Residents of a North Yorkshire village have resorted to buying their own flood defences to save their homes after they were ‘sacrificed’.
A 150-metre Aquadam will be erected in Kirkby Wharfe on Saturday to protect seven cottages which are expected to flood in the aftermath of Storm Dennis.
The villagers clubbed together to buy the large inflatable dam - which ironically will be filled with the same water it is trying to repel - after receiving grant funding to install ‘resilience’ measures in their homes following the last major overflow of the River Wharfe in 2015.
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This is the first time it will have been deployed in the two years since they purchased it.
And the residents’ ongoing battle to prevent their properties flooding has revealed that land surrounding Kirkby Wharfe has been designated as a reservoir to prevent upstream Tadcaster from being overwhelmed by water.
They now feel they have been sacrificed to save the larger settlement - and are fighting for the Environment Agency to fund a permanent flood wall.
Richard Oldfield moved out of his home in the village after the flooding situation worsened, but still rents out his property and retains an interest in securing better defences.
“We need water to come right up to the cottages so that we can fill the Aquadam. It’s usually around a quarter of a mile away but it is encroaching now. The area is awash with water.”
It was only in 2012 that villagers discovered that the area of land surrounding the worst-affected cottages had been given official reservoir status and was referred to as Kirkby Ings in documents, despite it being dry for most of the year.
The Environment Agency has even raised a series of earth embankments originally built in the 1970s to protect RAF Church Fenton to enable the containment of large amounts of water within the ings.
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“In 2007 the ings were adopted as a reservoir. We are part of the lower basin of the flood plain, so water from the upper basin beside the A64 overflows into the ings. It’s become an inland bank - it wouldn’t fill up otherwise.
“I bought my house in 2005 on the understanding that it would never flood. In 2009, the Environment Agency raised the banks to their design level and there was then significant flooding in 2012. It started to emerge that they had been impounding water, but the full impact wasn’t understood.”
In 2015, the residents submitted a planning application with local authority grant funding to construct a ‘pile wall’ flood defence as a solid boundary. However, the Environment Agency objected on grounds of safety and it became apparent the ings were classed as a maintained reservoir.
“We were told we couldn’t erect a defence because it would be inside a reservoir - but when we asked for the boundary of the reservoir, they wouldn’t tell us. The level of the embankments is the same as the floor in my house and water runs through the hallway.”
After the 2015 floods, each household was told they could claim £5,000 in relief funding - but most opted instead to pool their money and buy the Aquadam.
“It got to the point where we had to use the cash, so we spent £25,000 on the Aquadam. We think the likelihood of success is 50/50. It will be sitting on rubble-filled drives so it all depends on whether there is any infiltration.
“We think that if we install it on Saturday morning we will have 48 hours before the effects of the storm hit.
“This is the first time since 2015 that we’ve had major flooding. The ings used to fill around three times a year - since 2012 they’ve rarely filled because the embankments are higher, the flooding seems less frequent but when it does happen it is worse.
“We know that flooding is inevitable, but insurers have paid out five times to some people now. We could have bought 12 Aquadams with the amount we’ve spent on repairs.
“Last spring the Environment Agency were given £38,000 to investigate a flood defence for the village, but since then nothing has happened and the money is just sitting in their bank account. We’ve struggled to get an update on progress.
“It feels like they’re working to make sure we definitely flood, rather than maybe flood.”
What do the Environment Agency say?
A spokesperson for the Environment Agency pointed out that the cottages closest to the ings are former agricultural buildings that were converted for residential use in the 1980s.
“Kirkby Wharfe is a small village on the lower River Wharfe, downstream of Tadcaster. It has a history of flooding which has seen part of the community flood in both 2012 and 2015. The properties that flood most frequently were originally agricultural outbuildings, before being converted to residential dwellings sometime in the 1980s. They sit within what was an already existing washland.
“Following the planning application made by the community for a flood defence we engaged a reservoir engineer to meet with them. The engineer reviewed the proposed designs and explained why they didn’t meet the legal standards required for flood defences in a reservoir (as set out by the Reservoir Act). We acknowledge and commend the positive approach that the community took to proposing a solution, but as a Risk Management Authority we were not able to support their design due to the potential risk to life.
“Despite these challenges we have continued to work on providing a solution for Kirkby Wharfe. We secured £38,000 of local levy funding from the Yorkshire Regional Flood and Coastal Committee and have undertaken a survey, hydrological modelling and have produced draft plans for a defence. We are currently determining the best value-for-money options to investigate ground conditions.
"We have had to be creative in the development of this to ensure the costs are minimised, this is because the amount of funding we can access is limited due to the number of properties at risk. Unfortunately this approach means it takes more time to achieve a solution."