Is the Thames Barrier overwhelmed? The winter storms saw it close for the 50th time this winter


Environment Editor


The Environment Agency is investigating the operation of the Thames Barrier after it breached the recommended annual limit of 50 closures for the first time this winter, The Independent has learnt.

The frequency of closures has raised concerns that so much time is being spent opening and closing the gates that there is not enough left for routine maintenance and the agency’s investigation is in response to a request from London Mayor Boris Johnson.

When it was designed in the 1970s it was envisaged that it would only need to close once or twice a year, but the barrier was shut 28 times last month alone as record amounts of winter rainfall and rising sea levels have tested the system well beyond what was initially envisaged.

So far, the barrier has coped comfortably with the extra pressure, protecting 1.2m people and £200bn worth of property, but experts warn that the system could be threatened if the elevated level of closures continues in the coming years.

“It’s a real threat that ultimately could get in the way. If the number of closures keeps being over 50 every year we will not be able to maintain it properly,” warned David Wilkes, who was the Environment Agency’s manager for the Thames Barrier between 1994 and 2000 and is now associate director of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management.

Maintaining the barrier is a full-time job, with most staff operating on a typical 37-hour week, and a skeleton staff operating around the clock to keep an eye on things. The process of closing the barrier – from making the decision, physically shutting it, waiting for high tide to come and go and re-opening it - takes eight or 10 hours, he said.

“While the staff are working away on this, they can’t be doing tests, diagnostics and other maintenance work. You can’t then ask them to do their day job – you’ve got to send them home to rest so that they can come back the next day,” Mr Wilkes said. Other maintenance tasks include replacing seals, lubricating bearings, painting, and testing pumps and other operating equipment.

Mr Wilkes said it was too early to tell if this winter was a blip, or a sign of things to come, but says the Thames Barrier, which opened in 1982, could be seen as a barometer of a changing weather trend that looks set to continue.

“What is most scary is that we are getting more storms, more surge than we foresaw 10 or 20 years ago – let alone 40 years ago when the barrier was being designed and built,” he said.

The Green Party representative on the London Assembly, Jenny Jones, said: “Whilst the barrier has performed superbly in protecting London, the unprecedented frequency of closures in recent months should serve as a wake-up call.”

“The original designs did not take into account the impacts of climate change or protecting parts of west London from river flooding. That is why we need a review now,” she added.

Last week, Ms Jones asked Mr Johnson at Mayor’s question time whether he wanted to see a review of the Thames Barrier in the light of the unprecedented level of closures.

“The answer is yes, I do want a review of the Thames Barrier. It is absolutely fascinating how it has functioned in the last few months and how it has saved huge potential damage in London, in ways that I don’t think its authors thought or conceived of,” Mr Johnson replied.

“In view of the many times it has been in operation and continues to be in operation, over the past few weeks and months I think it is only prudent to have a full review of its operations,” Mr Johnson added.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency, which is responsible for operating the barrier, said: “Due to unprecedented weather this winter there has been a spike in the closure rate of the Thames Barrier. The Thames Barrier can operate comfortably at this closure rate.”

“The barrier protects London to a one in 1,000 year level and will continue to do so until 2070. As sea levels rise we will need to use the barrier more frequently year by year and will increase our maintenance accordingly to ensure it operates efficiently,” he added.

The Environment Agency will report the findings of its review to Mr Johnson as part of a broader briefing on the barrier at a routine Thames Estuary steering group meeting in the early summer.

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Russell Brand at an anti-austerity march in June
peopleActor and comedian says 'there's no point doing it if you're not'
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say


Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style

Company says data is only collected under 'temporary' identities that are discarded every 15 minutes

Life and Style

Some experiencing postnatal depression don't realise there is a problem. What can be done?

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Pensions Administrator

£23000 - £26000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery NurseI am currently...

KS2 Teacher

£21000 - £34000 per annum + Excellent rates of pay, CPD, Support : Randstad Ed...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse required for ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album