Sedgemoor District Council’s joint Scrutiny committees met today under the chairmanship of Westover Councillor Brian Smedley to look at ‘all things maritime and navigational’ along the River Parret and as a result and as a key outcome urged the Environment Agency and Sedgemoor District Council to engage thoroughly with all stakeholders, consider the potential regeneration opportunities of the barrier, beyond the much welcome flood prevention and to take into account the environmental impact. .
Cllr Smedley said “There have been numerous water related themes on various tables in the recent past and there needs to be some joined up thinking before we reach a stage where one action precludes another. The viability and timescales of the proposed Bridgwater Bay Tidal Lagoon and the energy and environmental implications,the viability of navigation on the river opening up the Sedgemoor levels to waterborne traffic bringing craft to the town centre of Bridgwater, possibly the Weston Zoyland pumping station and on to Langport, the knock on effect of possibly opening up the Bridgwater docks possibly via the barge lock , thereby providing touristic opportunity and re-engaging with Bridgwater’s maritime heritage and the wider opportunity to re-open the Bridgwater-Taunton canal and thereby connecting the sedgemoor waterways network with the coast and the open seas.. And crucially the lynch pin whereupon all the rest might fall – the Parret Barrier- what sort of structure will it be, will there be lock facility will it be rendered pointless by a subsequent tidal lagoon, will its own structure render pointless all the plans for opening up the water based hinterland.”
Panel of Experts
The well attended public meeting which included 18 councillors, numerous members of the public and a panel of experts which included, Sedgemoor;- Nick Tait (head of Planning) Dave Coles (Environmental Protection Manager) and Keith Badsey (Harbour master) The EA;- John Buttivant, Inland Waterways Association Ray Alexander and Bob Abbott ,Friends of Bridgwater Docks Patsy Robinson and Mike Slade, Military Boats Rhian and Paul Childs and Inland Drainage Boards – Peter Maltby and Ian Sturdy.
The meeting was taken in 3 sections through the 5 key lines of enquiry set by the committees
Nick Tait from SDC explained the background to the Barrier and the current acceleration of delivery. Some kind of Barrier was identified as crucial to a Bridgwater of the future as far back as 2008 as part of the Bridgwater Vision when it was recognised that an eventual risk from tidal flooding needed to be factored in but alongside this options of penning water and utilising the waterfronts and waterways along the Parret was recognised as a great opportunity to regenerate the area. This led to a 40+year project to attempt to slowly fundraise to achieve a Tidal Exclusion Barrier. The game changer came when a mere 6 years later Sedgemoor suffered it’s worse floods in generations and a decision was taken to accelerate the introduction of a barrier
John Buttivant of the Environment Agency recalled November 2011 when the West Quay wall collapsed bringing into question the riverside infrastructures and January 2014 when the height of incoming tides at Town Bridge and along the waterfront were at critical levels. He dealt quickly with the proposed Bridgwater Bay tidal lagoon option by suggesting it was an unknown factor and saying clearly that the finances needed to be achievable. “We can deal with projects in their Millions not in their Billions.”
He went on to say there were 4 options they could have persued and they’d undertaken detailed assessments of all. Raising walls would be expensive and would change the character of the area, a Lagoon option would be too expensive and beyond their control,a Tidal Exclusion barrier had a lot to offer but would have potential environmental impacts and so ticking most of the boxes came a Surge barrier. They were in the design and consultation phase at the moment which would last until 2020 at which point it would be put out to tender with completion by 2023.
A Way Forward
The meeting was then opened to community campaigners who had plans and aspirations for the waterways that would be dependent on the decisions taken.
Ray Alexander from the Inland Waterways Association put the case for all waterborne traffic , recreation, tourism and revisiting the Bridgwater Vision and the economic benefits. He urged a half tide barrier which would allow access to the full extent of the river during the summer boating season which would allow the barge lock of the Docks to be opened and therefore make the docks and then the canal accessible. He said a lock was an essential feature of whatever development was agreed upon in order to maintain and enhance navigation.
John Buttivant said the aim was for the barrier to be flexible but was concerned at potential cost and being diverted by what he described as ‘side issues’, however on being pressed by Scrutiny Officer Nick Plumley and Chairman Brian Smedley he was open to consideration of the ideas put forward by the IWA.
Ian Sturdy from the Drainage Boards emphasised the need for a continuous dredging programme pointing out the danger to them was the 60% sediment from the sea of which 20% had already returned and therefore they needed to exclude this entirely. They had urged a Total Exclusion barrier but had been persuaded in discussions with the EA of the possibilities of a Surge Barrier alternative and were prepared to go along with that.
Mike Slade from the Friends of Bridgwater Docks said their priority was to see the Docks opened up again and that could be done via the Barge Lock. He believed there were great economic benefits to be had from this, particularly in playing to Bridgwater’s strengths via it’s Maritime heritage and also felt that neither Sedgemoor or Somerset had marketed tourism in Bridgwater very well at all and this was the golden opportunity to have something else to be proud of and promote to the world.
Threatened with ‘Magna Carta’
Rhian Childs from Military Boats said they needed to have a lock system to maintain navigation and at one point reminded SDC and EA about Magna Carta and the inalienable rights of navigation the people had been granted for the waterways in question. She emphasised that nowhere on the Bristol Channel was a high wall solution in operation and that locks were the best option everywhere, particularly citing Portishead where a self cleaning lock had been installed.
At the end of the meeting a proposal by Cllr Mick Lerry (Bridgwater Victoria) that the regeneration potential be looked into in conjunction with an enhanced stakeholder group including the bodies represented here at this meeting. Along with an additional note “to include environmental considerations” from Cllr Bill Revans (North Petherton) the recommendation was passed unanimously.
After the meeting Cllr Brian Smedley said “It’s clear that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get this right. Not only do we have the funding in place to tackle the serious flooding issue that has accelerated the barrier project but we have a wealth of ideas and experience coming from the local community from people who want to grasp this chance to regenerate the town and open up it’s waterways. We appreciate that the EA have a tight 9 year timescale to do this but they have agreed today to take onboard these suggestions.”