York flooding: Now is not the time to question Foss Barrier decision, says council leader

THE leader of York Council has said the time to question whether the decision to open flood defences will come in future weeks and months - with efforts now concentrated on helping those affected by flooding.

An army chinook helicopter airlifts equipment needed to repair the Foss Barrier on the River Foss in York following the weekend flooding.Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire
An army chinook helicopter airlifts equipment needed to repair the Foss Barrier on the River Foss in York following the weekend flooding.Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

After flood water rushed into the engine room at the Foss Barrier on Sunday, the Environment Agency (EA) made the decision to open the defence scheme, sending water coursing through the city streets.

The leader of York Council, Coun Chris Steward told the Yorkshire Post that decision meant that areas that would have ordinarily been protected were flooded.

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“The Environment Agency did not want the barrier to lock in place. They didn’t deploy the barrier, which meant areas that would normally be protected were flooded, such as Huntingdon Road, Yearsley Crescent and Foss Island.

Engineers and army personnel work to repair the River Foss barrier in York. Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

“Obviously it’s a guessing game as to what would have happened had they not taken that decision,” he said. “But it’s in the next weeks and months that we’ll be asking questions about that - not right now.”

The Foss Barrier, built in 1987, is usually brought down to stop the River Ouse from flowing back up to the channel of the River Foss.

But yesterday, the levels of the Ouse got so high that the control room was being inundated with water, and the eight pumps which pump 32,000 litres of water per second were in danger of failing due to being flooded.

That would have meant any water flowing down the River Foss would have backed up behind it and created a reservoir behind the Foss barrier.

Riverside properties next to the swollen River Ouse in York, after the River Foss and Ouse burst their banks. Press: Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire

Rather than leave the barrier down and risk this makeshift reservoir being created, the decision was made to open it.

An EA spokesman said “every effort was made to warn residents before properties flooded”.

The EA said it issued a flood warning within minutes of opening the barrier, giving residents “around an hour’s notice” before the first flooding began.

An investigation has been launched into how the barrier - which has withstood higher water levels since its creation - failed to cope with the most recent deluge.

Latest figures show 605 properties have been flooded and 114 evacuated as a result of flooding on the Foss. If the barrier had remained closed, without the pumps running, an estimated 1,800 properties would have potentially flooded, the EA said.

On Sunday, a Chinook helicopter airlifted the supplies needed to repair the barrier, and army personnel could be seen with engineers at the barrier itself.

Coun Steward said he believed the repair work had been successful.

On Sunday the Council effectively closed down the city centre, asking visitors not to come into York - a departure from the usual policy in times of flooding.

Coun Steward said he hoped the impact on businesses and tourist sites would be small.

He said: “York has had bad floods for years and years, and we’ve always put out the message that York is open for business. This time we have said that people shouldn’t travel to York.

“Hopefully the impact will be very small, and it will just be a few days in the short term where the city is out of action. We’ve been able to stay open every day for years and years, we hope that people will forgive us a couple of days off.”

Coun Steward praised the Government’s response, saying that when the city had asked for extra sandbags and military help, it had come. In the next few days, council officers will be concentrating on “getting the water out” he said.

Earlier in the day, Coun Steward spoke with the Prime Minister during his visit to the city, where he met soldiers and council staff at its Hazel Court depot where sandbags were being prepared.

He said he was satisfied with David Cameron’s comments that there was no “north/south divide” when it came to flood defence funding.

“There is always more that we can do, but ultimately, the water needs somewhere to go,” Coun Steward said. “The Prime Minister was keen to say there was money available as it is needed.

“He was clear that flood defence spending has risen.”

Coun Steward said the response of the community and emergency services has been “amazing”.

He added: “From council point of view, we have had people offer all sorts, from big retailers offering food to individuals offering accommodation. People have been great.”