Irresponsibile or Incompetent? Local councillors role in the Bridgwater Tidal Barrier

An old boss of mine says unintended consequences is merely the failure to adequately consider the implications of the decision being made.

The location of the Bridgwater Tidal Barrier (BTB) is probably the most significant decision Sedgemoor District Council has made in many years. Rarely can such an important decision have been made with so little debate. If it’s in the wrong place we and the following generations live with the consequences for the next 200 years or so. No one is giving us another one if its wrong.

On the 26th July 2017 a full Sedgemoor District Council meeting agreed the location of the Bridgwater Tidal Barrier. This decision according to the minutes was apparently waived through without discussion. That the EA and SDC gave a superfical 3 page briefing document with so few key facts indicates just how confident EA and SDC officers felt able too simply ignore the longer term collateral environmental and economic impacts of this scheme. It is a clear indication of the low esteem our councilors are held in. Councillors lack of oversight of this scheme does indicate the officers probably wernt wrong. Silent oversight committees seems to have presided over continued and unsatisfactorily explained cost rises. The cost almost doubled in the the six months after the decision was made. Barely a word was said.

The Issue

Abandoning 1,400 acres of valuable land next to a motorway junction capable of supporting £1B of future investment (jobs) whilst unnecessarily forcing future housing onto the Quantocks foothills extending Bridgwater to absorb Cannington, Spaxton and North Petherton.

This decision  will be seen as one of the most irresponsible and  reproachable acts by councillors of any  local authority at any time. SDC knowingly made a decision to convert the Parrett Estuary into an Intertidal Habitat and behind the the secondary flood defence create more areas of habitat suitable for freshwater mosquitios such as the Zika and Denge carrying Asian Tiger Mosquito to take up residence.

Limiting economic expansion, building on the Quantocks, poisoning the fresh water ecology of Chilton Trinity and Pawlett Hamsand and creating a future health hazard is hardly what we people voted councillors into office for.

  • If they did know why did they do it?
  • If they didnt know why not?

Why is this case?

The BTB design uses farmland downstream of the barrier to allow incoming saltwater to spill over riverbanks onto the farmland. It destroys the economic value of around 2.400 acres of land either to continue as low-grade farmland or 1,400 Acres of that total to the south of the Parrett providing land for nearly a £1B of economic development accessible from J23. Would any town throw such an economic legacy away with so little concern? Bridgwater has. The longtime environmental Impact of this scheme is equally as bad; the land being flooded will ultimately become saltmarsh and a large part of the local Quantock foothills unnecessarily developed

The December 2018 public consultation asked for feedback on three basic points

  • The details of the proposals for both the barrier and the downstream flood defences.
  • How you think the proposals may affect you, your land or your business.
  • What additional improvements you would like to see delivered as priorities, in addition to the barrier and the downstream flood defences, subject to funding.

Context

Large civil engineering projects influence long-term economic development as we have seen with development taking place around our motorway junctions; the proposed Bridgwater Tidal Barrier (BTB) will influence Bridgwater’s future development in a similar way for at least the next 200 years. The Bridgwater Vision published in 2015 and referred to in the presentation  identified land for future development most of which is either now approved or starting to be built out under the local plan. Bridgwater is already reaching the limit of land that can be easily accessed from the town and the M5.

Assuming Bridgwater continues to develop economically at even half its present rate, during the design life of the BTB, an additional 25,000 houses will be built and together with land for employment and Bridgwater’s footprint will grow by around 40%.

Under the present BTB scheme low quality farmland directly beside Junction 23 that could have provided space for at least £1B of economic development, housing and jobs will be lost to the town. Alternative land over the next 100 years will need to be found and that will invariably mean development moving on to high quality agricultural to the south and west of Bridgwater. We will build on the land that feeds us whilst living ever farther from planned and established centres of employment to the north and north east of Bridgwater (Horsey). Building at Horsey will require a new bridge over the King Sedgemoor Drain; money that could be used to cross the Parrett and bring forward a much needed northern bypass.

Location

The reader should take cognisance that the two options studies done for this scheme, the first included highly improbable options such as the Bridgwater Bay power lagoon and outside the influence of the authors. The second option study looked at the same solution at a limited number of locations and would always arrive at the narrowest part of the riveras the prefered solution. It was a superficial study and lacking rigour and at the time of this note the final information used by an SDC sub group remains unpublished despite an FoI request to Sedgemoor District Council remaining outstanding.

Other options and locations to protect Bridgwater and the downstream villages were available but not considered.

Description

The Bridgwater Tidal Barrier is a 7mile long inland tidal surge flood defence scheme with a 100 year design life based on sea level rising around 800mm during this period. Similar to the current Thames Barrier it consists of a two elements.

  1. Riverbanks profiled to preferentially spill seawater, during extreme tidal surge conditions, onto farmland at Chilton Trinity and Pawlett Hams.
  2. A small double vertical floodgate barrier located in the industrial and employment Express Park area of Bridgwater and approximately 1 mile from the town centre.

The replacement Thames Barrier will be sited more conventionally at the mouth of the Thames; Combwich is Bridgwater’s equivalent location.

Key features

  1. The riverbanks are expected settle and need reconstructing every 35 years
  2. The height to which the riverbanks can be raised is limited by the poor ground conditions.
  3. Although needed no provision of any kind for a replacement is considered.
  4. Contaminates around 2400 acres of farmland with salt water
  5. Constrains economic development to the northwest of the town.
  6. Significant loss of existing freshwater habitat in line with managed realignment policy 7d39 of the Shoreline Management Plan to create an intertidal habitat.
EA DIAGRAM SHOWING SALTWATER FLOWING ONTO FARM LAND

Operation

The closure of the barrier at low tide creates a separation of the two types of water that use the River Parrett. Upstream freshwater from the Parrett and its tributaries such as the Tone; Yeo and Cam will be impounded behind the closed gates. Downstream the freshwater will finish emptying into the Severn and the then the empty river filled with seawater on the incoming tide.

All flooding shown downstream of the Bridgwater Tidal Barrier will therefore deposit salt water onto the land. This is saltwater and the impact should not be confused with the 2014 event.

The land in question at Chilton Trinity has not been flooded with salt water in this way within living memory.  Pawlett Hams was briefly flooded in the early 80’s and flooded Pawlett from the north where no flood defences are planned.

Summary

What is clear is that considerable ambiguity remains in the proposal. Many issues are simply ignored or the messages contradictory. The following summary and notes provides some comments that should be addressed.

It is disappointing that such an important scheme appears to have been given so little strategic thought whilst the barrier appearance and immediate landscaping seems to have received considerable if unsuccessful attention.

Clearly the priorities of the design and client team are not those of the ratepayers who do not need a solution where the medicine kills the patient which is what we appear to have.  

River Banks

One consistent underlying theme is that once the barrier is built the land to the north and south, Chilton Trinity and Pawlett Hams, will ultimately become intertidal habitat in line with existing published policies.

The key supporting facts are

  • The cost estimate that does not include for future riverbank reconstruction
  • Planned flooding of agricultural land with saltwater.

The claim made “Bridgwater and the surrounding area will be better protected against a severe flood by building the barrier and improving the downstream flood defences. These works will also maintain the current standard of defence to agricultural land”.is misleading to landowners indicating that farming will simply carry on as normal. With the frequency of saltwater flooding increasing the land will not support the type of grass needed for agricultural. Areas of Norfolk are still recovering from single sea water incursion 65 years ago.

Borrow Pits

No location for the pits was given, which side of the secondary flood defence. It would not be unreasonable to assume between the river bank and the secondary flood defence. A rough estimate would indicate that the scheme will need around 100,000m3 to 150,000m3 of clay creating a large open area (7-8Ha) of stagnant water that will through our now warmer summers become more saline as they will operate as a large evaporation pond. That mechanism does not allow the wildlife enhance described to occur.

Locations were shown to stakeholders but not the public

Environment

A number of claims are made regarding the lack of environmental impact that this scheme has on the ecology however changing the habitat from freshwater to saline will fundamentally change the area in line with the published strategy of changing the land to an intertidal habitat.

2,400 acres of fresh water habitat is destroyed through repeated seawater flooding.

Cost or Intention

An estimate of £94M is given in the EA presentation. Through a FoI request (03 April 2018) The EA provided an estimated whole life cost closer to £160M. That estimate assumed £12.4M Net Present Value or £55M cash cost over 100 years including for maintaining and rebuilding the riverbanks that is around 4x the value of the land. Economically this statement on maintenance costs makes funding the future bank rising impossible. If the circa £100m estimate is correct this would cover the gate maintenance and not the riverbanks. 

The expected need to rebuild the riverbanks twice in the 100-year design life is not mentioned in the presentation and the assumption must be that the intention will not become reality and would conflict with clauses 1.10.1 and 1.10.2 of SDC’s Parrett Estuary Flood Risk Management Strategy

The whole life cost of the scheme is either

  • £100M with one set of the riverbank improvements at the time the barrier is constructed.
  • £160M with three sets of the riverbank improvements including the time the barrier is constructed and subsequently at 35-year intervals after that. That must be the budget.

Did nobody ask why?

Collateral Impact

This scheme is presented at completion in 2024 and looks only at immediate local impacts.  Construction will have immediate and long term wider negative consequences for Bridgwater none of which have been raised or addressed despite written assurances that that would not be the case.

Economic Impacts

  • Loss of 1400 acres of key land suitable for £1B of economic investment for housing and industry that is directly accessible to Junction 23.
  • Creation of a working flood plain over which a potential bypass might need to be constructed.
  • Increasing separation of housing from employment by forcing development elsewhere.
  • Loss of economic food production on prime agricultural land
  • The loss of in existing land values of around £12m and potential bankruptcies where the land is used to secure business loans.

Environment Impacts

  • Destroys 2400 acres of fresh water habitat through deliberate seawater flooding initially during extreme tidal events but ultimately becoming within the normal tidal range.
  • Forces development to take place on high quality agricultural land to the south and west of Bridgwater.
  • Forces apart residential and employment areas with a consequent long term cost to the economy and the environment.
  • Places increased demand on the A38, A39 and Kings Drive as industrial development is forced east to Horsey and to the approved BAE industrial site.

Barrier Superstructure

The barrier superstructure is 2 to 2.5 times higher than it needs to be and lacks any shape that reflects its functionality. It achieves the rare combination of being both pretentious and mediocre. With a structural volume that must be four times what could be reasonably required to support its function it is bloated, unnecessarily expensive and will be difficult and expensive to maintain. Overhanging shapes require specialist access equipment for maintenance. Everything on the structure seems designed to cost more than is necessary. Its appearance seems to owe more to Mr Blobby and the Teletubbies than the Falkirk Wheel, it doesnt do anything like the Falkirk Wheel so hardly a tourist attraction.

The very large ovoid bridge structure will be particular difficult to maintain, it will be almost impossible for safe inspection of the lower quadrants to be made or worked upon. The form of the structure indicates little attention appears to have been taken with regard to the Construction, Design and Management 2015 regulations with regard to the safe operation and maintenance

The poor design of this structure extends to the gates, rather than protect the gates from the salt loaded wind driven rain, the site is classed as a marine environment, rain will be spilled from the ovoid bridge onto the gates increasing maintenance and reducing the life of the gates.

As a piece of architecture and a piece of engineering this structure almost certainly fails on cost, function, operator safety and buildability.

Storage Buildings are provided when the EA has a depot nearby at Bradney.

  • Did no one ask why we need additional buildings at the barrier site?
  • Presumably they would also attract rates?

Sustainability

The lack of sustainability in this project is very concerning;

The decision to excavate burrow pits to reduce construction traffic seems highly questionable. “Where possible, we will excavate material locally from ‘borrow pits’. This will minimise the need to bring in material to build the new downstream flood banks and reduce construction traffic.”

The EA was more than happy to bring excavated material from its Cannington flood project to Chilton Trinity yet the more sustainable option of building the banks over a longer period using spoil from building sites is not considered. It’s not as if the defences need to be at their final levels until the last planned rebuilding of the banks 35 years before then end of the design life. This work could be done on an opportunistic basis over the next 50 years or so in a sustainable cost effective method by local contractors.

The continuing reference to 2055 that is key date in the shoreline management plan indicates thatany future raising of the river banks is unlikely to occure.

This process would also assist in maintaining accesses and local resources able to respond to urgent requirements such as a breach in the river bank.

Finally just to prove the point the EA/SDC presented on page 7 of the stakeholder presentation three images of unrelated events to support its postition.

  • West Quay collapse, an old wall collapsed when it got too much water behind it; we see thse failures alongside our roads all the time but we dont try and link them to climate change or a tidal barrier.
  • The 2014 flood was a pluvial (rain) event and the Bridgwater Tidal Barrier is not designed to mitigate a repeating event. There is clue in the word Tidal. Unfortunately many people in Bridgwater and the surrounding area believe that it is part of a pluvial flood defence scheme.
  • one was applicable
WEST QUAY & 2014 ARE NOT TIDAL EVENTS

Perhaps an SDC, Town or county councillor reading this might decide to ask some serious questions about this project, one can only hope.



Flood protection, wildlife & environment is always a one sided view.

The impact of wildlife organisations on locally managed flood projects is a concern. They seem to be free to make unsubstantiated statements whilst pursuing their objectives with little public visibility, criticism or professional oversight and it is a growing problem.  It is a situation becoming increasingly familiar and yet another example of our growing democratic deficit where minorities impose their ambitions on the majority. The Somerset  Levels,  the Parrett Estuary and Bridgwater’s need for a flood defence from the sea has brought many of these parties with their own agenda to one location each focusing on what they consider to be important. Bridgwater seems to be well down the list of importance despite the planned construction of the Bridgwater Tidal Barrier. The purpose of this article is to provide an explanation as to how this is happening.

Context

Bridgwater currently builds around 500 houses a year and if that rate continues at even half that rate for the next 100 years we could expect to see the number of houses in Bridgwater rise by 25,000 taking another 700Ha (1,700 acres) of  land for housing and a further 300Ha needed for employment. This 1,000Ha’s  will see Bridgwater’s existing footprint grow by at least 50%, The 25,000 houses and associated economic development will generate perhaps 300,000m3 of clays and soil waste.

With flat and level land needed for employment land at the old BAE site and at Horsey offer the only other viable employment options to Bridgwater and they are to the northwest. New housing will be forced onto good quality farmland south along the A38 swallowing up North Petherton and eventually meeting Taunton coming the other way and to the west developing the land between Bridgwater and Cannington. Bridgwater will consume its high value agricultural land on the hills as it, like the rest of the country, continues to build our outdated ideas of housing.

Bridgwater will therefore become an even more difficult place to live and work as the gap between residential development and employment continue to grow. Every day a large part of Bridgwater’s population will get up and drive along the A38 and A39  to get to work. Bridgwater will not even start considering a bypass until 2040.

Apart from the normal lack of imagination by planners and developer’s Sedgemoor’s (Bridgwater) greatest problem now appears to be the wildlife and flood pressure groups that seem to take an extreme view in the pursuit of what they consider to be in their interest. They show little tolerance or understanding that people also live on the Levels and in Bridgwater and ignor the EU directives that accept people must come first. The true impact of their objectives is concealed and never addressed.

These organisations also seem immune from any need to consider facts in their statements whilst criticising property developers for the smallest omission. The irony that is they now ape those same commercial organisations in assembling land and changing its use without considering its long term impact on the wider local population and  it should be lost on no one.

Some typical examples

Steart Peninsula

The local economic benefits alluded to as part of the original Steart Peninsula planning application remain unproven and therefore represent little tangible benefit to the local population yet quoted as fact by The Severn Vision statements.

The Severn Vision

The Severn Vision

This plan will expand the existing saltmarsh by 833% around the Severn Estuary and in Bridgwater’s case large areas of agricultural land removed from food production and converted from a freshwater environment to a saltwater one (intertidal habitat). To date two phases have been completed; The Steart Peninsula and the RSPB reserve (funnded by Bristol Ports) both of which remove economic activity and destroy an existing habitat to create another. A process little different from modern housing development. Whilst an argument might be made on the basis of geography for these two areas to be returned to the sea no such argument exists for the destruction of Pawlett Hams and Chilton Trinity including areas of the SSI.

This is a process promoted by the following organisations

  • Wildlife and Wetlands
  • The Wildlife Trusts
  • RSPB
  • National Trust
  • Campaign for Rural England (CPRE)
  • Severn Rivers Trust

With regard to Bridgwater it makes claims regarding carbon savings whilst ignoring the collateral effect of moving Bridgwater’s housing developments onto higher quality agricultural land and increasing commuting distances. Also ignored is the loss of food production on 5,000 acres of land and the transfer of that food production overseas. It is particularly misleading in its statements with regard to Bridgwater providing no supporting evidence as to the negative benefit that it has considered in any balanced and holistic way. It is completely one sided yet already two key elements have been delivered, Steart Peninsula  and RSPB  reserve. The Bridgwater Tidal Barrier will deliver the southern land at Chilton Trinity and Pawlett Hams .

Bridgwater Tidal Barrier

The Environment Agency and Sedgemoor District Council’s Dec 2018 public consultation made a claim with regard to the lack of any environmental impact of this scheme. The EA and SDC have not considered environmental impacts beyond the immediate area of the scheme despite this scheme  imposing restrictions on economic development forcing residential development to the south and west of Bridgwater and employment to the northwest of the town.

It is worth noting that HPC looked at issues far beyond the immediate area of the power plant when it did its enviromental impact assessment.

Environmental Impact Statement

This statement above  cannot be true as

  1. Seawater is shown overtopping the river banks onto the existing farmland, the fact that it is seawater is misleading.
  2. The farmland at Chilton Trinity and Pawlett Hams will be poisoned for agriculture through the introduction of saltwater
  3. The existing wildlife that requires a freshwater environment will be destroyed.
  4. The location of the borrow pits, which side of the secondary flood defence, was not shown. The plan to excavate 100,000m3 of material will create a lake of nearly 13 acres that  will act as a reservoir for saltwater.
  5. 1,400 acres of high quality farmland suitable will be unnecessarily developed invariable towards North Petherton and Cannington as this scheme will convert  1,400 acres of low quality farmland that could have been used to saltmarsh.
  6.  100 years of lost food production on 2400 acres of farmland.
  7. 100,000m3 of clay will be unnecessarily excavated from the  land  being protected whilst during the same period 300,000m3 will be produced as waste through normal housing and industrial construction activities. (the secondary flood defences do not need to be completed to the full height during intial construction
  8. Denying economic development in the north-west will increase commuting efforts in the local community generating avoidable C02; the scheme ensures the increased separation of employment areas from housing.

The claims regarding this scheme are questionable at best and the lack of information misleading at worse. The extract from the EA/SDC public display  indicates a plan to create a  stepping-stones for species that are not identified.

Campaign for Rural England (CPRE)

The CPRE’s support for The Severn Vision that results in the wholesale destruction of a large area of our existing productive landscape and the equivalent of 10 500 acre farms is not what we imagined their core mission to be that says

“We campaign for a beautiful and living countryside. We work to protect, promote and enhance our towns and countryside to make them better places to live, work and enjoy, and to ensure the countryside is protected for now and future generations.”

How allowing saltwater (seawater) onto productive farmland that has taken 500 years to remove the salt from seems a strange way  of protecting our countryside.

Somerset’s Wild Trust (SWT)

Another supporter of The Severn Vision.

Somerset’s Wild Trust’s  website says

Since the 2013-14 flooding events, the dominant narrative in the floodplains has focussed on hard engineering schemes and dredging to reduce flood risk, overlooking flood risk reduction techniques that work with nature and provide a range of benefits to society. A future is developing where more public money will be spent on fossil fuel intensive dredging and pumping, to further drain the peat soils of the Levels, thus releasing more carbon and exacerbating climate change. As peat is drained, it shrinks, lowering land height and making the area ever more vulnerable to extreme weather. Well-informed debate on the future of Somerset’s low-lying areas in the face of rising sea level is limited, so a further vital part of our work on the Levels is to communicate a more optimistic narrative which gives nature its proper value.

This statement ignores that the Somerset Level’s is an artificial environment that needs regular maintenance and seems to conflate the need to dredge Somerset’s rivers and the need to get pluvial flows from the upper Parrett catchment areas to the sea bypassing the levels storage with an idea that somehow this process is designed to shrink the peat. “A future is developing where more public money will be spent on fossil fuel intensive dredging and pumping, to further drain the peat soils of the Levels, thus releasing more carbon and exacerbating climate change” is a particularly spurious and misleading statement. It sounds like people are secretly pumping water off the levels as some sort of conspiracy.

Anyone with any knowledge of the Levels would know that retaining water levels is just as important to the Levels as draining them. No one is going to drain the peat. Well informed debate requires informed knowledge and that is clearly not the case with this statement by the SWT.

FLAG Flooding on the Levels Action Group

FLAG reflects its single issue origins seemingly taking its position on Somerset’s farming industry geographically from the lands relationship to Moorland and what is best for Moorland.

A post (Nov 2018) supporting Somerset’ s farming industry on the Levels was made by FLAG making Brexit the largest threat to farmers in anticipation of a nonexistent trade deal with the US; no doubt the cause of the 2014 flood and global warming will in time also be subscribed to Brexit.

FLAG’s postion downstream of Moorland at Chilton Trinity and Pawlett Hams is quite different.  Flag is altogther less compasionate regarding the farmers there having their land flooded with saltwater to alleviate upstream flooding. Concern is  simply dismissed by a statement worthy of Marie Antoinette “let them raise salt beef or lamb”. It  completely ignores  that the Bridgwater Tidal Barrier has already destroyed  land values for 2,400 acres of land and food production we might  have gained. Reverse nimbyism seems to apply; as long the flooding is on someone else’s land FLAG appears to be happy whilst refuses even the smallest tacit support  for or willingness to consider alternatives tht might have a better outcome for the wider community.

Conclusion

Whilst our wildlife organisations may have started with good intentions what is clear is that many people associated with these organisations simply don’t understand the mechanisms of the Somerset Levels, the impact of what they propose (The Severn Vision)  and in most cases don’t care if it doesn’t suit their agenda. They fail to consider that ultimately the economy pays for everything and destroying local economies will ultimately call into question the viability of protecting our environment; the ratepayer maintains the roads used to get to our wildlife sites and will pay or make a significant financial contribution to the cost to the current planned defences and the their subsequent replacements. A case of shooting the goose that lays the Golden Egg of in this case chasing away industry and people.

It is clear that many organisations support the existing proposals to turn the Parrett Estuary into a saltmarsh. The  decision by SDC and the EA not to commission an economic impact assessment has allowed those organisations and the Environment Agency to  create the worst possible long term economic future as there is no assessment mechanism other than the government  investment rules to measure the value of this scheme.  Allowing the  undermining Somerset’s agricultural industry, wasteful development and not working towards an integrated low energy society is not what we should be doing.