Investment and planning tames the river Thames

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The Independent Online

The swirling waters of the River Thames had reached the foot of the steps to Tegwynne Metcalfe's backdoor by yesterday lunchtime but - unlike almost every other riverside location in flood-battered Britain - there was not a sandbag to be seen.

The swirling waters of the River Thames had reached the foot of the steps to Tegwynne Metcalfe's backdoor by yesterday lunchtime but - unlike almost every other riverside location in flood-battered Britain - there was not a sandbag to be seen.

Like the rest of her neighbours in the sedate surroundings of Walton-on-Thames, Ms Metcalfe was last night benefiting from the knowledge that England's longest river is also what flood engineers proclaim as one of the least likely to catastrophically burst its banks.

People living in inundated towns from York to Shrewsbury have battled for the past 10 days to reinforce their defences against the ever-rising deluge.

But the issuing by the Environment Agency yesterday of flood warnings along high-risk stretches of the Thames provoked few signs of panic among riverside dwellers.

The Government's flood watchdog had by 8am placed flood warnings - its middle category of alert - on a Thameside stretch of the Home Counties running from Henley to Teddington, a suburb less then 10 miles from central London.

Despite heavy overnight rainfall comparable to that seen in Sussex and Wales, both struck by renewed flooding, the river had risen by between 6 inches and a foot.

Ms Metcalfe, an architect, chose her riverside home two years ago in the full knowledge that she could expect her garden to disappear under the waters at least once a year. Surveying her back yard with her lawnmower under 10 inches of water, she said: "I am told that the river has almost never come into the houses despite the fact that we are right on its banks. I suppose its an example of flood defences working. It makes me feel very sorry for people who live hundreds of yards from a river as in York and yet they still get flooded out."

Just a few miles from Ms Metcalfe's waterlogged garden, signposted with a plaque reading "to the swimming pool", lies an example of the kind of investment that thas helped tame the 210 miles of the Thames.

The Environment Agency will by this time next year have nearly finished its most expensive inland floods defence scheme yet - a £90 million dyke running parallel to the Thames between such prestigious locations as Windsor and Eton.

Nine years in its planning and execution, the bureaucratically named Maidenhead-Windsor-Eaton Flood Relief Scheme will safeguard 5,500 homes along its 11.6 kilometre length by effectively providing a second Thames besides the real one, putting in place the giant equivalent of a bathroom sink overflow for some of the river's most flood-prone towns.

Project Manager for the Environment Agency, Roger Powling, said: "The channel is two-thirds of the width of the Thames and the idea is that it will carry the excess water that the river cannot handle.

This feat of engineering is simply the latest in a long trail of investment to keep the Thames Valley and, crucially, London dry. Close to the Millenium Dome is the Thames Barrier, a £500 million tidal wall completed in 1982 to stop the sea inundating the capital.

Such a formidable array of defences inevitably begs the question of why the Thames and its wealthy south-east towns have been allowed to stay relatively dry while the rest of the country reaches for its wellington boots.

Mr Powling believes such under-investment elsewhere in the country highlights the need for a change of direction in the nation's flood defence preparations. Flooding, of course, still happens on the Thames, but serious flooding of thousands of homes such as that seen along the River Ouse and the River Servern in recent days remains a largely theoretically risk.

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