Jan 2018: Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme

Jan 2018: Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme

This month's blog is focused on the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme and is taken from an article written for the Oxford Times by Debbie Dance.

What would you do in our position? 

Imagine you were Oxford Preservation Trust and you had to make the choice between assisting with flood relief or preserving precious green space.

Would you wait around to find out whether our land is going to be compulsorily purchased knowing that it will be left harmed and spoiled?

Or would you stand and fight?

Knowing that "without a fight, it makes the work we do seem just a little foolish?”

(with apologies to Love Actually)

The management of land is a partnership between man and the environment. This is never more obvious than at OPTs own Hinksey Meadows, where these rare ancient flower-rich meadows, known as MG4 grassland, have been farmed in the same way for centuries, taking the hay once the flowers have set, and then allowing the cattle to graze.  Nature in turn has rewarded us all with the sweeping green landscape abundant with wild flowers and an ever increasing colony of Oxford’s own Snake’s head Fritillaries.  Nestled in behind the Botley Road, the fields wrap tenderly around the village of North Hinksey and Willow Walk provides its path into the city retaining its fragile rural character of a bygone age before the city reached out to shake hands.    

The Oxford Flood Relief Channel is being promoted by the Environment Agency who showed us their latest plans in the New Year.  As planned, it will cut a swathe through these precious green fields, open to everyone all day, every day, as it stretches out along the west side of the City from Botley to Kennington.  We were shown a channel 60 metres across in parts, running the whole length of Hinksey Lane.  Ground levels will be reduced and trees removed to keep the channel free of debris when it floods, altering the character of the area and reducing the groundwater levels across most of the field so that the current flowers cannot grow and thrive any more.  Further down the channel takes a large sweep up alongside Willow Walk to meet, we are told, a necessarily very large and high new bridge of engineering quality and proportion, where more trees will be felled, to allow water to flow freely under Willow Walk to continue downstream.  From here it continues to the south of Willow Walk across OPTs Hinksey Fields where a colony of the very rare plant Creeping Marshwort grows. From here the channel leaves OPT land and heads downstream across other ownerships. 

We have asked the EA to mark all this out on OPT land now and to leave it there for the duration of the planning application, so until at least the end of the year. This will mean that when the application is being consulted upon everyone will be able to go and see for themselves and make their own judgements, getting a sense of the scale, where the channel will go, what the bridge will be like and what trees will need to be felled.   

We were able to get a sense of the size of the operation for ourselves late last year when giant trial holes were dug and the archaeologists were on site, looking for the prehistoric and Roman route thought to run here and the causeway that links two fords which might hold the real clue to the start of the name Ox ‘Ford’.

Willow Walk, once known as Ruskin’s Ride, after the nineteenth century art critic who loved its rustic charm, was built for the Harcourt family in 1876-77, becoming a public path in 1922 as it remains today well used by both pedestrians and cyclists. And to the south, a much older, raised and unmade path which once had fords and ferries at either end to cross the Seacourt and Bulstake Streams, immortalised in the words of nineteenth century poet Robert Binyon in ‘Ferry Hinksey’ Verse 2  Between the winding willows To a city white with spires: It seemed a path of pilgrims To the home of earth’s desires. This was the main route into Oxford from the west until the Botley Road was improved from the sixteenth century. Ox Ford first appears in a document dated 1352 and may refer to two fords and the rather dramatic speculation of a marker post carved with a bull’s head gave name to the Bulstake Stream.

We have asked if something on this scale is really necessary, and whether they might first try better management of the channels and streams in the old fashioned way.  We are told that this won’t work, and the big scheme is the only way based on existing development and using figures for climate change across 50 years, with the lifespan of the scheme being 100 years.      

So will it work?  The figures the EA chart show differences of mere centimetres in flood levels after the work is carried out.  And no one, however clever, says it will necessarily stop the floods, but rather, reduce the risks. We are also told that the EA can only commit to the maintenance of the channel for ten years of the 100 years the project runs for.  Meanwhile we see no intention to stop building in the flood plain with the City continuing to promote an  extension to the Seacourt Park & Ride and the University quietly buying up Osney Mead with plans to redevelop.  And at the end of it all, and if we don’t say yes, then the EA can compulsorily purchase whatever they needs.