Fringe Box



Chief Council Officer Responds to Flood Action Criticism

Published on: 1 Jan, 2014
Updated on: 2 Jan, 2014
The flood at its height in Millmead.

The flood at its height in Millmead.

Sue Sturgeon, the managing director of Guildford Borough Council (GBC), contacted The Guildford Dragon NEWS this evening (January 1) to give the council’s side of the Christmas flood alert story.

The council has been heavily criticised by some victims of the flood. The mother of Walnut Tree Close resident Trevor West, who featured in a recent article, Flood Victim Family Finally Accommodated After Five Nights ‘Sofa-Surfing’, commented to the Guildford Dragon: “No family should ever have to be torn apart in this way. Guildford Borough Council are useless in a crisis. Why did they sit back and do nothing?”

Sue Sturgeon, managing director at Guildford Borough Council

Sue Sturgeon

Ms Sturgeon readily admitted that there were lessons to learn and that council staff had been caught out by an unprecedented sudden surge in flood level but she said many parts of the system had worked well.

Giving a detailed account of the sequence of events, she said on Sunday [December 22] the Met Office issued a severe weather warning for rain and wind.

“At 11.30am on the [Monday] 23rd there was a telephone conference between the relevant agencies, including the Environment Agency [EA]. At that stage their main concern was the River Mole.

“At 3pm there was a further telephone conference call with Surrey County Council [SCC] emergency planners. We asked the agency for their flood model so that we could premises at particular risk

“Although there was no alert for the Wey, we put in place our own plan for a possible flood in Guildford. That required making sure there were adequate supplies of sandbags, and arranging the sandbag distribution points.”

As previously reported, on December 24, Christmas Eve, the River Wey was observed breaking its banks at Millmead, close by the council offices, and other places, before the official flood alert was given by the Environment Agency at 10.11hrs.

Sue Sturgeon continued her account: “On Tuesday morning [Christmas Eve] we convened an urgent meeting of our own people at 10am, because by then the Wey had already breached by the area of Millmead car park. The meeting was of our own key people to look at the issue we might be facing.

“At that stage we were concerned as to whether we were going to get a flood alert and what that would mean to us. We were particularly concerned with the number of properties that were without power.

“Our focus, because we still had not been given a flood alert, was to start to identify vulnerable clients that might not have access to a hot meal over the Christmas period. We also considered opening a rest centre [temporary accommodation for those whose homes had become uninhabitable] if that became necessary. At the same time we continued to review the state of the river.

“We were also looking at our own properties around the town including car parks, trying to warn people and Tweeting. The river was continuing to rise.

It included the EA [Environment Agency]. Their main focus was still the River Mole.

“Then the Strategic Co-ordinating Group (SCG) met as arranged earlier in the morning, at 12.30pm. This brought together a number of the key stakeholders. It included the EA. Their main focus was still the River Mole although they had, by then, issued the flood alert [for Guildford], which as we know followed the commencement of the flooding.

“We again asked for the flood maps and held a further emergency meeting at GBC to discuss our planning. By then the traffic was grid-locked in Guildford. It was becoming very hard to move equipment quickly around the town.

“My own staff have said that the river rose very quickly, in a dramatic fashion, in a way that we have not seen it rise before.

“A further SCG meeting was held at 3pm when we discussed with the EA and other partners the need for a rest centre, including the potential use for residents in Walnut Tree Close, Mary, William and Leas Roads.

“Later we did a hand delivered leaflet drop to all the affected houses advising them of the potential problems.

“At 5am on Christmas Day the Fire & Rescue Service evacuated Walnut Tree Close. 12 people, two dogs and a cat were taken to Park Barn Day Centre where residents from a care home in Waverley borough were also accommodated.”

Responding to calls for a review of flood relief action in Guildford the managing director said: “We will now work closely with the Environment Agency and other partners to learn lessons from this terrible flooding which will help inform how we manage future situations. It is clear that there was little warning in relation to the flood. It is, however, a complex prediction that the EA are tasked with.

“We have already started to review how we coped. We did frequently clear drainage grills of debris and we had sandbags at 21 locations, we had staff working Christmas Eve and staff came in on Boxing Day to replenish stocks.

“We also need to consider, because of the gridlock that occurred, additional stock locations.”

… even if we have only missed one family that is not good enough and I am very sorry about that… Sue Sturgeon

Ms Sturgeon then spoke of the Walnut Tree Close family featured by The Guildford Dragon NEWS: “I don’t know how that happened. Obviously we are very sorry that they experienced those serious problems. We will review it and try and understand what happened. We did help quite number of residents in Walnut Tree Close.

“But even if we have only missed one family that is not good enough and I am very sorry about that. We want to avoid a repeat of that situation.”

Asked about the problems the family had experienced in their numerous failed attempts  to communicate with the council, including the Flood Line service, which was revealed to be an outsourced service based in Bracknell, the managing director said: “Well that is an EA matter and I can’t comment on whether or not they should have outsourced the service. But clearly from our own perspective we had our own standby crews working that day. We should have very quickly become aware of that family’s plight. We were aware of others so I can’t understand how that happened.

“We are still checking the affected families to make sure that they are happy with the arrangements that have been made. We have helped a number of families with accommodation in various places.

“But I am keen that we learn our lessons. I can see lots of things that really worked very well: we, the council officers were talking to each other, senior staff on Christmas Day were making sure that arrangements were in place, that the rest centre in Park Barn was opened, and that we dealt with clients that needed help.”

There was a dramatic surge and we need to understand why that happened.

Asked if she agreed that the delay in issuing the flood alert was a critical factor Ms Sturgeon said: “We will be pursuing this with the Environment Agency, very robustly, to try and understand why the water rose so rapidly. A meeting date [with EA] has already been set.

“The staff we have know Guildford very well and they have seen floods going back over the years. I don’t think any of us could believe the dramatic rise. There was a dramatic surge and we need to understand why that happened.

“I have to say the pictures and videos on the Guildford Dragon NEWS clearly show just how extreme the situation was.  That evidence will be really useful for future planning for events like this.

“Many of our staff have been involved over the Christmas period, on Christmas Eve a number of our staff who had already done a full day’s work came back in to make up and deliver sand bags, and worked until late into the night.  I am very grateful to them.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson had already commented in response to a statement from Anne Milton MP: “We will be working with the community and local MP going forward and information gathered from each flooding incident helps inform our future work.”

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Responses to Chief Council Officer Responds to Flood Action Criticism

  1. Bernard Parke Reply

    January 2, 2014 at 8:08 am

    I seem to remember that after the floods in 1968 when indeed Walnut Tree Close suffered badly from flooding that it was said:

    ” Something must be done”

    It never was.

  2. Mary Bedforth Reply

    January 2, 2014 at 9:00 am

    If I hear any more jargon like ‘But I am keen that we learn our lessons’ or ‘lessons will be learned’ and that meaningless phrase ‘going forward’ from the Environment Agency I will scream.

    How many times do we hear ‘lessons will be learned’ when there has been another case of child abuse or similar and those given the job of protecting them have failed?

  3. Pete Brayne Reply

    January 2, 2014 at 10:16 am

    Although reference is often made of the 1968 floods, I recall very severe flooding in 2001. That occurred within my first few months as CEO of the YMCA so I remember it all. The water came to within 15 inches of our basement window sills (we are waterproofed up to that level!) – that’s about 4ft higher than the level of the recent floods.

  4. Jane Hill Reply

    January 2, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    This isn’t the first time we’ve seen flooding in and around Guildford, particularly Millmead, Walnut Tree Close, the by-pass etc., and it certainly won’t be the last.

    Having read the article and reply from GBC with interest, I find it totally incomprehensible that those in management were unable to make a decision to act without first receiving the flood alert from the EA. To see the river burst its banks and still do nothing is just sheer incompetence.

  5. Chris Warner Reply

    January 2, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    I worked, until recently, for GBC and know for a fact there was always someone to call in an emergency situation, day, night, weekends and public holiday periods within the organisation. I personally have been in situations during this time when a phone call has been necessary albeit very late at night.

    I have personally manned the emergency mobile phone throughout the night at my bedside for a number of years and even whilst away on holiday in the Isle of Wight, still able to arrange the necessary requirements for the situation at hand.

    Were there no emergency numbers available for call out on this Christmas Day? If not, why not? A lesson to be learned maybe.

  6. Paul Myerson Reply

    January 3, 2014 at 9:19 am

    Guildford has always flooded by the River Wey and nothing will stop it. The Millmead area and the bottom of the High Street, including the Theatre have always been vulnerable. How ridiculous having the council offices in that area when previously they were in Upper High Street.

    I remember the shops being inundated in 1937, 1938 and numerous time since then. Nothing could be done about it. You can’t hold back a flood; nothing will ever cure the problem.

    Why continue to be surprised every time? Just stop using that part of the town.

    Set the land out as pleasure gardens ready for the next inevitable flooding. Let’s be sensible about this and stop making out this regular flooding is a surprise. You’ll never stop it. It is called Guildford.

  7. John Robinson Reply

    January 3, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    It would be interesting to see some comment on today’s BBC News site (03/01/14) about staff reductions proposed for the Environment Agency.

    I’m not sure how these moves by the government are going to contribute to a ‘more effective’ response to flooding in the future?

  8. Anna-Marie Davis Reply

    January 3, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    I’m astounded that the Managing Director has so publicly admitted reliance on the EA warning system over use of her own eyes. Clearly the EA had made a mistake, unless it contravenes the Local Government Act to start flood preparations without an EA warning in place then all this response does in my mind is demonstrate the inability of GBC to use their common sense.

    The river was obviously going to flood as any Guildford resident could tell you. I anticipated this at 3.00 on the day before Christmas Eve and arranged to work from home accordingly.

    We need someone in charge who can take decisions and decisive action when necessary. Any takers?

  9. M Bromham Reply

    January 3, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    I am a little confused as to how a council is meant to be able to stop an act of God? What are we expecting them to do? Re-route the River Wey out of Guildford?

    It seems to me that in a time of job uncertainty, pay cuts, job losses and budget cuts in Local Government, the council and its staff have really done very well. They have worked over Christmas to do their best under very difficult circumstances.

    They don’t pay people to sit on standby, with a hoard of equipment, in case there is a flood one day. These officers have day time jobs that they have had to put to one side, Christmas plans that have had to be forgotten, and families they will have missed out on seeing. Their homes may well have also been affected.

    They did a good job I think. I have a property in Millmead which has been badly affected by the flood. It was a risk we were aware of when we took the property so we have to live with it. That said, this morning I saw that the council had replaced the sandbags outside. I would like to thank them.

  10. Jim Allen Reply

    January 3, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    I saw only three Environment Agency (EA) guys on the ground over Christmas for the whole Wey Valley. They had with an unsnorkled 4-wheel drive Transit> I believe they did what they could with the tools provided them by their money minded bosses.

    Some observations though, for who ever is responsible:

    1 If fallen trees are not cleared from the river, water will rise faster. There are about a dozen trees in the river between the Wayfarer and Bowers Lock. EA’s problem not the National Trust!

    2 Choking (by narrowing with shuttering) a river at any point will result in flooding as the water will rise faster as in Guildford town centre.

    3 Failing to clean out ‘traditional water ways’ and ancient ditches put in placed by previous generations, who put them there for a reason, will increase flooding. This could be seen with at the Riverside Nature Reserve and in Merrow Lane.

    And as a final thought for those who didn’t know, water normally flows downhill. Some of the GBC contractors seemed unaware of this fact. So, if your house is on a hill water will flow past it. Don’t block its route.

    Any plans to build on the flood plains of the Wey should be terminated forthwith. The recent floods were a metre below the highest recorded in Guildford.

  11. Bernard Parke Reply

    January 4, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    It is refreshing to see that at least one of your correspondence feels so moved as to thank the borough council’s staff for their efforts in dealing with daunting task that they faced over the last few days.

    At most these dedicated people can only expect from the public is silence.

    Credit should also given to Cllr Caroline Reeves, who not only has a day job, but went immediately to help the people in Walnut Tree Close as part of her voluntary work as a borough councillor.

  12. Anna-Marie Davis Reply

    January 4, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    I’m not suggesting for one moment that the Council can stop an Act of God, but they can respond to it in a timely fashion, which they didn’t.

    By the time the EA warning was issued, Guildford was flooded, gridlocked and there were three hours left before everyone wanted to go home for Christmas. A bit more forethought on the part of the Executive team and a lot of grief could have been alleviated or lessened for a lot of people. By my standards, not a very convincing display.

  13. Chris Warner Reply

    January 6, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    I wish to advise Mr Bomham that at no time was I in receipt of extra pay for being on call and also without hoards of equipment at my disposal. Floods were not the only emergency that required my attention.

    Fallen trees, collapsed sewers, unavailable sports equipment, contamination of waterways and even on one occasion an unexploded device which was transported to a safe area to be detonated by Bomb Disposal personnel.

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