.
Before that happens, the detailed planning and design work will be undertaken to establish exactly what the best solution is in each location.
However, many of the details have already been established. Earth-moving equipment will be needed to cut new drainage channels at Runnymede and Spelthorne, while the water-carrying capacity of the Sunbury, Molesey and Teddington weirs and the Desborough Cut will also be increased.
Alongside that, the scheme will include environmental and leisure work, with new paths for walkers and cyclists and the development of parks and wildlife habitat. Far from simply building greater barriers, the scheme will be aimed at a more ambitious improvement of the riverside environment for all its users.
Floods minister Rebecca Pow said: “The River Thames Scheme will provide better protection for thousands of properties, including many which suffered the devastation of flooding in 2014.”
She added that progress on the scheme can be expedited by “treating the scheme as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project” to ensure the planning and authorisation process is completed much more swiftly.
Under the terms of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project designation, an entire project can be treated as one scheme rather than several, meaning it only needs to be approved once as a whole instead of various individual undertakings in different locations being treated separately and each requiring their own applications.
Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd said: “The River Thames Scheme will help to protect people and give businesses greater confidence in the resilience of the local economy in response to climate change,” while also noting the additional benefits to walkers, cyclists and wildlife.
The need for improved flood resilience was emphasised by the 2014 floods, in which over 1,000 homes were inundated with water and around 600 families had to be evacuated as the waters rose in February that year, following heavy rain.
Immediate work included Spelthorne Council building up a huge wall of sandbags in the Penton Hook area between Staines and Chertsey. This area, in which the River Abbey flows into the Thames, has a series of meanders, streams, low-lying reservoirs and extra cuts and channels. It also has a lot of riverside houses in vulnerable locations, demonstrating the need for long-term solutions.
There has been much criticism in recent years of development taking place on flood plains, with all the attendant risks this provides. However, the whole lower Thames Valley was once a natural flood plain, with much of central London built around areas that were once marshland, such as Westminster.
While the heart of the modern city is banked up well above the river, eastern areas were still vulnerable to major floods such as that of 1953. These came after heavy rain, but were mainly driven by a huge storm surge from the North Sea that affected riverside communities well inland and also hit the coasts of Kent and East Anglia hard with the loss of over 300 lives.
The tidal flood risk prompted the development of the Thames Flood Barrier, which was opened in 1982.