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Environment Agency can’t guarantee Horncastle won’t be hit by flooding again

The Environment Agency said it cannot guarantee that the extent of flooding witnessed in Horncastle after Storm Babet won’t happen again in the future.

Despite the rollout of an £8.1 million Flood Alleviation Scheme in 2017, a total of 197 properties in the town, along with a further 31 homes in Kirkby on Bain, were impacted after the county received what was reportedly two months’ worth of rain in just 24 hours last October.

A subsequent investigation by the Environment Agency revealed a two-and-a-half-hour delay in closing a sluice gate. However, it maintains that even if the gate had been closed on time, the peak of the river would have only been delayed by around an hour.

Leigh Edlin, area director for Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire at the Environment Agency
Leigh Edlin, area director for Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire at the Environment Agency

Leigh Edlin, Environment Agency area director for Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, acknowledged that more frequent and severe storms are becoming regular due to climate change.

Nonetheless, while the scheme continues to reduce the risk of flooding, the agency cannot guarantee that similar events won’t occur again in the future.

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He said: “What we’re seeing with climate change is absolutely playing out with more frequent and severe storms.

“Going forward, we need to look at what we learnt from the investigation, and we need to implement the findings, which will make the scheme itself more resilient.

Norman Mitchell, owner of Old Hat Guitars in Horncastle
Norman Mitchell, owner of Old Hat Guitars in Horncastle

“Also, we need to look at whether there are any other opportunities to reduce flood risk in Horncastle. The scheme reduces flood risk from the River Bain, but there are a number of other rivers that flow into Horncastle. This is, unfortunately, why the town is so vulnerable to flooding.

“So, we need to look at the possibility of whether there are any other works that we can do there. What I will say though, is the likelihood of us being able to produce a scheme that would protect Horncastle from an event of this magnitude is very slim.”

Leigh continued, acknowledging the flood defences already in place: “No flood scheme can stop flooding; they can only reduce the risk of flooding. This flood scheme has been reducing flood risk to the people of Horncastle since it was constructed back in 2017.

“It was built in the right place and continues to reduce flood risk, but this event was exceptional in that it just exceeded the design of the reservoir, and unfortunately, we cannot guarantee that this won’t happen again.”

Caroline Gilbert, owner of Magpies Restaurant with Rooms in Horncastle
Caroline Gilbert, owner of Magpies Restaurant with Rooms in Horncastle

Meanwhile, residents and business owners in Horncastle have accused the Environment Agency of avoiding responsibility.

Caroline Gilbert, 53, owner of Magpies Restaurant with Rooms on East Street, was one of the business owners severely affected by the storm. She feels the Environment Agency is downplaying the issue, accusing them of sweeping the problem under the rug.

“We got the flood warning at about 3.30am, so I came down and monitored the water levels,” she recalled.

“Usually, if we put the front flood boards up, we’re alright, but it came from all directions.”

Caroline also mentioned that as the weekend progressed, the continued traffic outside her establishment exacerbated the situation, causing more water to splash into her business and worsening the damage.

She added: “There’s no way we can sell our business now because they will just ask when we were last flooded.”

Acknowledging the delay in closing the sluice gate, Ms Gilbert expected the Environment Agency to admit its error and issue an apology.

“We can accept human error and we understand that we can’t stop the floods.”

Pete Holdershaw, from the Great Expectations antique shop, also on East Street, responded to the Environment Agency’s claim that Storm Babet was an “extreme storm” that would have inevitably overwhelmed the £8.1 million flood defences.

He said: “Isn’t that what they were built for? They’re just for a shower.”

His colleague Pete also mentioned that a local farmer reported issues with the sluice gate failing to close around 5am as the rain began. Despite the early warning, he claims the response was insufficient at the time, pointing to a lack of urgency in addressing the imminent threat.

“If somebody calls up at 5am and says ‘we’re flooding,’ somebody should have come out, obviously something isn’t quite right,” said Steve.

Norman Mitchell, 75, owner of Old Hat Guitars, also experienced severe flooding in his shop, resulting in significant damage to a considerable amount of vintage guitars and amplifiers.

“The river obviously burst its banks, and, sadly enough, very little was done to prevent it from getting any worse,” he said.

“They even allowed traffic to continue on the road outside here. Every time a vehicle went by, we had another 20 or 30 gallons washing through the doors. It was just getting steadily worse.”

He highlighted that a lot of expensive gear in his shop had to be thrown out due to the damage, adding, “Things like vintage amplifiers, when they’re full of dirty water, they’re dead.”

Norman later insisted that he felt the Environment Agency was doing “a good swerve,” avoiding responsibility for what happened.

Jess, nearly 40, from the Lincolnshire North Federation of the Women’s Institute, also noted that its headquarters on Banks Street was damaged by the volume of water, forcing them to replace the flooring, although it has not been fixed yet.

She concurred with Caroline that the Environment Agency appeared to be sweeping the issue under the rug. “It could have been worse, but it’s sad to see, especially since this is supposed to be a community space,” she said.

In response to their concerns, Leigh Edlin stated: “We’ve spoken to many residents in Horncastle, attended two public events, and I know some of our officers have been talking to individuals today.

“We understand the devastation that flooding causes, and we know people will be putting their lives back together for some time. However, we have been very open and transparent throughout the investigation.

“We have shared all the findings from the investigation with the town council, and all we can do is share the facts of the review.

“There is plenty of learning for us as an organisation; there are things we can do to improve the resilience of the flood scheme. But I think there’s a really important message here, and it’s not a positive one: we cannot eradicate flooding.

“With any flood scheme, there are always times when the design of those schemes can be exceeded, and that was the case during Storm Babet.

“The volume of rain, and not just the volume, but the location where it fell, was such that the flood storage scheme was never designed to cope with that level of rainfall.”

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