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Gloucestershire July floods

PUBLISHED: 10:39 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 14:52 20 February 2013

These fields around the Over roundabout are expected to flood but never to this extent. The picture was taken by the owner of Over Farm Market, Rob Keene, from his microlight

These fields around the Over roundabout are expected to flood but never to this extent. The picture was taken by the owner of Over Farm Market, Rob Keene, from his microlight

In one single July afternoon, large parts of our region were reduced to a chaotic landscape of extreme flooding, power cuts and water shortages. The repairs and ramifications will rumble on for many months, if not years....

I'm glad you rang me," laughs Colin Embery, when we finally make contact. "I left my phone on the back seat after that night, and this is the first time it's rung again. It must have just about dried out."



After almost three weeks without one of the essential tools of his trade, the Gloucester-based sales manager is finally in touch with the outside world again. When he was stranded on the M5 on the evening of July 20 - the night the waters came and claimed thousands of homes in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire - he left a rear window open, into which the rain poured and ruined the contents of his briefcase.



At the time, he thought that was the worst of his problems. He was wrong. When he finally arrived home, he was greeted by a scene of domestic devastation. Like so many others, he has spent the last month or so trawling through the wreckage of his home, hoping to salvage something from the worst flooding to hit Gloucestershire for many years. There is little left; a few trinkets, a couple of beds, a computer and a loft of junk. Other than that, he has to start again.



Colin is just one statistic among many in a summer of statistics. The wettest May-to-July since 1766, when records began. Three hundred per cent more rainfall than usual over Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in June, causing widespread flooding around Hull - dubbed the 'forgotten city.' Four deaths, and the total bill for damage caused in that month estimated at well over 1bn.



And then came July, and the great rainstorm which caused the Severn, Avon and Thames rivers to burst their banks, engulfing cities, towns and villages in their wake. A reported 1,600 incidents attended by Gloucestershire police in eight hours. Almost 2,000 calls to the fire brigade in the same period of time. 15,000 properties flooded out, 48,000 homes without electricity and 350,000 people without fresh drinking water. Three deaths, panic buying, fist fights over bottled water and vandalism to bowsers on the streets. Picturesque-sounding towns like Upton-upon-Severn and Bourton-on-the-Water now their own sorry advert for thinking very carefully before buying property near a river. This is the story of the summer of 2007 - one that will not be forgotten for months - even years - ahead.



That there are lessons to be learned goes without saying. Could anything more have been done to keep damage to a minimum? Were people adequately warned or prepared for what happened? Did the government and its agencies do enough during the actual emergency to help out those in need? Is it right - as the government seems to believe it is - to build new houses on flood plains? And what, if anything, can be done to stop this from happening again?



A flood, they say, usually starts with a trickle, and high up in the Welsh border area of Llanidloes, in Powys, this is what the Severn is. No more than a few feet across, the river winds up into Shropshire and back down again through Warwickshire and Gloucestershire before broadening out to the sea at Chepstow. When the rains came on that black Friday - five inches' worth, in some parts - the meander turned into an unstoppable force. Kidderminster was saved by a new flood alleviation scheme, but 100 properties in Worcester were flooded. Upton-upon-Severn lay under 1.5 metres of water, while Tewkesbury became an island. The nearby Mythe water treatment plant was swamped, causing the loss of drinking water. In Gloucester, power was lost and around 1,500 properties flooded. A temporary flood barrier kept water from the Walham sub-station, but just five centimetres of flood water stood between it and a mass evacuation, plans for which kept Gordon Brown and his emergency 'COBRA' team up all night at Downing Street. Around the Avon, Evesham was under a metre of water and 60 people were rescued by helicopter in Sedgeberrow. More than 100 properties were flooded in Cheltenham. Then there was Moreton-in-Marsh, Fairford, Longlevens, Ashchurch, Staverton - towns and villages with many stories to tell.



With the clean-up and insurance bill running into billions of pounds, the inevitable questions are being asked of the government, its agencies and the emergency services. Unfortunately, they are questions that are not being asked for the first time.



Worcester-based Mary Dhonau helped set up the National Flood Forum, an independent organisation giving help and support to those at risk of or affected by flooding, after the floods of 2000.



She said: "In response to the 2000 floods, Defra (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) published a document called 'Making Space for Water', and one of the key points that came out of it was a recommendation for a single 'floods agency' to coordinate the response to flooding.



"It's never happened, and it seems that as soon as the flood has gone away the idea is shelved once more. This time, the Environment Agency response has been amazing in some areas - the Walham sub-station rescue, for example - but overall it has been patchy. A national coordinating body for flooding would improve this, I'm sure."



Mary Dhonau agrees with Baroness Young, the head of the Environment Agency, that at least 1bn is needed to improve drainage and protecting vital infrastructure - electricity plans and water treatment works - from flooding. Frustration, however, has crept in over the 15m that was cut from Defra's flood risk management budget in 2006-2007. Whether the cut is directly responsible for what happened in Gloucestershire is still a matter for debate, but Environment Secretary Hilary Benn's pledge to increase cash for flood defences to 800m by 2010/11 appears to look like a spectacular piece of political backtracking.



So more funding for essential defence works and a better coordinated response are two options in the fight against flooding. The third is the issue of flood plains, and continued building of new housing on them. The government has announced that three million new homes need to be built by 2020, and flood plains will be inevitably earmarked as development land. This poses two dangers - for the householders in the new developments and longer-established communities who suffer from the 'run-off' of displaced water caused by concreting over the plains.



Lady Dunrossil, chairman of Gloucestershire County Council, is well aware of the demand for houses, and the claims on flood plains by developers.



"There have been many, many objections to houses on flood plains," she said, "but if the government insists they are going to approve new housing scheme, the county councils and the district councils simply don't have endless coffers to fight such schemes at appeal. If developers do appeal the decision is usually made that we cannot fight it."



Even so, developers and prospective buyers must now be wondering whether flood plain properties are a wise investment. The Greyhound estate in Longlevens was flooded in June AND July this year, confirming local residents' views that permission should never have been given to site the estate there.



John Cripps, managing director of Gloucestershire Chamber of Commerce, believes it will be the demands of the insurance companies that determine the future of building on flood plains.



"A lot of houses are built on flood plains, and a lot of flood plains have planning consent," he said, "but I'm sure people will be much more cautious about where they buy houses after this. Aside from that, the insurance companies will probably take the view that insuring houses built on a flood plain is too high a risk, and if you can't get insurance protection you can't get a mortgage."



Mr Cripps says the impact on commercial life in the region will undoubtedly be 'dramatic'. "People are being told to stay away from Gloucestershire, that's what they're doing, and quite rightly too," he commented, "but of course that has a big effect on business. Many companies have done their best to keep on trading, but if staff are unable to come in, or you can't provide refreshments for those who do come in, it has an effect.



"For others - particularly those in tourism - it's been impossible to stay open, and if you're having to close for two or three weeks that is serious."



There is the question of who will pay. Lady Dunrossil, of the county council, expresses her hopes that other services will not suffer because of funds having to be diverted to pay for the emergency. However, she does acknowledge that essential road maintenance might take a hit if the government is less-than-generous with its financial help.



Cotswolds MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown toured his constituency in the aftermath of the floods and was 'shocked' by the extent of the damage.


"I went to Moreton-in-Marsh, where I found that 250 people had been evacuated to the fire college, their homes having been rendered unfit for habitation," he said. "Half the shops had been flooded, many of the houses near the station had been flooded, and many of the hostelries will not be open for many months.


"Repairing the infrastructure will be expensive and time-consuming, and because it is spread over a very large area in the Cotswolds it will be expensive. So I issue this plea to the county council: that we in the Cotswolds should get our fair share of funding. We are going to need resources in the Cotswolds, not only to restore the infrastructure but to pay for emergency equipment. There will need to be a substantial clean-up."



Mr Clifton-Brown also points a finger of blame directly at the Environment Agency for at least some of the flooding.


"Some of the flooding had been caused by the Environment Agency's policy of clearing out watercourses only on a biennial basis, on the grounds that to do so encourages biodiversity," he said. "That will need to be looked at again rigorously, because if it causes any possibility of flooding homes it is totally wrong.


"Sewer flooding caused considerable difficulties, particularly in Fairford. I have called on the Deputy Leader of the House to bring the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, because the regulatory regime needs looking at to ensure that water companies have sufficient ability to invest in the infrastructure from their profits."


In the short-term, Gloucestershire and surrounding areas continue to work on a clean-up operation that will last well into the autumn. There has been a very generous response to a fundraising appeal coordinated by the Red Cross and no doubt the visitors will come back to Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds. In the longer term, the government must actually spend the money they've pledged to spend on flood defences, and perhaps look seriously at the Victorian drainage systems under our roads and ask if they're adequate enough to meet the demands of the 21st century.



Which brings us on to another subject altogether, that of global warming. While Gloucestershire - and indeed, most lowland parts of the United Kingdom - has a long history of devastating floods, the warmer seas and wetter winters we have come to accept as evidence of climate change will continue to precipitate flooding on a regular basis. Floods, and other natural climatic disasters, may be just something we have to learn to live with as part of normal life.



As he plans to spend yet another weekend looking at new carpets, Colin Embery doesn't blame anyone for his misfortunes. "You can't say 'it's the government' or 'it's the Environment Agency' or it's such a body or such a body," he says. "It's just mud-slinging, if I might use a slightly unfortunate phrase. In the end, it's all of us, isn't it? If I hadn't taken the car out that day, or any one of the days over the past 30 years I've been driving, I might not have run into a flood. It certainly makes you think."


I'm glad you rang me," laughs Colin Embery, when we finally make contact. "I left my phone on the back seat after that night, and this is the first time it's rung again. It must have just about dried out."



After almost three weeks without one of the essential tools of his trade, the Gloucester-based sales manager is finally in touch with the outside world again. When he was stranded on the M5 on the evening of July 20 - the night the waters came and claimed thousands of homes in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire - he left a rear window open, into which the rain poured and ruined the contents of his briefcase.



At the time, he thought that was the worst of his problems. He was wrong. When he finally arrived home, he was greeted by a scene of domestic devastation. Like so many others, he has spent the last month or so trawling through the wreckage of his home, hoping to salvage something from the worst flooding to hit Gloucestershire for many years. There is little left; a few trinkets, a couple of beds, a computer and a loft of junk. Other than that, he has to start again.



Colin is just one statistic among many in a summer of statistics. The wettest May-to-July since 1766, when records began. Three hundred per cent more rainfall than usual over Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in June, causing widespread flooding around Hull - dubbed the 'forgotten city.' Four deaths, and the total bill for damage caused in that month estimated at well over 1bn.



And then came July, and the great rainstorm which caused the Severn, Avon and Thames rivers to burst their banks, engulfing cities, towns and villages in their wake. A reported 1,600 incidents attended by Gloucestershire police in eight hours. Almost 2,000 calls to the fire brigade in the same period of time. 15,000 properties flooded out, 48,000 homes without electricity and 350,000 people without fresh drinking water. Three deaths, panic buying, fist fights over bottled water and vandalism to bowsers on the streets. Picturesque-sounding towns like Upton-upon-Severn and Bourton-on-the-Water now their own sorry advert for thinking very carefully before buying property near a river. This is the story of the summer of 2007 - one that will not be forgotten for months - even years - ahead.



That there are lessons to be learned goes without saying. Could anything more have been done to keep damage to a minimum? Were people adequately warned or prepared for what happened? Did the government and its agencies do enough during the actual emergency to help out those in need? Is it right - as the government seems to believe it is - to build new houses on flood plains? And what, if anything, can be done to stop this from happening again?



A flood, they say, usually starts with a trickle, and high up in the Welsh border area of Llanidloes, in Powys, this is what the Severn is. No more than a few feet across, the river winds up into Shropshire and back down again through Warwickshire and Gloucestershire before broadening out to the sea at Chepstow. When the rains came on that black Friday - five inches' worth, in some parts - the meander turned into an unstoppable force. Kidderminster was saved by a new flood alleviation scheme, but 100 properties in Worcester were flooded. Upton-upon-Severn lay under 1.5 metres of water, while Tewkesbury became an island. The nearby Mythe water treatment plant was swamped, causing the loss of drinking water. In Gloucester, power was lost and around 1,500 properties flooded. A temporary flood barrier kept water from the Walham sub-station, but just five centimetres of flood water stood between it and a mass evacuation, plans for which kept Gordon Brown and his emergency 'COBRA' team up all night at Downing Street. Around the Avon, Evesham was under a metre of water and 60 people were rescued by helicopter in Sedgeberrow. More than 100 properties were flooded in Cheltenham. Then there was Moreton-in-Marsh, Fairford, Longlevens, Ashchurch, Staverton - towns and villages with many stories to tell.



With the clean-up and insurance bill running into billions of pounds, the inevitable questions are being asked of the government, its agencies and the emergency services. Unfortunately, they are questions that are not being asked for the first time.



Worcester-based Mary Dhonau helped set up the National Flood Forum, an independent organisation giving help and support to those at risk of or affected by flooding, after the floods of 2000.



She said: "In response to the 2000 floods, Defra (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) published a document called 'Making Space for Water', and one of the key points that came out of it was a recommendation for a single 'floods agency' to coordinate the response to flooding.



"It's never happened, and it seems that as soon as the flood has gone away the idea is shelved once more. This time, the Environment Agency response has been amazing in some areas - the Walham sub-station rescue, for example - but overall it has been patchy. A national coordinating body for flooding would improve this, I'm sure."



Mary Dhonau agrees with Baroness Young, the head of the Environment Agency, that at least 1bn is needed to improve drainage and protecting vital infrastructure - electricity plans and water treatment works - from flooding. Frustration, however, has crept in over the 15m that was cut from Defra's flood risk management budget in 2006-2007. Whether the cut is directly responsible for what happened in Gloucestershire is still a matter for debate, but Environment Secretary Hilary Benn's pledge to increase cash for flood defences to 800m by 2010/11 appears to look like a spectacular piece of political backtracking.



So more funding for essential defence works and a better coordinated response are two options in the fight against flooding. The third is the issue of flood plains, and continued building of new housing on them. The government has announced that three million new homes need to be built by 2020, and flood plains will be inevitably earmarked as development land. This poses two dangers - for the householders in the new developments and longer-established communities who suffer from the 'run-off' of displaced water caused by concreting over the plains.



Lady Dunrossil, chairman of Gloucestershire County Council, is well aware of the demand for houses, and the claims on flood plains by developers.



"There have been many, many objections to houses on flood plains," she said, "but if the government insists they are going to approve new housing scheme, the county councils and the district councils simply don't have endless coffers to fight such schemes at appeal. If developers do appeal the decision is usually made that we cannot fight it."



Even so, developers and prospective buyers must now be wondering whether flood plain properties are a wise investment. The Greyhound estate in Longlevens was flooded in June AND July this year, confirming local residents' views that permission should never have been given to site the estate there.



John Cripps, managing director of Gloucestershire Chamber of Commerce, believes it will be the demands of the insurance companies that determine the future of building on flood plains.



"A lot of houses are built on flood plains, and a lot of flood plains have planning consent," he said, "but I'm sure people will be much more cautious about where they buy houses after this. Aside from that, the insurance companies will probably take the view that insuring houses built on a flood plain is too high a risk, and if you can't get insurance protection you can't get a mortgage."



Mr Cripps says the impact on commercial life in the region will undoubtedly be 'dramatic'. "People are being told to stay away from Gloucestershire, that's what they're doing, and quite rightly too," he commented, "but of course that has a big effect on business. Many companies have done their best to keep on trading, but if staff are unable to come in, or you can't provide refreshments for those who do come in, it has an effect.



"For others - particularly those in tourism - it's been impossible to stay open, and if you're having to close for two or three weeks that is serious."



There is the question of who will pay. Lady Dunrossil, of the county council, expresses her hopes that other services will not suffer because of funds having to be diverted to pay for the emergency. However, she does acknowledge that essential road maintenance might take a hit if the government is less-than-generous with its financial help.



Cotswolds MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown toured his constituency in the aftermath of the floods and was 'shocked' by the extent of the damage.


"I went to Moreton-in-Marsh, where I found that 250 people had been evacuated to the fire college, their homes having been rendered unfit for habitation," he said. "Half the shops had been flooded, many of the houses near the station had been flooded, and many of the hostelries will not be open for many months.


"Repairing the infrastructure will be expensive and time-consuming, and because it is spread over a very large area in the Cotswolds it will be expensive. So I issue this plea to the county council: that we in the Cotswolds should get our fair share of funding. We are going to need resources in the Cotswolds, not only to restore the infrastructure but to pay for emergency equipment. There will need to be a substantial clean-up."



Mr Clifton-Brown also points a finger of blame directly at the Environment Agency for at least some of the flooding.


"Some of the flooding had been caused by the Environment Agency's policy of clearing out watercourses only on a biennial basis, on the grounds that to do so encourages biodiversity," he said. "That will need to be looked at again rigorously, because if it causes any possibility of flooding homes it is totally wrong.


"Sewer flooding caused considerable difficulties, particularly in Fairford. I have called on the Deputy Leader of the House to bring the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, because the regulatory regime needs looking at to ensure that water companies have sufficient ability to invest in the infrastructure from their profits."


In the short-term, Gloucestershire and surrounding areas continue to work on a clean-up operation that will last well into the autumn. There has been a very generous response to a fundraising appeal coordinated by the Red Cross and no doubt the visitors will come back to Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds. In the longer term, the government must actually spend the money they've pledged to spend on flood defences, and perhaps look seriously at the Victorian drainage systems under our roads and ask if they're adequate enough to meet the demands of the 21st century.



Which brings us on to another subject altogether, that of global warming. While Gloucestershire - and indeed, most lowland parts of the United Kingdom - has a long history of devastating floods, the warmer seas and wetter winters we have come to accept as evidence of climate change will continue to precipitate flooding on a regular basis. Floods, and other natural climatic disasters, may be just something we have to learn to live with as part of normal life.



As he plans to spend yet another weekend looking at new carpets, Colin Embery doesn't blame anyone for his misfortunes. "You can't say 'it's the government' or 'it's the Environment Agency' or it's such a body or such a body," he says. "It's just mud-slinging, if I might use a slightly unfortunate phrase. In the end, it's all of us, isn't it? If I hadn't taken the car out that day, or any one of the days over the past 30 years I've been driving, I might not have run into a flood. It certainly makes you think."

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