Why we need a forum based on evidence and transparancy
We are West Oxford residents who have experienced flooding in our homes in 2007 and witnessed sudden frightening surges from the river flooding in our back gardens, river, and streams out of a clear sky. Obviously, we very much want a flood scheme. But we also want the best possible scheme. The major reason for greatly increased flooding is climate breakdown caused by carbon emissions and the loss of biodiversity and green space. As many Oxford citizens are aware, Oxford’s green spaces and much of its green belt are increasingly compromised by ongoing development. If flood protection severely reduces our biodiversity and adds to our loss of green space, do we create a vicious circle of still worse flooding than we are liable to now? How can we balance flood protection and the environment?
The Environment Agency submitted a flood scheme in 2018, running from above the Botley Rd for five kilometres down to Kennington Bridge:
Then the bridge, a crucial pinch point at the Southern end of the scheme, was found to be at risk of collapse and there has been a two-year wait while the County Council repaired it. The EA now expect to submit their revised £150+ million scheme ‘sometime this winter’. Unless they have greatly reduced their 200 plus Compulsory Purchase Orders on groups and individuals’ lands, businesses, and gardens that they plan to take for the scheme, there should then follow a Public Enquiry to examine the rights of those who are subject to the Compulsory Purchase Orders before the scheme can start. So now is a good time to become aware of the issues and to watch to see if the new scheme resolves any of them. The EA has made some shifts in its planning and language in response to public concern: it now speaks of ‘lowering the flood plain’ rather than excavating a channel of up to 250 metres wide, for instance. But the EA’s idea of extensive scooping out of the ancient flood meadows of West Oxford is likely to remain central to their plan.
These meadows constitute nationally important, irreplaceable, centuries old biodiversity (known as MG4a grassland). They cannot be translocated according to leading experts in the field. They massively absorb and hold carbon and can function as seed banks for the mending of our damaged biosphere through regenerative farming methods. They are a national treasure and a resource for the future- and only some four-square miles of grassland of anything near this quality remain in the Thames Valley. Indeed, West Oxford has a significant proportion of the very small amount of surviving MG4a grassland in Britain as a whole. The meadows here are at least a thousand years old. Now weather patterns are breaking down, could natural flood relief measures and whole-catchment solutions give us more flexible and more resilient flood relief than a large ecologically destructive scooping out of the ancient flood plains? And, compared with all the less environmentally destructive embankments, bunds, and other flooding defences in the scheme, is the huge channel or ‘flood plain lowering’ worth it?
We recognise that the EA has a difficult job to do given its duty to protect us from flooding. We are grateful for the many less invasive measures they have taken to protect our homes, which worked well in the 2014 flood. We also respect the voluntary Oxford Flood Alliance who have lobbied and advised on the scheme from the householder’s viewpoint. However, we also feel the climate crisis creates a new context for reconsidering the scheme. Both in terms of increased flood risks and biodiversity loss.
We invited the EA to the public meeting, but they declined as they are preparing their submission for the new planning application. We invited the Oxford Flood Alliance, but they also refused, saying that ‘Oxford Flood Alliance is a member of the Sponsoring Group for [the EA’s scheme] and as such does not have [a separate opinion] on the scheme’. Another relevant body, Oxford Preservation Trust who own Hinksey Meadow could not attend the meeting because of the Son et Lumiere event they were running at Oxford Castle. They have told us they welcome our interest as they are concerned about the fate of the now extremely rare and precious MG4 grasslands and are taking the forthcoming EA application very seriously.
The EA rightly claims to have responded to many questions during the scheme’s long evolution, but their responses are not always clear: for instance, there is still no clear answer as to to why the EA says it is a ‘scheme for 100 years’ when its maintenance funding extends for 10-15 years. Or an answer to the question of whether 100-year planning remains relevant or even possible when climate crisis effects are rapidly spiralling out of control and beyond prediction. Might a nimbler and more flexible scheme be needed for the future we face?
We therefore sought out independent experts willing and able to give their knowledge and time to the meeting. IF it’s really the case that we and following generations must lose West Oxford’s landscapes and environment and the green spaces we love and use to increase protection of our homes, we need to know exactly why and why that is offered as the only solution. How much protection? For how long? In exchange for how much destruction? We need – and have the right- to know.
The inaugural meeting therefore aimed at information and knowledge, rather than argument. We see ourselves as a forum to encourage debate and transparency so we can make informed decisions. The meeting fulfilled its goal of gaining context and information about the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme and the possibility of less destructive options, and we remain deeply grateful to all the experts who generously both shared their knowledge at the meeting and have also given permission to put versions of the presentations on this website. These are short, readable, and informative, whether you have been long concerned about flood relief or are new to finding out about it.
A Flood Scheme Fit for Purpose?
These presentations raise very worrying issues about the design, consequences, and economics of the EA scheme in its most recent public iteration, and even more concerning questions about how much increased flood protection its most expensive and destructive element- the scooping out of some 700,000 tons of West Oxford flood plain meadows- will actually give.
The Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme will facilitate land for residential and other development by allowing for re-zoning of land currently deemed part of the flood plain, particularly in Osney Mead Industrial Estate. As Oxford City Council develops its Economic Strategy and Delivery Plan, it’s even more important we take a hard look at the flooding impact of any development and the efficacy of a flood alleviation scheme conceived before a Climate Emergency. Oxford is built on a flood plain on a gravel bed so the hydrology is unpredictable. Summers will be hotter and drier with the probability of heatwaves every other year by 2050 but with more extreme rainfall events with a greater frequency and severity of surface water flooding. So, there is an increased risk of drought and flash-flooding, prioritising the need for water harvesting as well as flood prevention. Winters will be warmer and wetter with river flows projected to rise by at least 30%. Any flood alleviation scheme needs to take account of the complexity of climate change and geography. If Oxford increases its built environment by at least a third as is envisaged in current plans and there is more development upstream, how will the city cope? The current proposals don't even mention flood alleviation.
Climate Change Predictions 2061-80
Increase of Drier Summers
3.6 - 5 C
Large increase in intensity of rain fall and flash floods
Summer Heat Waves every other year by 2050
Potential water shortages
Increase in Wetter Winters, river flow and flood risk