A year on: Can Wigan’s future floods be stopped

Flooding last year in Wigan
Flooding last year in Wigan

It was a day many Wiganers will remember for all the wrong reasons.

Last Boxing Day, an unprecedented rainfall led to widespread flooding across the borough, leading to 93 properties being damaged by water, roads blocked and a football match being postponed.

Platt Lane in Scholes, areas of Aspull, Beresford Street in Springfield, the S bends in Shevington, Back Lane in Appley Bridge, the saddle junction and Scot Lane, Hockery Brook in Hindley and Elmridge in Leigh were all badly affected.

Many homes were left damaged and damp from the influx of water and many have faced a long slog to get their homes cleaned up and ready for them to move back in.

Wigan Council and the borough MPs have not just been involved with the clean-up but also efforts to repair and strengthen the boroughs flood defences to reduce the risk of it happening again.

A year on, we look at what steps have been taken across the borough to help reduce the risk and what still needs to happen to make it even less.

Mark Tilley, assistant director for infrastructure and regulatory services, and Alan Carver, highways design and flood strategy engineer are at the heart of creating and implementing Wigan Council’s strategy for flood prevention.

They have had a busy year since last Boxing Day, working with the Environment Agency and United Utilities who are also responsible for ensuring Wigan is as prepared as it can be, should the deluge repeat itself.

The response has seen almost £1m - a mixture of government funding and council budget - spent on strengthening and repairing flood defences, gullies and culverts that will hopefully help minimise flooding if a repeat should happen.

Mr Tilley said: “We’ve done a number of things, the first things we did after the floods was in terms of aftercare. Our cleansing teams went in, the contingency colleagues worked with people who had been hit the worst to give them guidance and support, advise them of their rights and responsibilities.

“In some very practical ways, government made available opportunities for local authorities to put funding bids forward to deal with the Boxing Day floods.

“Those funding opportunities resulted in Wigan receiving £750,000 and that covered a broad range of infrastructure improvements that we identified.

“Some of it was the general highway infrastructure - people saw gullies bubbling and saw flood water in their street and just assumed that the gullies hadn’t been emptied, and there was a buildup of detritus and silt.

“Invariably what happened was the gully system was just overrun because of the deluge and whatever the capacity was at those times we couldn’t have dealt with it. It was a severe event.

“But we did get some failings in infrastructure, we had some culverts that were identified that were severely damaged and some of the flood wall at the River Douglas was identified as damaged so we have got plans in place to strengthen those.”

The council has been carrying out work to repair culverts across the borough and are also working on projects such as improving the drainage at Lilford Park in Leigh.

Mr Carver said: “The general infrastructure, we’ve spent money on that, looking and investigating faults on culverts and doing water courses. Some of these culverts are hundreds of years old and they collapse when a volume of water goes in there.

“Those do only cause issues once we get excessive rainfall so we have done that throughout the borough.

“We are working on Lilford Park at the moment. We’ve had two public meetings with Andy Burnham. Again a lot of the issues revolve around work that the Environment Agency are doing in collaboration with ourselves, we’ve done some parts of the scheme and they’re doing other parts of the work.

“We are remediating flooding within Lilford Park itself and on Elmridge to reduce the flood risk. I think over our budget we are probably getting close to having spent a million pounds in the past 12 months.”

As well as this work, the council is encouraging residents to do what they can to help protect their properties. Grants of up to £5,000 were made available for affected residents to apply for and spend on their properties to minimise the impact of future flooding.

Mr Carver said: “Also available was the £5,000 property resilience grant, which is £5,000 per property. We did a promotional, we wrote to everyone who had been flooded and then chased that up, saying it is yours to apply for and it is a one-off payment with no catches to it and we have had 32 applicants for that out of the 108 properties that claimed the council tax rebate. Most of those have had the maximum payment.

“They can use that for various things, flood doors to prevent water from coming in through a normal door, sealing of air bricks, they have self-sealing vents that work, any kind of non-return valves to stop sewage backing up. They can use it to spray a waterproof membrane on the properties to seal it.

“In some areas you have probably just got to accept you can’t stop the flooding, so it is limiting the damage that flooding causes.

“So they are using things like doors that lift off so they aren’t damaged and can just be popped back on after the flood. Lime based plaster isn’t affected as much a gypsum plaster, plastic skirting boards and stuff like that.

“Flooring, karndean flooring stays put unlike laminate flooring which just lifts up and carpets obviously get ruined. People have been using that and ceramic tiles, so they might have a bit of water through there and a bit of silt left but it is a quick clean up.

“Moving sockets, lifting them higher up the wall because once you get to them there is serious damage. We’ve also granted it to do some landscaping work to let the water to flow past the property instead of hitting a raised garden area and then bouncing back against the property, so certainly round the Lilford area that’s what they have done.”

But the take up hasn’t been as high as the council would have hoped.

Mr Tilley said: “There wasn’t a massive intake, about 30 per cent, and we found it difficult to encourage it anymore than we have. We can’t force people to apply for the £5,000 but I suppose to some degree people may feel that if they do bid for them and secure it, there is a stigma attached with the property, that it is seen in a bad way and that may be true but the investment could stop this happening again.

“The other thing, that is really important, when you do get something that happens on a regional scale is about building self reliance and people thinking and doing something that could protect their own interest.

“The EA have a flood watch text message service, you can go on the website and understand what is occurring once you’ve had the warning and tune into that.

“Knowing that you are actually residing in a flood risk area because there are some parts of the borough that are at a higher risk than others and then there are certain precautions you can take.

“If you don’t take the grant up, if you know it is going to come in a bad way, get some sand bags, get some plastic sheeting down, look up some top tips on our website so they know how to put the sandbags down.

“And if all else fails and you don’t live in a bungalow, try and move valuables upstairs and look after your vulnerable residents or neighbours.

“There are a range of things people can do and that we would encourage them to do and certain things that we wouldn’t want people to do. Don’t drive your car down a road you are not sure about if you see flood water.

“Two things can happen, one is the water could be deeper than it appears and you could get flooded. You will then divert resources to look after you, and that causes a problem, it means the fire service will not be pumping out someone’s property, they will be pumping you out and your car.

“Similarly, don’t walk in flood water because the gully tops could have been blown and you might drop straight down into the drains, and we don’t want to lose anybody.

“One thing is about building self reliance and people protecting themselves and not being overly reliant on the council. The council will always be there but in a major event we’ve got to deal with the priorities and public have a role to protect themselves, but don’t be too brave because we don’t want to lose anybody.”

Plans are also in place to create a network of flood wardens, volunteers who will help coordinate a response in a specific areas as well as things like distributing sandbags. The first will hopefully be trailed around the Lilford Park area in the coming months.

Work is also due to begin soon on repairs to the flood wall of the River Douglas which was damaged last year.

Mr Tilley said: “That is something the public wouldn’t see, it is done behind the scenes as is a lot of work that we do. It is just done and when you get a major incident it tests everything and what we do is try and plan for the worst.

“On occasion, no one can deal with it, the North West, the country, can’t deal with it. But a large proportion of the time we do, we take it all in our stride but we always learn.

“There will be another incident like this and it is never at a convenient time, at 11am on a Monday when everybody is in and the sun is shining and then it rains, it is usually Boxing Day, New Years Day, 5pm on Mad Friday. It might be snow next time, because we are ready for snow as well.

“We are sometimes a soft target for people to criticise but when we have an incident like that the public do get behind them and recognise what officers do.

“They did some really good work last year, as they do all through the year but it is behind the scenes, it is only when you get a really significant incident that the spotlight is put on those people. They did a cracking job.”