Council’s flood defence team speaks out about protecting Southend’s coast

When Storm Ciara hit Southend on February 9 it brought with it winds so powerful they downed trees and tore off a section of roof belonging to the town’s famous CliffS Pavilion theatre – but it wasn’t until a day after the storm that the town’s coastal defences were put to the test.

The 75mph winds calmed the following day but Southend Council’s flood defence team monitored the activity out at sea where buoys were indicating that a rare occurrance – strong winds were combining with a high spring tide to create a storm surge.

The surge eventually hit Southend’s coast in the form of a one metre wall of water that crashed into beach huts, flooded roads and overwhelmed flood defences.

“It was a very interest event,” said Neil Hoskins, the council’s manager of major projects. “We had the main storm on the Sunday and the coastal defences were intact.

“We had no breach at all that day although we did have contractors on standby to close roads.

“But on the Monday we were told there was a surge tide coming.

“This is caused by two factors, a bit of the high winds picking up the seas causing high seas and also atmospherics going on that combined, created a surge tide of about a metre.”

He said the environment agency later confirmed the surge was the third biggest to hit Southend since the 1950s but sea defences held up.

“They stood up to the storm but then there was a very significant surge tide and there was only one section where the water went over the top, which was the western esplanade section. No where else had overtopping due to that particular issue.”

The council’s sea defences are designed through a combination of an internal design team and consultancy firm Mott MacDonald.

The council’s £770,000 contract with the consultancy firm has been in place for almost seven years and Mr Hoskins explained that despite concerns about the use of a consultancy firm, it is the most cost-effective approach.

He said: “We have a five year plus two-year contract and we are coming to an end of the plus-two and we will be going out to tender at the end of the year.

“As you can imagine there is a whole host of engineering specialists that we would only use occasionally so we have an in-house design team – we do most of our civil engineering projects in-house now, not just sea defences but a broad range of civil engineering projects.

“However, there are specialists who we don’t need to call on every five minutes, people who specialise in economics, hydraulics and all sorts of engineering disciplines that we don’t need on a daily basis but we still need access to them.

“So this is a much more cost effective way. We have an in-house design team that can do the bulk of the work we need and we call upon those people that really specialise in niche engineering disciplines when we need them.”

The coastal defences are set for a boost in funding under the council’s new budget for 2020/21, with more than £4million allocated to Shoebury Common sea defences, as well as £210,000 on repair and exploration work to prepare for “extreme weather events”.

These extreme weather events are set to mean significantly more investment in defences in the coming years if climate change is not tackled, Mr Hoskins explained.

“If we don’t start addressing climate change in a significant way then we will be seeking increasing sums of money from the government to raise the sea defences, not just us but all coastal authorities,” he said.

“We will be raising sea defences and raising sea defences until eventually it is not economic anymore and then you have to look at a managed retreat situation.”

A managed retreat means the authority would literally abandon sections of the coast to flooding. Last year the policy was adopted by the village of Fairbourne on the west coast of Wales and in short it means that no money will be spent by Gwynedd Council on defending the community.

“We would be a very long way from that,” stressed Mr Hoskins.

“For that to happen you would have to have a government or even world government policy that said do nothing, combined with a significant number of years.

“It is not something that will not happen tomorrow but it is something we need to be mindful of.”

Steve Shaw

Local Democracy Reporter