Fears for future as flood defence plan put on hold

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PLANS to upgrade Morpeth’s flood defences look set to be put on hold – a move described as devastating by campaigners.

At last Friday’s meeting of the Northumbria regional flood defence committee, the Environment Agency confirmed that its proposed budget for next year will not include the £4m expected for the flood alleviation scheme proposed for the town.

The news came as a particular blow to those hit by the town’s worst flood on record in September 2008.

Morpeth Flood Action Group, a campaigning organisation set up by flood victims, is calling for new defences to be built as soon as possible.

It had feared the plan would be postponed ever since the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs revealed that the agency’s flood management allocation would fall by 17 per cent next year as part of the government’s austerity drive.

The confirmation of its fears has still come as a blow, however.

That funding cut of almost a fifth means that projects are now being prioritised on the basis of their cost-benefit ratio using national outcome measures, and only those that score 14 or more will go ahead this year.

The proposed £17m Morpeth scheme has a rating of 5.06 under the system, well short of the score needed to make it a priority.

Ian Hodge, area flood and coastal risk manager for the Environment Agency, said: “It is unlikely that the scheme will progress in the next financial year. The final decision will be made by the Environment Agency board in February.

“Officers will continue to work very hard on the project, and we will look into how it can progress in the most beneficial way possible if affordability issues mean it can’t be delivered in its current form.”

Other options are now being looked at.

These include possible changes to the original plans for upstream flood water storage areas and new defence walls in the town centre to give a one-in-137-year level of protection.

The scheme is still awaiting final approval as a business case from the agency’s large project review group – a thumbs-up that Mr Hodge hopes will be forthcoming within the next few weeks.

Action group chairman Alan Bell said: “We were half expecting it, but we are still devastated by this news.

“At best, it will be delayed for a year, but we believe it is more likely to not go ahead in the form that the Environment Agency has been working on in the past two years.

“We would like national agency people and politicians to come to the town to explain why there has been a delay to the alleviation scheme.”

The flood defence committee, made up of councillors from authorities across the north east and Defra appointees, has written to the Environment Agency board to the stress the importance of the Morpeth scheme going ahead as soon as possible.