Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary memorandum by British Waterways (IW 52B)


  We have prepared this paper to help inform the Committee about the way in which arrangements for flood management work on our navigations. Our work is only one part of a wide ranging partnership, which includes the Environment Agency, local authorities, internal drainage boards and the emergency services.

1.  The role of British Waterways

  1.  British Waterways manages and cares for over 1,500 miles of canals and over 400 miles of navigable rivers in England, Scotland and Wales. Full details are contained in Appendices A and B of our main submission to the Select Committee (29 September 2000).

  2.  Both canals and rivers form an important part of the UK's land drainage system.

  3.  Managing river and other water flows and levels is an integral part of the daily work carried out by British Waterways. It is a requirement of the successful management of navigations and is therefore "built in" to the culture of our organisation. Our operational staff have a detailed knowledge of local conditions which helps them to assess the specific needs of any particular stretch of waterway.

  4.  We manage flood control within the regulatory framework set by the Environment Agency, and as part of our own statutory duties.

  5.  We also operate flood control arrangements on behalf of the Environment Agency as do many other bodies such as water companies, internal drainage boards and local authorities. British Waterways' and the Environment Agency's joint studies in 1996 concluded that these arrangements were working well. The recent severe flooding demonstrated the practical way in which co-operation on the ground between British Waterways (as the navigation authority) and the Environment Agency (as the regulator) worked well.

  6.  When there are major floods, responsibility for managing rescue operations etc is taken by the emergency services. We are used to working with the emergency services (there are other operational aspects of managing canals and rivers which involve them, eg car accidents in which vehicles fall into the waterway) and we maintain regular contact with them.

2.  Impact of recent flooding on British Waterways

  7.  The recent flooding is widely acknowledged as extremely severe. In some cases, such as the River Ouse in Yorkshire (where British Waterways is the navigation authority), we experienced floods of an intensity not seen for 400 years. The long duration of the flooding and its wide geographical spread contributed to the hardship caused to thousands of people.

  8.  Most canals and rivers managed by British Waterways were affected by the heavy rainfall. The areas most seriously affected are shown in the table below.

NorthRiver Tees

River Weaver

Leeds & Liverpool Canal

River Ouse (Yorkshire)

River Aire
MidlandsRiver Witham

River Trent

Caldon Canal
SouthRiver Severn

River Lee

River Stort

  9.  There was widespread co-operation between British Waterways staff, the emergency services and the Environment Agency.

  10.  British Waterways staff took early action to minimise the risk of flooding wherever possible. Frequently, water control action (eg moving water to lower the levels to cope with an expected swift inflow of water) took place even before Environment Agency flood warnings were received. This is because our navigation responsibilities require us to take account of rising water levels that can affect boats, long before flooding becomes a serious threat.


  On the lower River Tees, we were able to ensure that no flooding took place because of our staff's expert management of flood flows through advanced operation of the Tees Barrage.

  11.  We provided "on the ground" resources for the Environment Agency in many places.


  We were able to pass flood flows through our sea lock at Boston on the Witham Navigation to assist the Agency.

  The Environment Agency is responsible for the operation and maintenance of non-navigational flood control structures on the River Trent. We assisted the Environment Agency in Nottingham by diagnosing the faults in two of their crucial floodgates and carrying out the repair, which allowed them to be operated.

  We were able to prevent more serious inland flooding by carrying out pumping of water, which was collecting behind flood defences. At Selby (North Yorkshire) for example, in consultation with the Environment Agency, we pumped away more than one tonne of water per second for a week into the River Ouse at an agreed, safe and appropriate point to prevent the Selby Canal from flooding and to protect the town itself.

  12.  Our devolved local management structure with individual waterway managers clearly accountable for all aspects of specific waterways allowed us to take fast and flexible decisions geared to local circumstances.


  In Skipton (North Yorkshire), the rising waters of the Eller Brook threatened to flow into the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and flood the town. Our local staff responded quickly analysing the situation and organising the overnight construction of a dam to divert the floodwaters harmlessly into a nearby river.

  Staff from our North Yorkshire Navigations worked alongside the emergency services and the army to evacuate residents of Cawood in North Yorkshire to safety.

  Sawley Marina (near Nottingham) was affected by the floods, but not one of the 360 boats in the marina was sunk as a result. Our staff worked continuously to move boats to safety and kept anxious owners informed via phone calls and newsletters.

  13.  As the flood water levels drop, we are assessing the damage to navigational structures and the cost of repair. Since it is not government policy to insure on the private market for such events, we may—depending on our assessment of the damage—have to request additional funding to cover repairs.

3.  The Future


  14.  We have assessed the potential of climate change to cause more frequent and extensive flooding than in the past. We do not consider that more frequent flooding can be prevented, but we do believe that it can be minimised and its effect on navigational structures mitigated by appropriate investment in maintenance and repair. We have built into our plans the systems and operational procedures to achieve this and will keep our plans under regular review. We will reassess them as more data from recent flooding becomes available.

  15.  British Waterways is currently committed to a programme of repairs to eliminate its backlog of maintenance arrears which stood at £237 million at the end of March 2000. (See our original submission paragraphs 62-63)

  16.  As part of these works, an assessment is undertaken of the adequacy of water channel dimensions as well as of the robustness of navigational structures such as river weirs, embankments, culverts, bye weirs and sluices which impact on flood control. Once the backlog of arrears is eliminated, we believe that we will have a system that has an enhanced tolerance to help it cope with the expected more severe weather conditions and the floods they will cause. Using our new grant level, and our own increased earned income, we will eliminate the arrears of maintenance by 2021.

  We are determined to further reduce the time needed to eliminate statutory arrears by developing the waterways for the movement and supply of water to customers (see our original submission paragraphs 45-46). If successful, this will enable a more acceptable date of 2015 to be achieved.

  17.  The earliest practical date for eliminating the backlog of arrears without causing unreasonable disruption to users of the network is 2010. This would require additional government funding. We recognise that in making funding allocations, government has had to balance competing demands and choose priorities.

  18.  We will continue to take expert advice on climate change and its impact on the waterways. We will, therefore, keep our plans under review.


  19.  We recognise that recent flooding may cause concern about unregulated waterside regeneration. We believe that the attraction of good waterside regeneration remains undiminished. Our work is based on three key principles:

    —  reuse of building or brownfield sites some of which are already located within flood plains and form part of the existing urban infrastructure;

    —  incorporation of modern building design, landscape and infrastructure techniques to remove or mitigate the effects of flooding; and

    —  building on new sites only after collaboration with the Environment Agency and local authorities.


  20.  We are currently bidding in partnership with the Environment Agency, for £2.2 million under the government's Capital Fund programme for a project to update and extend telemetry systems which will enable us to anticipate and control water levels even more quickly and effectively.


  21.  In summary, British Waterways:

    —  believes that co-operation between ourselves, the emergency services and the Environment Agency was effective during the recent flooding;

    —  has the structure and skills to manage flooding on its waterways now and in the future;

    —  has a plan to take account of the effects of flooding caused by the currently understood effects of climate change; and

    —  is keeping the developing situation under careful review.

British Waterways

22 November 2000

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 5 April 2001