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Westcountry's coastal flood defences to come under major review

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: July 08, 2013

By Andy Greenwood

Flooded fields and roads on the Somerset levels

Flooded fields and roads on the Somerset levels

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A major review of coastal flood defences across the Westcountry is being carried out using a model from devastating floods 60 years ago which claimed more than 300 lives.

After a week in which the Government was criticised for not spending enough money on flood defences as the threat to homes and businesses grows, the Environment Agency confirmed it was reassessing the strength of current protection.

They are being tested using a storm scenario on the scale of the Great Flood of 1953 when the east coast of England was battered as high spring tides, deep atmospheric low pressure and exceptionally strong northerly gales led to sea water surging over coastal defences and sweeping two miles inland.

By the morning of February 1, the death toll on land was estimated at 307 in English coastal towns and villages. Many more died on the continent and at sea.

"With the anniversary of the 1953 east coast flood the Environment Agency is taking the opportunity to review preparedness for a significant coastal flood around the coast of England," said Paul Gainey, from the Environment Agency in the South West.

"The review will include the east coast, south coast and west coast of England, stretching from the Isles of Scilly to Kent, Northumberland and up to Scotland.

"We are planning for a credible scenario involving the serious impact that might be caused by a storm on the south coast.

"Therefore, we will be looking at reviewing our hazard mapping, contingency plans, engaging and liaising with all the professional partners we would work with if such a storm, with all the consequences, did actually happen.

"Inevitably, this will include reviewing our current standard of protection all along the coast."

Meanwhile, the South West Coastal Group, which brings together groups interested in flood defence and coastal erosion between Portland Bill and Hartland Point, has raised concerns that the risks posed by flooding may be "substantially understated".

A report from the group to last week's meeting of the South West Regional Flood and Coastal Committee said: "Recent research completed by Nick Ely, Environment Agency coastal engineer, has identified that coastal flood maps do not necessarily reflect the potential scale of flooding, which in some cases may be currently substantially understated.

It said they needed to identify all the places "where the risk of coastal flooding may be substantially understated" and bid for funding "to revise the mapping at these locations".

"A significant increase in the scale of coastal flooding may lead to a scheme having to be accelerated," it added.

Record levels of rainfall across Devon and Cornwall have had a major impact over the last two years, with hundreds of homes and businesses being flooded, and road and rail routes being cut off.

Exactly a year ago, homes and businesses were wrecked as South Devon bore the brunt of a storm which brought more than two inches of rain in just 18 hours.

Firefighters had to rescue more than ten people whose cars were stuck in floodwaters while swollen rivers and streams inundated properties, caused landslides and caused havoc for commuters.

Last week, the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee warned a "major commitment" to enhancing protection announced by George Osborne in last week's spending review was still up to £150 million a year less by 2020 than its own experts said was needed.

That followed a warning from Government climate advisers last summer that a funding gap of almost £1 billion was opening up between what was needed to keep homes and businesses protected from flooding and what was being spent up to 2015.

Committee chairman Anne McIntosh MP said: "Record rainfall in the past two years has led to extensive flooding, cost the economy millions and caused disruption and distress to householders and communities across the UK.

"Additional capital funding for flood defences is welcome since every £1 spent on flood defences to protect communities spurs growth and delivers economic benefits worth £8.

"But spending on flood defences has not kept pace with rising risks from more frequent severe weather. The Chancellor must ensure that investment increases by £20 million year on year.

"We need that money over the next 25 years to protect homes and businesses better. Maintenance of these defences and effective dredging of watercourses must be a priority."

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