The fight to protect Sheffield from repeat of deadly floods of 2007

A decade after flooding killed two people in Sheffield, including a schoolboy, a £19m defence scheme is almost complete. But years of extra work lie ahead - and only if more money can be secured. Chris Burn reports.

Severe flooding caused chaos in Sheffield in 2007

It was the summer when the rain just would not stop. In June and July 2007, massive flooding around the country resulted in 13 deaths, damage to 48,000 homes and 7,000 businesses and on one particularly awful day, what became the biggest rescue effort in peacetime Britain.

On that fateful day of June 25, one of the worst-affected cities was Sheffield where 68-year-old Peter Harding drowned under a railway bridge after the River Don burst its banks. Ryan Parry, aged just 14, was swept to his death in the River Sheaf as he made his way home from school.

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People were airlifted to safety from office rooftops and rescued by dinghy from flooded shops, while others had to desperately climb trees and lampposts to escape rapidly rising floodwater. Hundreds more had to be evacuated from their homes as a dam at a nearby reservoir came perilously close to bursting.

Ten years after the Sheffield floods that claimed two lives, a volunteer group has been meeting each week to clear the River Don of rubbish that contributed to the disastrous flooding.Pictured Rochelle Kent-Ellis. Picture Scott Merrylees

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It led to promises that such an event could never be allowed to happen again. But while considerable progress has been made, years of more work - dependant securing tens of millions of pounds in extra Government funding - still lie ahead.

While flood defence work is under way on the Lower Don Valley where Mr Harding died, an intended scheme for the Sheaf in which Ryan Parry lost his life is yet to begin.

The RAF rescue a man from floods in Sheffield in 2007

The ongoing impact of Sheffield’s vulnerability to flooding was highlighted last year when HS2 boss David Higgins suggested it was the central reason it was decided not to build a dedicated high-speed railway station in the city centre.

As the tenth anniversary arrives this weekend, there is renewed focus on securing the necessary funding from Government to install flood defences at key points across the city. It is currently estimated that work will cost £83m but the figure is likely to rise once more detailed plans are concluded.

But one area where there has been substantial progress is the Lower Don Valley, stretching from the outskirts of the city centre past hundreds of businesses up to the Meadowhall Shopping Centre.

A five-mile stretch of the River Don is seeing the construction and installation of more than 60 new flood protection measures, including flood gates and higher new walls. It is hoped the work will be completed this year.

Ten years after the Sheffield floods that claimed two lives, a volunteer group has been meeting each week to clear the River Don of rubbish that contributed to the disastrous flooding.Pictured Rochelle Kent-Ellis. Picture Scott Merrylees

As part of the project, local volunteers have been assisting social enterprise the River Stewardship Company with clearing debris such as overgrown vegetation, trees, litter and even traffic cones from the Don. Such debris was a key part in exacerbating the devastating flooding that occurred in 2007 by allowing water levels to rise more quickly.

Since the flood protection programme started, otter tracks have been found along the river, while kingfishers, herons and waxwings are frequently seen on the Don - signs that indicate improved water quality.

Local businesses have also played a vital part, voting for the creation of a Business Improvement District in which they have paid extra taxes with the additional money ringfenced for spending on the flood improvement programme. They are jointly contributing £1.4m, with the rest of the £19m scheme being paid for by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency.

Clare Maguire, business manager for the Sheffield LDV BID project, says while the new scheme is yet to be completed, it is already making a difference. “The floods came as a real shock, we had not seen anything of that scale in Sheffield for several hundred years. Businesses are now much more aware of signing up for flood alerts and taking their own resistance measures to protect their buildings, as well as having business continuity plans.

Ten years after the Sheffield floods that claimed two lives, a volunteer group has been meeting each week to clear the River Don of rubbish that contributed to the disastrous flooding.Pictured Rochelle Kent-Ellis and Jade Roche. Picture Scott Merrylees

“When we started the project the level of flood defence was prepared for a one-in-25 year event. Now it is going to be a one-in-100 year event. We can’t ever guarantee that no business will flood again but because we have increased the defences to such an extent that if we got an event of the same magnitude as 2007, the impact would be so much less. Businesses are much more protected and can feel much safer.”

One of the volunteers helping to clear the river each week is former BT worker Paul Winks, from Hillsborough. The 64-year-old says it is good to be making a difference. “After heavy rain, the river runs off very quickly and within 24 hours it is back to normal.”

A few hundreds yards away from where the volunteers are working is The Wicker, one of the areas of the city most badly affected by the flooding. Jeanette Bramley, now 48, was working at the Wicker Mobility Store when flood water swept in. Along with colleagues, she had to be rescued by firefighters in a dinghy after sheltering in the upper floor of the premises.

“We had put sandbags all along the front but all the water came out through Wicker Lane behind us and broke down the dispatch doors. The water came rushing in. The ring road outside was still being built and all the bollards were washed away. People were wading across and it was quite dangerous. It was pretty horrible afterwards, we had horrible silty stuff all over the floor.”

Another part of the city also being served by the scheme is Meadowhall Road, which runs parallel to the shopping centre which was flooded in 2007. One organisation to benefit is the Sheffield & Hallamshire County Football Association, which moved into offices in 2014. Roger Reade, secretary of the FA, said the office, then occupied by the Transport and General Workers’ Union ended up with eight to 10ft of water inside in 2007.

“All the cars in the car park floated off bar one. There were people on Meadowhall Road that had to climb trees and be rescued by the fire brigade or helicopters when the water came.

Firefighters come to the aid of a man in 2007

“It was awful for the city, it really was devastating.”

He says the FA were concerned about taking on the premises because of the flooding issue.“We cover the whole of South Yorkshire and we wanted to be more central. We found this property and thought it is going to be a risk because of the flooding. But Sheffield Council were very active and supportive and told us about the flood defence work that was coming up.”

Mr Reade ended up as part of the steering group for the BID team, helping to encourage businesses in the Lower Don valley to support the process to pay slightly higher rates of tax and have the extra money go towards the flood defence work. “Bar a handful of businesses, people brought into it straight away. When you look at the total cost and what businesses are paying towards the total cost, it is like winning the lottery.

“The new defences will give us the security against a one-in-100 year flood. The problem is a one-in-200 year event, which is what happened in 2007. But from our point of view we wouldn’t have wanted that anyway, you would be talking about a 10ft wall and it would be more like working in a prison!”

But the positive work being done in the Lower Don Valley is yet to come to happen elsewhere in the city.

While the Government has indicated it is willing to provide £23m towards five other projects, there is currently an estimated £41m funding gap. A Sheffield Council spokesman said: “The council is working closely with Government to secure funds, so we can get on and build the defences. We look forward to progressing our plans further, once we have a funding commitment which can make the schemes a reality.”

Community spirit helped rebuild city

The aftermath of the floods brought tremendous challenges for people flooded out of their homes - but also showed the very best of Sheffielders as the community came together to support each other.

As one resident told the Pitt review, an independent report commissioned by the Government into the 2007 floods, help for the most vulnerable came from unexpected quarters.

“A lot of people struggled but the community spirit on this estate then was absolutely unbelievable.

“Everybody pulled together, no matter what, no matter who was there. There are some kids on there that are ruffians and they were the ones wading through the water giving people, who couldn’t get out, a loaf of bread or whatever you could get to them.”

Firefighters come to the aid of a woman in 2007
The aftermath of the 2007 floods in Sheffield
The aftermath of the 2007 floods in Sheffield
The aftermath of the 2007 floods in Sheffield
Ten years after the Sheffield floods that claimed two lives, a volunteer group has been meeting each week to clear the River Don of rubbish that contributed to the disastrous flooding.Pictured Rochelle Kent-Ellis. Picture Scott Merrylees
The RAF rescue a man from floods in Sheffield in 2007
Ten years after the Sheffield floods that claimed two lives, a volunteer group has been meeting each week to clear the River Don of rubbish that contributed to the disastrous flooding.Pictured Rochelle Kent-Ellis. Picture Scott Merrylees
Ten years after the Sheffield floods that claimed two lives, a volunteer group has been meeting each week to clear the River Don of rubbish that contributed to the disastrous flooding.Pictured Rochelle Kent-Ellis and Jade Roche. Picture Scott Merrylees
Firefighters come to the aid of a man in 2007
Firefighters come to the aid of a woman in 2007
The aftermath of the 2007 floods in Sheffield
The aftermath of the 2007 floods in Sheffield
The aftermath of the 2007 floods in Sheffield