How an ancient town was ruined by worst flood for 45 years

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The Independent Online

The ancient market town of Morpeth in Northumberland was the worst hit by the weekend's torrential downpours. A month's rain fell on the area in a single day, causing the river Wansbeck to burst its banks and engulf the town in two feet of filthy water.

Yesterday, the floodwaters had almost subsided as residents began to clean up, reflecting on how the foaming waters of the Wansbeck were able to cause such devastation to about 1,000 properties.

It was not the first time Morpeth had flooded. Serious damage was caused to 500 homes and businesses by a deluge in 1963. But the fact that new houses were built on the Wansbeck's flood plain, combined with the severe storm and flaws in the town's flood defences, contrived to bring about Morpeth's worst flood for a century.

Location of housing

Morpeth, the county town of Northumberland, is 20 minutes drive north of Newcastle and has been an important settlement since Norman times, with its weekly market established for more than 800 years.

Several houses along the banks of the Wansbeck date back to the 14th century, but many buildings near the town's main thoroughfare, Bridge Street, were built in the 1970s and 1980s – after the town was devastated by a flood in 1963.

The Environment Agency is strongly opposed to building on flood plains, which puts properties at constant risk of flooding. Building in these areas can also damage a river's natural drainage ground and push floodwater further downstream.

Of the 1,062 properties sited on the flood plain, only 62 escaped the destruction inflicted by the rising Wansbeck at the weekend.

Planning permission for new construction has been tightened significantly over the past two years and Environment Agency concerns are considered much more carefully by local authorities. But this more cautious approach has come far too late for residents of Morpeth.

Flood defences

Morpeth has some protection from flood defences built after the events of 1963. But these were designed only to cope with river levels reaching the same height as they did in 1963. When the Wansbeck swelled at the weekend, the floodwater simply flowed over the top of the defences, which were not high enough to hold back the volume of water.

Computer models now allow engineers to consider the impact of floods of varying severity when designing flood defences, and to set the height of new barriers accordingly. Morpeth has shot up the Environment Agency's priority list for new defences, but unfortunately for those who have lost vehicles and treasured possessions, work is only likely to begin by 2010 at the earliest.

Changing climate

A month's rain fell on the town in 24 hours. The intensity of the downpour that pelted the north-east of England on Friday and Saturday led John Healey, the Floods Recovery Minister, to admit Britain was experiencing far more intense and severe weather than it did in previous generations. However, the Meteorological Office in London said climate change could not be yet be blamed for the weekend's severe storms, because the consequences of global warming would not become clear for several years.

Last night, Morpeth residents were bracing themselves for more bad weather, as forecasters predicted the region could be hit by a second deluge today.

Reaction from authorities

Some residents have complained that Castle Morpeth Borough Council was slow to set recovery efforts in motion. Householders complained that special pillows they were given by the council to soak up water simply floated away from their doorways.

Councillor Nic Best admitted: "People here are very angry and it is not surprising that they are looking for someone to blame, be it the council or their insurance company. Our emergency plan has gone very well but that does not stop the events of the weekend being a disaster for those who have seen their homes flooded."

Mr Healey, who visited the town yesterday to assess the damage, said the Government would provide emergency aid to meet the costs of the clear-up.

Flood alerts

ANGLIA

*River Ouse: At Newport Pagnell

MIDLANDS

*River Trent: Between Yoxall and Drakelow

*River Severn: At Shrewsbury, from Worcester to Tewkesbury, Tewkesbury to Gloucester, Buildwas to Coalport, Bevere to Powick

NORTH EAST

*River Derwent: At Buttercrambe Mill and Stamford Bridge

*Cock Beck: At Stutton

*River Ouse: At Acaster Selby, Fulford, Kelfield, Naburn Lock and across York, pictured

*River Swale: At Helperby, Kirby Wiske and Myton on Swale

WALES

*River Wye: At Monmouth

*Lower Dee Valley: From Llangollen to Chester

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