Pioneering Northumberland flood defence scheme proves a big success

A pioneering Northumberland project has used back to nature flood defences to great success

Paul Quinn from Newcastle University checks out the new flood defence on farmland near Belford
Paul Quinn from Newcastle University checks out the new flood defence on farmland near Belford

A low cost system which harnesses the natural landscape to combat flooding has been pioneered in Northumberland.

Results of the five-year trial at Belford have now been presented to the Government to feed into its Environment White Paper.

Increased flooding is becoming a major issue as extreme weather events and heavy winter rainfall become more common, in line with climate change predictions.

But, as reported in The Journal last week, the Environment Agency has been hit with a 25% funding cut for repairs of flood defence structures in the North East and is having to decide where to reduce maintenance or stop altogether, with rural areas bearing the brunt.

But the Belford “back to nature” flood defence scheme has cost just £200,000 – compared to the £2.5m cost of building a suggested floodwater storage reservoir.

The Belford project is the result of a research project by Newcastle University and the Environment Agency.

And the university’s Dr Paul Quinn said yesterday that the Belford experiment had showed that the approach was a key part of future strategies to cope with flooding – especially for smaller rural communities.


It involves using many features – around 40 in the case of Belford - throughout the landscape to slow down and hinder the rush of flood water from the land and from swollen streams, rather than one large scale and dominant structure.

There is a history of flooding in Belford with records dating from 1877. The project focused on Belford Burn and land upstream of the settlement. Capturing oncoming water upstream prevents flooding downstream where it will hit more properties and infrastructure.

“In storms we were seeing walls of water coming off the land. We wanted to create a traffic jam to stop this,” said Dr Quinn.

This was achieved by:

* Overland flow interception, which involves the creation of a bund – a soil, wood or stone barrier - across a flow path to create storage, usually in fields and open land. These “leaky” features are designed to drain slowly.

* Creating barriers from natural materials in drainage ditches and streams to slow water flow. Often, widening drainage ditches is inexpensive and also creates a sediment trap and new ecological habitats.

* Using logs and branches across streams to drain the energy from rushing water. Logs are also used in the flood plain to have the same effect.

*Diverting water from streams into ponds which act as temporary storage . A plastic pipe allows the ponds to drain slowly.

Dr Mark Wilkinson, research leader and guest lecturer at Newcastle University, said: “Climate projections suggest that total rainfall during winter months will continue to rise and with it the risk of flooding.

“What we have shown at Belford is that by employing so-called soft engineering solutions to restrict the progress of water through a catchment – disconnecting fast-flow pathways and adding storage – we have been able to reduce the risk of flooding in the lower areas and, most importantly, in the town.

“Belford is not unique and there are many other areas around the UK where these solutions could make a significant impact and potentially protect homes from some of the more severe flooding we are seeing at the moment.”

Dr Quinn, based in the university’s school of civil engineering and geosciences, said: “When we started this project people thought that we were mad. We had to prove it works.

“One of the main reasons why the Belford scheme has been such a success is because we’ve had the support of the community and local landowners behind us,” said Dr Quinn, who has carried out a second scheme at Netherton Burn in Northumberland.

“There is no single solution to flooding – no silver bullet – but what the Belford scheme has shown us is what can be achieved with local support and a thorough understanding of the land and the local environment.

“There are many ways of tackling flooding and this is an extra addition to the armoury.”


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