THE natural beauty of Oxford’s waterways have inspired Matthew Arnold to write about the “stripling Thames” and J.R.R. Tolkien to conjure up the world of Middle Earth.
But this picturesque landscape has given the city a rather unattractive problem which has recently been all too evident: flooding.
If Oxfordshire’s politicians have their way, however, this major issue could soon be solved with the addition of another – man-made – river to the city.
Costing £123m, the so-called Western Conveyance flood relief channel would run from Seacourt Stream, north of Botley Road, to Sandford Lock at Sandford-on-Thames, south of Oxford.
While this proposal has been on the table for a number of years, funding has so far prevented it from leaving the drawing board and becoming reality.
But Rodney Rose, Conservative deputy leader of Oxfordshire County Council, says it is the only scheme that can prevent Abingdon Road and Botley Road from flooding.
In January both of these roads were shut, causing chaos for residents, commuters and businesses.
A view of Botley Road from the flood barrier at Earl Street during January’s floods
Today he will meet Prime Minister David Cameron with Oxford City Council leader Bob Price to press for funding for the plan.
He said: “We have had short-term solutions to flooding but there is no other scheme that gives us protection for the whole of the western side of Oxford.
“It is the only researched solution that answers the problems of Botley Road, South Hinksey, the railway line to Paddington and Abingdon Road.
“I am a little bit worried that the short-term measures we took to keep Botley Road open recently were for very specific flood conditions and another type of flooding may have overwhelmed them.
“But the Western Conveyance would be a longer-term, permanent solution which wouldn’t require any emergency action.”
The channel, which would be as wide as the River Thames, would effectively take excess water, store it and make it flow around Oxford rather than through it. It was approved in 2009 and has since been out for consultation but has not been taken any further because of a lack of funding.
Bob Price, right, with Oxford East MP Andrew Smith and Oxford West and Abingdon MP Nicola Blackwood
Mr Price said the case for the Western Conveyance suffered because it would protect relatively few houses but added that it was vital for keeping Oxford’s economy running.
He said: “The economic impact of flooding has a number of different dimensions. First of all the obvious one is the lost business because people either don’t come into Oxford shopping, or tourists don’t come.
“Then there is the dissuasive impact for people looking to invest in the city because of the floods. If there is going to be disruption on the roads and on the railway, then they will look elsewhere in the Thames Valley or in southern England.
“What the Western Conveyance does is give you a one in 75-year flood possibility – a reduction from once in 10 years.”
According to Environment Agency figures, the channel would have a return of £11 saved for every pound invested, when compared to doing nothing.
Agency spokesman Colette Walmsley said the channel would be necessary in the long term.
She said: “We would support the construction of the Western Conveyance channel if we can get funding.
“We are also exploring the options for delivering the scheme in five more financially manageable stages, though this would also increase the overall cost because of the need to re-mobilise several times.”
At the moment officials are considering whether to begin work on the section nearest Sandford-on-Thames, which would only cost £3m but would have a significant impact.
As it makes its way to Sandford Lock the channel would skirt past Kennington, and Colin Charlett, chairman of the village’s parish council, says he has to be convinced about the details of the scheme.
He said: “We think it is a good idea but we don’t know where exactly it is going to go.
“Anything that would relieve the flooding here we would be all for, but it depends how it impacts on Kennington. We have not really got any detail.”
And for those who live even further downstream on the River Thames, the subject of the Western Conveyance causes concern because of the fear of flood waters being channelled in their direction.
Vale of White Horse District Council leader Matthew Barber said: “There are natural concerns it will have an impact further downstream, but the Environment Agency has assured me it will be less than 5mm.
“We are meeting with the Environment Agency and our local MP Nicola Blackwood to look at what the effects will be on Abingdon, reassure people about that and find out what protection measures can be put in place.”
HOW THE CHANNEL COULD BE FUNDED
- THE channel could be funded from public and private sectors and the Environment Agency is in initial discussions with potential partners
- It could attract around £40m from Flood Defence Grant in Aid
- – this is money the agency receives from Defra to allocate for flood alleviation works in England
- The agency is also working with the city council to have the scheme included on its Community Infrastructure Levy list of projects, funding given to the authority by developers to mitigate developments
- COSTING £110m, the Jubilee River in Berkshire was commissioned by the Environment Agency to prevent flooding in Maidenhead, Eton and Windsor
- It is more than 11km long and, when it was completed in 2002, it was the largest man-made river in Britain and was named in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year
- The channel diverts river water from the Thames upstream of Maidenhead, and runs parallel and to the north of the river before rejoining the Thames downstream of Windsor at Datchet
- During flooding, water is diverted from the Thames into the Jubilee River, reducing water levels through Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton.
- IN 2009 an Environment Agency flood risk strategy identified a possible new watercourse for West Oxford. It said work on the Western Conveyance channel could start by 2013
- The costs were estimated at about £160m, but the scheme was sidelined due to lack of funding
- The agency reviewed the costs of the scheme and said this year it could now be done for £123m – £40m less than expected
- In January, leader of Oxford City Council Bob Price, Oxford East MP Andrew Smith and Oxford West and Abingdon MP Nicola Blackwood wrote to David Cameron urging him to back the project
- Last week Oxford Flood Alliance chairman Peter Rawcliffe said the scheme was now called the Oxford Relief River and a decision over the plan was likely to be decided in April at the Thames Regional Flood and Coastal Committee