Race to repair coastal defences ahead of February high tides

Emergency repairs to Britain’s coastal flood defences are being carried out to prepare them to resist high tides predicted for next month and the potential of fresh winter storms.     Permanent repair of all key defences is expected to take over a year Environment Agency chief executive Paul Leinster told a parliamentary select committee last week.

The defences withstood the largest tidal surge for 60 years along the east coast in December and around the country were battered by major storms. They did their job but were left vulnerable to repeat events. Southerly winds in the January storms were a stroke of luck as northerly winds could resulted in major inundation, flood experts said.

"Our concern has been to get the defences back to protect against further high tides in February"

“We are still assessing the level of funding required to repair damage from early December,” Leinster told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into the winter floods. “We are identifying need and having discussions with Treasury.  Our concern has been to get the defences back to protect against further high tides in February and put in place a programme to ensure all assets are repaired.”

Early reports suggest that the EA needs an extra £25M for emergency coastal defence repairs from Government. Permanent repairs will cost in the hundreds of missions of pounds.

The EA has prioritised defences that protect people and property, Leinster said.

“But we still haven’t got a full programme of work and it will take a long time to get the assets back to the design condition we would like them to be in. We have done temporary repairs which will hold in the event of another surge but to restore them to a long term state …. might take 12 months.” 

Some defences may not be repaired, he said, such as those protecting habitat. “We will have discussions with English Nature as to whether to reinstate them. In Norfolk and Suffolk for example do we reinstate fresh water habitat or allow it to become inter tidal?”

Commenting on the state of England's coastal defences URS operations director for water Jon Robinson told Infrastructure Intelligence: "A lot of the defences are under real stress but the Environment Agency does have a maintenance budget and plan. However a lot of the defences are not under its care but are the responsibility of lead local flood authorities. There is a two fold problem there. They do not have money and have limited expertise.

"Going forward," he said "there are questions to be asked as to how acceptable are certain degrees of flooding and can certain types of land use stand more than others, for instance warehousing, allowing more focus on the areas that need more protection.

"We also need to establish whether stormier weather and more intense rain is the new norm." If that is the case he said, designs for 1:100 year events may need to be understood as 1:50 or even 1:30.


The December Surge

The December 2013 tidal surge was the largest along the east coast in 60 years. Sea levels at many locations were higher than those during the devastating floods of 1953 which claimed more than 300 lives.  This time flood risk management schemes, forecasting and warnings helped save lives and protect property.

Emergency services evacuated 18,000 people from coastal communities and during the duration of the surge on 6 December a record-breaking 64 severe flood warnings – the highest category and meaning danger to life – were in place. At one point, flood warnings were issued to 43,000 homes an businesses in just an hour.

Around 2,600 properties flooded but 800,000 were protected by 2,800km of defences including the Thames Barrier which safeguarded the capital from the highest sea level since the structure was completed 30 years a

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