Christchurch, Cockermouth, on a sticky Monday evening, and tensions are definitely running high. Not unlike the gravel.
His own pre-presentation, warm-up man, Andy Brown – from the Environment Agency – tells a great tale about his father being a man of the church. Growing up, Andy recalls, his father would stand pretty much where he stands now, facing the assembled masses [no doubt hanging on his every word, as we do], every Sunday and Wednesday. Not for me thought the young Andy, you’d never get me up there. And yet here he now is, up by the lectern, surrounded by the paraphernalia of worship, pop-up displays and digital screens which no one can read. (Or is that just me?)
Anyway, he’s off to a flying start. The crowd chuckles and nods appreciatively. It’s a very dry report – sorry, ‘draft’ report – but ‘we DO get the misery’, says Andy. Don’t think we don’t understand. There’s only so many times you can use the word ‘extraordinary’, he adds, in terms of rainfall, before asking ‘Is this the new baseline?’ Oh he’s good. We’re on his side now. He’s one of us. He understands.
Cockermouth, the report admits, is ‘highly prone to flooding’, with fifteen floods recorded since detailed records began in 1761. This is due to the natural topography of the area, with the Cocker and the Derwent meeting smack in the middle of town. Most recent flooding occurred in 2005, 2008, 2009 and then last December. ‘Sad to say,’ says Andy, ‘the risk will continue. We cannot eliminate it’.
The flood defences built after the 2009 floods, we hear, did not fail but ‘were overwhelmed’ (which strikes me as something of an exercise in semantics), partly due to the sustained rainfall of previous weeks and the saturated ground. We’ve heard that one a few times.
Part one of the presentation delivered, the questions begin. And not everyone it seems, is seduced by all that classic mind-stuff. (I should say, by the way, that it’s not Andy per se – he genuinely does seem a nice enough chap, doing his best to work within very tight parameters. No, it’s the Environment Agency, the government, the vagaries of the British weather. And, unfortunately for Andy, he’s the messenger.)
Several older ladies and gentlemen recall the rivers and becks of their childhood being dredged every year of gravel and woody debris. One gentleman goes off at a slight tangent talking about fish but the crowd is indulgent. He’s lived here longer than most. He knows from experience what it is to live in a flood town.
Another asks whether fish are more important than people, citing this as a given reason for not dredging (mentions of the EU pepper the evening), to which Andy replies – quite firmly, I thought – ‘People first. No argument’.
A lady from Rubby Banks (if you’re reading this, I apologise for not catching your name) says that, post-2009 floods, she and her neighbours were repeatedly told that gravel deposits were an ‘urban myth’. On more than one occasion, she says, the devices on the Cocker which are intended to measure silt and gravel levels, were completely silted up, ergo giving faulty readings. And, if the instruments are inaccurate, how can the data produced from them not be inaccurate too? She implores Andy and the EA to listen to the local people, with local knowledge.
Another lady notes that Andy looks a little uncomfortable when gravel removal is mentioned. The Environment Agency checked the levels last summer, she said, yet we still flooded – should the levels which trigger a response not be reassessed?
She may have hit a nerve with the gravel thing because it isn’t long after this that Andy declares himself open to as many more ‘questions about gravel’ as we like. Only a teensy hint of exasperation. Tempting fate.
Then the ground shifts away from gravel for a moment as Councillor Alan Smith makes a good point about the small water course which had exacerbated the major flooding in Braithwaite in December. We have two such courses in Cockermouth, he says – Tom Rudd Beck and Bitter Beck – with a lot of debris and ‘rubbish’ in them. We need to do something about them too. Hurrah for Tom Rudd Beck – mentioned at last!
A chap behind me asks about ‘all these new developments’ which are ripping out trees and hedgerows (the presence of which can slow potential floodwater before it heads downstream) but he was quickly cut down himself. The EA, we are told, doesn’t have the power to stop developers but can only advise local authorities (and look where that got us up at Strawberry How). Andy also seems to suggest that the developer at Strawberry How is doing more than they are legally obliged to do. Hmmm.
‘Why do we keep building on flood plains?’ queries another. Which so bothers one gentleman he has to leave the room temporarily after heckling: ‘Because people need homes!’ He returns later to redeem himself with a question about lessons. What had the EA learned after 2009 – if anything? And 2015? Or were we going to be stood in this church again, months, years down the line, having the same conversation?
Someone mentions the drains. Houses are flooding which never flooded previously, and not just because the defences channelled the rising waters towards them. Andy agrees – ‘surcharge’ is a problem.
He finally cracks on the gravel front. We could never have dredged the rivers and becks to sufficient depth to have stopped the flooding in December, he says, more than once. And with some emphasis. But my note-taking gets lost somewhere in amongst the cubic capacities and metric depths.
And Gote Bridge. My oh my, if Gote Bridge had ears, they’d be burning. The flood relief arches and flood relief channels, put in place back in the 1930s, are now well and truly clogged up, despite being protected by English law. Yet, when informed of this in 2009, the Environment Agency appeared not to know anything about this flood-relief system. Sterling work has been done on this factor alone, by Adrian Goldstein, whose house sits right next to the bridge. (So passionate is he about the whole topic, he’s even offered his house up to the EA to allow room for the works. Or that’s what I think he said).
We need a single span bridge, says someone else. What about EU funding? asks another. But Andy won’t be drawn. Yes, the bridge is a contributory factor. But it’s not a ‘silver bullet’, only part of the picture. Damn. (Pardon the pun!)
The good news, says Andy, is that the Environment Agency is committed to repairing everything before the next flood season starts. (Glancing round at the facial expressions immediately around me, I’m not entirely sure this is a comfort!) And they WILL be removing gravel. To a degree. And many of the points raised will be addressed and incorporated into the final report, out later this year. So, here’s hoping, eh?
I have to leave the meeting before Adrian has finished his passionate presentation about the flood-relief system, with no sign of any ebb in the tide of feeling. A glass of wine awaits. And I suspect, if he is a drinking man, that Andy too may well have later reached for a refreshing something. Not easy, being the messenger.