The recent flooding events in Pulborough that essentially resulted in the village being cut off to the south and west for several days this winter reminded me of a presentation I gave to Pulborough Parish Council a little over a year ago to inform them of the Environment Agency’s proposals over the future management of the flood defences to the south of the village.
The EA proposed to relieve itself of the duties to repair and maintain the embankments that were erected along the River Arun from Stopham Bridge in the west to Wickford Bridge in the east and to allow the banks to naturally erode and finally collapse. The EA estimates that this would take around 20 years to occur.
This might at first sound thoughtless and irresponsible on the part of the Environment Agency – after all, these embankments are what protects Pulborough against flooding, right? As one would expect, the consultation on this proposal during the winter of 2012-2013 attracted some negative comments.
However, in my presentation I also included some historical evidence, anecdotes and documentation on the issue of flooding at Pulborough dating back to the 1960s – the time when the embankments were built – in which the residents of Pulborough were actually expressing the opposite concern at the then proposals to erect the banks along the river!
It was the opinion back then that the new embankments and the associated felling of trees and other vegetation would actually make the situation much worse than before, that the banks would effectively hold back the floods, causing the water to become deeper and penetrate further into the village, as well as worsening the situation further up-river.
One resident wrote in a letter that prior to the embankments, the flood water had never once reached Pulborough, not even during a ten-day period of constant rain in the late 1950s. In fact, from the evidence, it was stated that Pulborough had never flooded until after the banks were built!
This idea of the banks being a flood ‘retainer’ rather than a flood ‘defence’ was made very clear to me when I went to inspect the state of the floods on 21st December, just a couple of days after the present storm had commenced.
Heading towards Pulborough from Hardham, the fields south of the ‘channel’ (also dug in the 1960s as part of the ‘defence’ works) were relatively dry with only small areas of surface water collecting in dips in the ground.
A few metres further north and I passed one of the embankments. The scene was completely different.
All the land was entirely submerged under several feet of water all the way back to Pulborough – some 300 metres north – and was beginning to extend out across the A29 and north into Swan Corner!
Banks are all well and good when they can contain the river, but as soon as the water level reaches the top, there is no stopping the overflow into the surrounding areas, and all that can be done is to wait for the water to drain away and hope that the weather holds off long enough for this to happen.
This being the exact situation that the village has had to deal with since the banks were breached the day after my inspection and several properties and main roads flooded.
If the embankments were removed, it is true that the low-lying fields would flood more often than at present, but the water levels would be much shallower and the water would be able to drain away much more easily and rapidly. It would also mean that more of the natural flood plain would flood rather than it being forced back towards the village.
On the other hand, it would need to be assessed as to any potential risks to the railway embankment and the properties in and around Hardham.
However, it has become evident that such weather events as we have experienced recently are becoming ever more frequent and there are greater quantities of water entering the river system as a result of increasing development patterns between Pulborough and Guildford (see South Downs National Park Authority application SDNP/13/03904/FUL) and so before the Environment Agency embarks upon its proposal to allow the banks to naturally deteriorate, would it not be prudent for them to investigate the pros and cons of actively removing the banks now and thereby potentially saving Pulborough from 20 more years of extensive flooding as we have seen in recent weeks?
Stane Street Close, Codmore Hill, Pulborough