Northumberland pioneering flood defence scheme picks up award

As the Environment Agency completes its flood defence scheme in Belford, Northumberland, we ask about its plans for the future

The Belford natural flood defences
The Belford natural flood defences

An article printed several years ago under the headline ‘Sandbags and sympathy not enough for Belford residents’ summed up the feelings of people living in the village following five surges in just two years.

At the time Berwick councillor Geoff O’Connell told the Berwick Advertiser: “The situation here is totally unacceptable. People in Belford have suffered years of damage and their lives and livelihoods are being ruined.”

Much of the press attention focused on the villagers’ plight and the inadequacies to solve the problem.

However, following the deluge in 2007, a low cost system - which harnessed the natural landscape to combat flooding - was pioneered in the town.

Creating the natural flood defence scheme in Belford
Creating the natural flood defence scheme in Belford

Following a five-year trial the findings were presented to the Government to feed into its Environment White Paper.

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

And, as the Environment Agency was hit with a 25% funding cut for repairs of flood defence structures in the North East, it had to decide where to reduce maintenance and where to stop it altogether, with rural areas bearing the brunt.

In Belford, which has a population of less than 2,000 people, it was “back to nature” and a flood defence scheme costing just £300,000, was rolled out.

And as the project - a result of a research project by Newcastle University and the Environment Agency - is finished it has now been recognised as pioneering worldwide.

A natural flood defence scheme is launched in Belford
A natural flood defence scheme is launched in Belford

The Belford strategy uses 45 features 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.

Phil Welton, flood risk manager in the North East for the Environment Agency, explains: “With a natural system like this we don’t get the same standard of protection but what we are doing is stopping frequent flooding.

“Civil Engineering schemes have limited funding and will only justify so much money in rural areas.

“And the scheme in Belford has carried so much interest since we introduced it - not only in this country but around the world.

“Around 300 people have visited the scheme. We’ve had people up from Kent following the flooding down there, groups from Nigeria and New Zealand and representatives from the Swedish Board of Agriculture.”

There is a history of flooding in Belford with records dating from 1877 and the project focused on Belford Burn and land upstream of the settlement.

The Belford natural flood defences
The Belford natural flood defences

And so, employees worked to stop oncoming water upstream to prevent flooding downstream where it would hit properties.

Methods included creating bunds – 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.

They also created 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.

Other methods included using logs and branches across streams to drain the energy from rushing water. Logs were also used in the flood plain to have the same effect.

Diverting water from streams into ponds was also used.

Mr Welton said: “These new ways to reduce flooding will have a massive impact on people’s lives and it was great that we were able to implement something like this.”

The Belford natural flood defences
The Belford natural flood defences

In order to create the pioneering scheme, which began in 2008, a grant of £600,000 was provided by the Regional Flood and Coastal Committee but the scheme only cost £300,000 to roll out.

And just recently, the Belford Flood Management Scheme picked up a Robert Stephenson Award for using a small ‘feature’ rather than a dam.

The citation of the award read: “The Belford Natural Flood Management scheme was the first in the UK to demonstrate a new approach to managing flood risk; storing and slowing the flow in the catchment using many small ‘features’ rather than an expensive barrier or a formal flood storage solution.”

Following the success in Belford it is now hoped similar projects can be rolled out across the rest of the North East.

Mr Welton added: “We had a big problem in Belford and we didn’t have the evidence that the project was going to work.

“It was a leap of faith by the committee. We knew it would have some benefit but we didn’t know how much.”

However, following the victory plans are now getting underway to implement the scheme in Lustrum Beck, in Stockton. Similar work has also gone ahead in Netherton, in Northumberland, and Acomb, also in Northumberland.

The system might not have the makings of a multi-million pound defence scheme, like the one rolled out in Morpeth after the serious flooding there. But one thing is certain, the Environment Agency has come along way since ‘sandbags and sympathy’ in Belford.

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