Tide and tested

Toby_Harris_4x3.jpgToby Harris on the government’s complacency over future flooding threats to London

The Thames Barrier is one of the great engineering wonders of the UK – with the design concept developed in a terraced house in the heart of what is now Haringey in the 1950s.  It took another 20 years before construction started and the Barrier itself was a decade later in 1984. All with the expectation that it would protect London from cataclysmic floods until 2030. In the Lords today, I shall press Ministers for the government’s assessment of the length of time for which the Barrier will be fit for purpose.

At the time of construction, it was anticipated that the Barrier would need to be raised about two or three times per year – and this is more or less what happened in its first decade. In the subsequent 20 years, the average rose to around five or six  – and in the most recent ten years to about eight, with a peak in 2014 when it needed raising 48 times.

In November 2012, the government quietly changed the date for renewing the Barrier from 2030 to 2070. This, despite warnings from a former member of the Project Management Team that the barrier was not designed to cope with the increased storminess and rising sea levels anticipated as a result of climate change.

The present government has a lamentable record in protecting the UK against flooding. Planned schemes were axed or postponed, and we have seen many areas of the country devastated by floods in the past few years – with the damage this winter in the North of England expected to cost £5.8bn.

But those costs could be dwarfed by the consequences if the Thames were flooded in London. 1.5 million people live in the 46 square miles of central London that would be directly affected, along with the many millions working there. The tidal surge of 1953 killed more than 300 people across Britain. A repetition now is likely to lead to far more deaths and would also see £200bn worth of property put at risk in the capital. As London is the engine for the UK’s economy, the impact on the rest of the UK would also be huge.

Believing that extreme weather conditions and sea level rises are not worth worrying about is simply not good enough as a strategy. The assessment made at the beginning of this decade that led to the government deciding it could put off a decision about a new Barrier for 40 years may already be out of date.

Complacency and mouthing the mantra about such events only occurring once in a hundred years was not an answer for the cities of Leeds and York last month, and the government’s response was too little and too late. The danger is that they will also make the same mistake with London and the Thames Barrier.

Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is a backbench Labour Peer. He tweets @LordTobySays

Published 27th January 2016

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