Agenda item

Petition for Debate - River Thames Scheme Funding

The Constitution provides for a maximum time of 30 minutes to debate petitions; this can be overruled at the Mayor’s discretion.


In accordance with the Constitution, the order of speaking shall be as follows:


a) The Mayor may invite the relevant officer to set out the background to the petition issue.

b) The Lead Petitioner to address the meeting on the petition (5 minutes maximum) c) The Mayor to invite any relevant Ward Councillors present to address the meeting. (5 minutes maximum each)

d) The Mayor to invite the relevant officer to provide any further comment.

e) The Mayor will invite all Members to debate the matter (Rules of Debate as per the Constitution apply)


Members considered the following petition:


The Council honours its commitment to partnership funding of the River Thames Scheme


Andrew Vallance, Head of Finance, explained that the full details of the petition and the council’s response were contained in the published report. It would cost the authority £1.3m per year for 50 years to fund the amount requested in the petition (£40m of additional funding for Channel 1). This would equate to an extra 2% council tax per year. Since there was no government action on the borough’s request for a flood levy, it would unfortunately remain unaffordable in the present referendum limits.


Margaret Lenton, lead petitioner, explained that she was Chairman of Wraysbury Parish Council. She was speaking with the support of the Parish councils in Datchet, Horton and Old Windsor. Mrs Lenton reminded Members of the 2014 floods when Wraysbury, Datchet and parts of Old Windsor had been inundated and lives had been put at risk. Without the help of the army lives could have been lost. Families were evacuated and others suffered flood damage. The psychological damage was still apparent and was compounded when the Environment agency (EA) put out flood warnings. Flooding on such a scale had occurred in 1894, 1947 and 2003. Significant flooding was becoming more frequent and may be a direct result of global warming. The Prime Minister at the time and Royal Borough leaders had assured residents that money was no object and the area would be protected.  The EA had done considerable work to deliver the scheme between Datchet and Teddington. If there was an alternative, the EA would not have worked on the current scheme and spent such considerable sums of money.  Having consulted with specialists, Wraysbury Parish Council was convinced there was no alternative scheme or short-term measures that would protect the village in the way the Jubilee River protected Maidenhead and Windsor.


The EA had suggested bringing in mobile flood barriers, but these would not protect all properties at risk and were opposed by residents as failing to provide adequate protection. Supporting the scheme would allow the borough to generate income by releasing land for development. Not going ahead with the scheme from Datchet to Egham had already proved detrimental as residents had had difficulty getting flood insurance. Councillors, in particular the ward councillors in Old Windsor, Datchet and Horton and Wraysbury, should understand the concerns of residents and the need for long-term protection.


Councillor Jones stated that on 16 February 2019 Councillor Dudley, then Conservative Leader, had said the Conservatives were investing millions in the River Thames Scheme (RTS) to stop flooding. There was no viable alternative to the RTS as stated in the EA Flood Risk Management Strategy Appraisal Report of August 2010. In October 2020 a report went to full Council to say the scheme was still needed but did not highlight there were no alternatives that gave the villages of Old Windsor, Datchet and Wraysbury the same protection that the borough had given to Maidenhead and Windsor. It was appalling that residents in riverside villages had been misled. There was no Plan B that would protect residents from a repeat of the 2014 situation.


Councillor Cannon stated that as a ward member for Datchet, Horton and Wraysbury, a resident in the flood plain whose property was at risk from flooding and having experienced working in the 2014 flood waters as a volunteer, flood alleviation was a personal issue as a resident. As the Lead Member for Public Protection, with the River Thames Scheme transferred to his portfolio by the previous Leader of the Council in July 2019, he was obviously in favour of funding flood alleviation. The administration was committed to the RTS and as mentioned in the paper at paragraph 2.14, as Lead Member, he was the person who had approached the Section 151 officer in July 2020 seeking a signed letter confirming the commitment to borrow the £41m, to meet the RTS steering group’s conditions to keep Channel 1 in the scheme.


Various wordings and approaches were tried but none provided the reassurance to officers that it was financially responsible to commit to borrow the amount of money without a mechanism to repay it. This was due to no firm commitment or time frame being in place for the change in legislation to allow RBWM to breach the Council Tax cap, with an additional Critical Flood Infrastructure levy. That position had not changed. The decision to exclude the channel was made by the EA and the Surrey-led RTS Sponsorship Group, as a non-reversible decision in July 2020 (against the council’s wishes). The scheme had now progressed as a two-channel scheme to the stage where it is being put forward for a Development Consent Order.


The Sponsorship Group would not agree to re-introducing Channel 1 into the scheme even if funding was identified due to the additional costs and delays it would bring to the wider scheme, but the weirs and channels of the scheme would be built to accommodate the impact of any future Channel 1 or other upstream flood alleviation schemes.


Whilst the RTS Channel was not currently a viable option in its current form, the EA was working with the council to see what other schemes were affordable and deliverable to alleviate the flood risks in Datchet, Horton, Wraysbury and Old Windsor. Bearing in mind that the RTS would not provide any protection until 2029/30 at best, it was anticipated that local schemes could be installed and start to offer protection well before then. The borough’s commitment of £10m had been ringfenced to contribute to these schemes as potential EA RTS Channel 1 funding. The EA and RBWM were also seeking other funding streams. RBWM, the EA and Councillor Cannon remained committed to work with its communities in providing deliverable flood alleviation to residents.


Councillor Knowles commented that he had a certain amount of sympathy for Councillor Cannon and recalled his role in the 2014 floods; he was as committed to the scheme as others. However, a series of promises had been made in the past, but when it came to the crunch they were not committed to. If the council decided to increase council tax by over 2% it would require a referendum. It was apparent there was leeway to establish a council tax increase above the cap by negotiation. It was a matter of priorities. It seemed that the council could commit a larger amount for a leisure centre for Maidenhead even though it was meant to be self-funding from development on the original site. This gave a worrying feeling that people’s lives and property was not as important as the opportunity to go swimming. Councillor Knowles commented that his home insurance had increased by £250 that year. It was an anxious wait for residents watching the river rise and fall each time. Even if the scheme would not be in place until 2029 it would be something to look forward to.


Councillor Larcombe commented that due to time constraints he would give a condensed version of his submission to the meeting and then publish it in full after the event. He thanked and congratulated the Chair of Wraysbury Parish Council on achieving the 1,500 names required to get the petition debated.  He also thanked those people who had added their names.


Councillor Larcombe explained that when he had been elected to the council in May 2019 he had thought his objective would simply be to see that the EA did the right job right this time.  He was unaware that the project was already fatally flawed. He was concerned that an orchestrated narrative was being used to camouflage what had actually occurred.  He had evidence that there were doubts about the partnership funding over four years ago. He had some concerns about the report.  Section 2.3 on page 81 referred to ‘the channel will be built in three sections’ but he questioned surely this was no longer the case? It was an important and long-standing proposal that now exposed the non-availability of a £50m partnership funding contribution from RBWM towards a £640m flood alleviation project that could and should have benefitted many thousands of people at risk of flooding downstream of Windsor. As a designated nationally significant infrastructure project requiring a development consent order the RTS had just lost a significant element of the programme.


Councillor Larcombe felt that the people of his ward and elsewhere had been sold down the river while the people of Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton had already benefitted from the construction of their flood alleviation scheme that was completed in 2002.  The EA had organised a sponsoring group made up of councillors and officers attending meetings in order to put the RTS funding arrangements in place.  Councillor Larcombe had requested copies of agendas and minutes late last year. He was not sure when the first meeting was but he did know that at a RTS (Datchet to Teddington) sponsoring group meeting held on 22 June 2017 at the Thames Suite, Windsor leisure centre there was not one single RBWM councillor or officer in attendance.  The minutes record that RBWM had already indicated they would be ‘unable to commit a contribution at this stage’ and that the sponsoring group were already preparing a plan b. Clearly there were doubts about the project funding even then. It appeared that the attendees at that meeting already knew what was coming and that was nearly four years ago. In his opinion this was not a covid related problem.  After the CIPFA report the new council leader apologised and promised a new era of honesty, openness, transparency, and collegiate working.  He was still waiting.


In conclusion Councillor Larcombe posed three questions:


·         When did councillors first know about the need for the £50m partnership funding contribution?

·         When did RBWM actually consider (and resolve against funding) the £50m partnership contribution? 

·         What was the council going to do about the problem and when?


Councillor Hilton stated that in order to move the issue to debate he proposed the motion in the report:


That Council notes the report and:


i) Reaffirms the commitment to delivering additional flood defence schemes for affected communities, but sadly recognises that the Council cannot fund Channel 1 as planned without flexibility over Council Tax or significant additional external funding;


ii) Reaffirms its commitment to continue to work with the Environment

Agency and other partners to maximise the benefits of its £10 million



iii) Notes that further enhancements would be possible should further

external funding be provided.


Councillor Hilton commented that he could understand that residents in the areas affected by flooding were deeply disappointed that channel 1 of the scheme was not proceeding with channels 2 and 3. He had gone to Wraysbury during the 2014 flood and witnessed the despair of residents whose homes were flooded, residents who also showed amazing resilience. He recalled that the lead petitioner, Margaret Lenton, managed with considerable authority and ability the support hub at Wraysbury Primary School offering direction to residents, council officers and the army.


As Councillor Cannon had already said the council could only afford the additional £41m required to fund channel 1 if government approved an opportunity to for the council to introduce a levy to pay the cost. This had been made clear in the paper brought to Council in September 2017 when the £41m was discussed. There was an expectation that government would deliver on its promise. Despite considerable lobbying by Councillor Cannon and Councillor Johnson, the local Members of Parliament, and others, this failed.


The Head of Finance had made it clear that the council was unable to fund the £41 million. The impact of such borrowing would be the addition of £1.3million a year to the revenue budget for 50 years. This would increase the savings already shown in the Medium-Term Financial Strategy to £5.3m in 2022/23; £4.4m in 2023/24; £4m in 24/25 and just over £6m in 2025/26. These were big numbers and significant savings would therefore be needed. In setting the 2021/22 budget there was a red line not to put Children and Adults in Social Care at risk. That priority would be continued in future which would mean savings would need to be made from discretionary services. If the council were unable to make the savings a section s144 would be issued and the government would step in to run the council, which he did not be believe would be in residents’ interest.


Councillor Johnson commented that that he had referred to an era of openness and transparency in consideration of the CIPFA report. In that spirit he explained that the council now found itself in the position that it could not afford by the time the decision was taken in July 2020, to continue with its commitments to the RTS. This was a position taken with a heavy heart. As much as he would wish to commit in cash terms, the financial position simply did not enable it to do so. It was not possible to join the scheme late without significant increased costs. The £1.3m borrowing costs was based on a £41m cost of the overall scheme, not with the costs now the scheme had further progressed. The 2% additional council tax would increase year on year putting severe pressure on all finances and would not be a financially prudent decision to make. The council was already running at the limit of increases in council tax. He remained unconvinced wholeheartedly that the council would have won a referendum with the additional 2% increase. There had been no counter proposal in the last two budgets to propose such an increase.


A Councillor Cannon had stated, the council remained committed to delivering on its carbon reduction targets; he hoped this would in some way help with the flooding issues in the borough. The council would continue to invest in flood mitigation in what it could realistically afford. He heard constant calls from all parts of the council of the need to maintain a prudent approach. In his view the scheme was the type of project that should be funded at national level. The council had lobbied for a flood levy, but this had sadly not been successful. In terms of future projects, he was firmly convinced that projects of this scale should be funded nationally rather than by local authorities decimated by Covid-19 taking on unaffordable lending. He would continue to make that clear to Ministers.


Councillor Brar thanked Mrs Lenton, Chair of Wraysbury Parish Council, for getting the petition together with 1500 signatures. Councillor Brar commented that she knew what it was like to be neglected when it came to flood defence schemes. 2014 flood data indicated that the upstream rise of the river level at Cookham was high in comparison with other weirs on this section of the Thames. The risk of flooding from Hurley to Cookham could be reduced by increasing the capacity of the weirs at Cookham. After reading the report she could see the stretch from Hurley to Cookham had been left out from the scheme and would like to know why when Cookham had just experienced floods only in February of this year. Whilst examining the BLP even the inspector had asked the council to produce a note on the Thames Flood Scheme to explain what had happened, implications and future action required. Councillor Brar also asked if the Plan should safeguard land in connection with scheme.


In Cookham the council needed to improve out of channel flood flow on the White Brook. During minor flooding the three access roads into Cookham village were inundated and then closed by the police. The village became an island with only restricted access available over the Causeway bridge on Cookham Moor. The last of the three roads into the village that flood was the A4094 over Widbrook Common. Therefore, anything that reduced the flooding of this road improved the resilience of the village. The size of the culvert on the A4094 was inadequate being on a low embankment and the size of the culvert was critical. The borough had previously commissioned a design to replace the existing small circular brick culvert with a series of box culverts thereby significantly increasing the capacity. This proposal even obtained planning permission some years ago and she asked that it be reassessed.


Councillor Tisi welcomed clarification on the council’s contributions to the scheme to date and the capital commitment going forward. In the letter to the BLP examiner the council had stated that contributions had been paid from 2015/16 and it said the same in the report today, and that there was a shortfall in the amount required to be paid by the council and the amount that could be afforded. It suggested £10m-£11m of contributions had been paid. Paragraph 2.5 of the report said contributions had been made towards planning and design works since 2015/16 and that the council had committed a further £10m from 2021 in the capital programme. She requested clarification on what the first £10-£11m had been spent on and whether value for money was achieved and if value for money on the further £10m could also be achieved.


Councillor Davey commented that the issue was cost versus risk. There was no profit in flood relief. As Councillor Knowles had said it was all about priorities.

It was a gamble with the lives of residents balanced against potential profit on building high-rise flats. It was easy to blame others for lack of progress, for example the government would not allow a precept. Councillor Davey commented that 56% of residents in the 21/22 budget consultation had said that they would support a 7.5% or more increase in council tax, so he questioned why the council had ignored the opportunity to fund the scheme by holding a referendum. Councillor Davey addressed residents of Datchet, Wraysbury and Old Windsor to say if they were under water next winter, or the following fall, they would know where the blame lay.


Councillor Hill commented that he supported the petition. He lived at the lowest point of the River Thames and had experienced severe floods in 2000. The RTS scheme had been wonderful for Maidenhead and he had great sympathy for those flooded in 2014. A promise had been made by the borough and he questioned why it had not been honoured. He commented that the borough had been able to build a car park at Vicus Way, a leisure centre and other capital funded projects. It was grossly unfair that one part of the borough was protected, and others were not, especially when the council had made a promise. The public had said it would suffer an increase in council tax, it seemed unfair that the council would not ask the question in a referendum.


Councillor Baldwin commented that he was incredibly puzzled when Councillor Hilton had implied that additional borrowing and the interest costs was a burden that would be placed on older people and children. He presumed he had meant that this would be the challenge the additional borrowing would present on the adult and children’s services budgets. Councillor Baldwin commented that if Councillor Hilton had seen footage of flood alleviation measures he would have seen the people most in need of emergency services were older people and children. Sadly, the unsuccessful attempts to lobby the government was a failure to influence.


Councillor Bowden commented that one unknown fact may be that the River Colne was due to be placed in a culvert as a result of the Heathrow works.  When asked, Heathrow had said that Staines was the pinch point where flooding took place. The EA and Heathrow had not resolved the issues therefore costs would increase and were unlikely to be met by Heathrow.


Councillor Coppinger referred to Councillor Brar’s earlier speech in which she had referenced the BLP Inspector. Councillor Coppinger stated that he would read what the Inspector had said ‘Clause 9 of Policy NR1 required land to be safeguarded for the various flood relief measures including a stretch of the River Thames that falls within the borough. At present the council is unable to contribute the necessary funding for the project to proceed, but remains committed to it if the financial climate improves. The scheme represents the optimum solution to address flood risk in the area and consequently it is justified for the land to remain safeguarded for now. However, it is not clear to me that the relevant land is marked on the sufficient policies map or legend. This should be checked to ensure the policy is effective’. Councillor Coppinger stated this was therefore a relatively minor administrative request rather than a major issue.


Councillor W. Da Costa commented that it boiled down to a commitment to residents in Datchet, Horton, Wraysbury and Old Windsor that would be equal to anyone in Maidenhead. They should not be looked upon as second class citizens and told it could not be achieved because the money could not be raised. Councillor W. Da Costa asked what opportunities had been looked at with the EA to monetise some aspects of the scheme, and what opportunities to raise a precept for the specific areas affected had been considered.  


Councillor Hilton commented that he agreed with Councillor Johnson that the scheme should be funded by national government. In response to Councillor Tisi’s question, he explained that in April 2015, council agreed for five years to fund work to the value of £255,000 to shape the scheme. Over five years that amounted to £1.425m. From 2021/22, £10m had been allocated that would be available over a four-year period. The £1.425m had been spent; the £10m was still available. Councillor Hilton disagreed with Councillor Davey’s comment amount the cost of building high rise apartments. All the council’s residential building was through joint venture partners and the schemes delivered capital receipts. Although he had not been around at the time, the minutes of the meeting in 2017 when the commitment had been made, stated that the commitment was conditional on a levy being available to pay for the scheme. No promises were made that could not be kept. There was an expectation that the council would be able to charge a levy to fund the scheme. Councillor Hilton also commented that the leisure centre either needed refurbishing or a new one had to be built, paid for through the sale of the original site. That work was ongoing.  The administration had said that it would not cross any red lines that would put older people or children at risk, and it would not do that in the future. The burden of savings to fund the scheme would therefore fall on discretionary services that were so much enjoyed by residents across the borough. Councillor Cannon had made it clear in his speech that flooding remained a council priority and £10m was available in the council’s finances.


It was proposed by Councillor Hilton, seconded by Councillor Johnson, and:


RESOLVED: ThatCouncil notes the report and:


i)          Reaffirms the commitment to delivering additional flood defence schemes for affected communities, but sadly recognises that the Council cannot fund Channel 1 as planned without flexibility over Council Tax or significant additional external funding;


ii)         Reaffirms its commitment to continue to work with the Environment Agency and other partners to maximise the benefits of its £10 million investment;


iii)       Notes that further enhancements would be possible should further external funding be provided.


Supporting documents: