2024’s flooding in the Lambourn Valley: water levels, grants and keeping the pressure up – 10 February 2024 update

No one in the Lambourn Valley will need telling that early January saw heavy rainfall. This prompted a flood alert which for some proved all too necessary. All this comes – literally – on top of very high groundwater levels which have long caused well-publicised problems with the sewerage system as well as, in extreme cases, flooding to properties.

This summary of the situation is being kept up to date as much as possible. Given the high levels of groundwater, the threat of future rain and the continuing problems with Thames Water’s sewerage system, it’s likely the issues will continue to apply  for some time.

Please see bottom of the post for advice about actions you can take.

Update 10 February 2024

River stable but groundwater variable

The latest (9 February) email from the East Garston Flood and Pollution Forum – email martynwright345@btinternet.com if you’d like to receive these – reports that, although there’s a flood warning in place, there’s probably not a great deal to worry about as far as property damage is required from the current wet weather. Groundwater, however, is more of a problem. Martyn Wright says levels have been dropping in some parts of the upper Lambourn valley but falling in others.

Keeping the pressure on

He also refers to the “serious discussions that are continuing with Thames Water at a very senior level.” The intention is “to get TW’s commitment to carry out the further repair work that everyone knows needs doing.” And not just a commitment, he adds: we’ve had these before. Things actually need to happen.

Meanwhile, in his latest ward update, Lambourn ward member Howard Woollaston says that “I have now got agreement from the Liberal Democrat Councillors representing the lower reaches of the Lambourn and my colleague, Clive Hooker – my opposite number covering Downlands ward that includes East Garston and Great Shefford – that we will collaborate through a cross-party group to lobby Thames Water, the Environment Agency, West Berkshire Council and central government to find a long-term solution to the flood and sewage issues in the valley.”

Flood recovery grants

Finally, he draws attention to an important message about flood recovery grants. These will be available from the government via West Berkshire Council but only if the total reports in the district exceed 50. Currently, there have been about 36. If you’ve suffered from the January deluges, therefore, make sure you make your claim.

Update 23 January 2024

Road closure in Eastbury

The valley road (the main road through the village) had been closed for the last two weeks near the old village hall as there were fears that this could collapse. Recent investigations suggest that this is now regarded as less of a risk. “The closure in Eastbury is now lifted,” a WBC spokesperson told Penny Post on 23 January. “The road condition is being monitored but there are no immediate issues.”

Please see the advice below about driving very, very slowly through standing water as speeds more than about 5mph can create bow waves which can wash water (which may contain sewage) into people’s homes. Back Street in Eastbury should not be used as an alternative route through the village as it’s particularly prone to flooding: local access only.

Thames Water’s customer-service issues

As mentioned below (15 January update), Martyn Wright from the EGFPF recently presented TW with a dossier of reports which proved that the company’s customer-service messages frequently made no sense.

David Bird, the senior TW director responsible, attended the Lambourn Valley Flood Forum meeting on 15 January and afterwards sent Martyn Wright an email. The full text is in his 21 January newsletter. The main points were:

  • an apology for this muddle;
  • an admission that TW “simply does not have a suitable automated response for the unique hydraulic problems in the area”;
  • the promise that the water giant is “working to adapt a more agile automated response process.”

Something of that nature is certainly needed. (The problem seems to be that the complaints system can’t cope with problems in areas which have both chronic problems with groundwater and chronic problems with the sewerage systems, as is the case here.)

On 23 January, Lambourn Parish Council (and probably others) received a further communication from David Bird which outlined some “immediate” and “medium-term” (whatever exactly the last phrase means) actions. “Let me re-iterate,” the letter concludes, “my apologies for the issues that you have all been facing and confirm that we are doing everything we can to ensure that we resolve wherever possible the operational issues but also ensure that when residents are reporting issues, which we want you to do, that we are responding appropriately.”

While it’s good that Martyn Wright’s intervention has been accepted and acted upon, it should be remembered that this only, as it were, re-sets the dial from a minus reading to zero in terms of what good customer service should be. It also seems extraordinary that the first letter made several references to the “unique” topographical and hydraulic problems in the region as if they had only suddenly appeared there.

It also proves that TW did not appear to have tested its “relatively new automated works management system” on anyone outside TW’s corporate bubble nor on anyone inside the various different topographical and hydraulic areas over which TW has jurisdiction. Fortunately, there was someone able to point the problem out. This is not, however the way the system is meant to work. Neither Martyn Wright, nor the flood wardens, nor members of the local parish councils nor any of the other individuals or groups who’ve been forced to take an interest in the matter are paid by TW to proof-read its work.

A wider issue

The issue that this throws up, which has been the subject of recent conversations with three separate people today, is that local communities need to accept that they are holding the front line themselves (on this and so many other issues). There’s still the wishful assumption amongst many that organisations like TW, the EA and WBC have all the answers. This needs increasingly to be qualified by the fact that they don’t; and that they certainly no longer have (if they ever did) the budget to maintain the relatively trouble-free world that many of us have since the late 1940s enjoyed and, by dint of the taxes and charges we pay, come to expect.

As long as we can recognise that local problems require local action (which includes some joined-up thinking by the statutory organisations involved), this may be no bad thing. If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, it is also the price of matters like flood defence. Many other areas, in the UK and abroad, have suffered more badly but it’s a mistake for local groups to look too far beyond the areas they can directly influence.

The upper Lambourn valley seems well-served by such groups and individuals (so too is the Pang valley). This needs to continue. Without them, and left to their own unconnected devices, the statutory bodies would not on their own have produced even the slender results that the last few weeks have witnessed in these areas. More of the same is needed, coupled with a lot more pressure to adopt some holistic solutions. This includes involving local experts from outside the corporate bubble.

Government assistance

As mentioned below, on 6 January the government announced that help would be provided to affected properties and hat the scheme would be administered through local councils. (and the Lead Flood Authority) On 23 January, WBC announced that it had been told that this scheme was only applicable where fifty or more homes had been flooded in the district between 2 and 12 January and where this had been reported. West Berkshire currently did not exceed this threshold.

This may be because people who have suffered flooding have not officially reported it. See here for more info on flooding in West Berkshire; and, specifically, see here  to report a flood at your property if you have not already done so. The government has recognised that there might be a delay and a letterset to councils has said that “We recognise that local areas may still be collecting and verifying flooded property numbers across their area. So, whilst your authority may currently not be eligible to receive funding, should this figure rise to over 50, please contact us and we can complete the on-boarding arrangements.”

By reporting your flooding problem you will therefore be helping not only yourself but others in the district.

Update 15 January 2024

The Lambourn Valley Flood Forum

This met on 15 January and you can read a report on what was discussed from the Chair, Lambourn District Councillor Howard Woollaston, in a special mid-month update to his regular ward news.

Such meetings provide a useful opportunity for local groups to share information and to ask questions of, and get information from, the larger organisations. A particular advantage is that everyone (including representatives from TW, the EA and WBC) are all present at the same time – something that perhaps doesn’t happen as often as it should – which reduces the possibility of buck-passing.

This meeting also highlighted some important problems with the way that Thames Water’s complaints system was working in this area. The fact that it wasn’t working very well (in particular, the way it announced that a reported problem had been fixed when it hadn’t) had been flagged up by Martyn Wright of the EGFPF . Thames Water appeared to be genuinely shocked about what he had to tell them about their own system. A senior board member attended the meeting as a result.

He offered apologies and promised prompt action. This will, once fixed, be to the benefit of anyone reporting problems in any part of the TW area which, like the Lambourn Valley, suffers from a chronic combination of groundwater and a defective sewerage system.

Background (first written 5 January 2024)

Good news

The good news is that, as regards the area upstream of Shefford, the situation could have been worse (the further downstream towards the River Lambourn’s confluence with the Kennet east of Newbury, the worse the problems appear to be).

There has however been some flooding to properties and highways in the valley and Lambourn district councillor Howard Woolaston’s most recent monthly report describes, during a fact-finding trip around the parish on 5 January, overflowing manholes, sewage on the pavements and deep puddles in the roads.

That the situation was not worse downstream of Bockhampton is almost certainly due to the Eastbury flood alleviation scheme. Eastbury Village Warden James Potter said that it had performed “brilliantly” on Friday. The header image shows there is currently a large lake upstream of the bund, which is as it’s meant to be.

As James Potter explains, “the throttle (gap) at the bottom the structure is a fixed aperture. If the river fits through, it passes unhindered, only backing up when too much water comes down the valley. If it overtops, we lose protection well before it would affect anyone upstream: but it helps everyone downstream by effectively ‘metering’ flow until conditions (and the lake) return to normal.”

An analogy he used when we spoke today is that it’s like the plug-hole in a bath: no matter how much water there is, the outflow is limited by the size of the hole. Expect, therefore, to see this temporary lake in place (though steadily diminishing) for the next few days or weeks. You can read more about Eastbury’s flood alleviation scheme in this separate article.

How long this takes to vanish depends on whether there’s any more rain (which on 21 January there was) and how quickly the ground can absorb water. Eastbury Flood Warden Andrew Gorton told Penny Post that “the ground is now so saturated that the typical delay between rainfall and high river levels, characteristic of chalk streams, has disappeared. The behaviour is now like a “standard” river – it rains, the level goes up, then goes down when the rain subsides.  More water is continuing to pour down from the valley sides, covering the roads in some locations and eventually finding its way in to the river.”

Another seasonal issue is that normally the aquifer is full in the spring when there are plenty of thirsty trees and plants happy to soak up the life-giving H20, as well as sunshine to help evaporate it. Neither applies at present.

Everyone in the area owes a serious debt of gratitude to those who helped to get the Eastbury flood flood alleviation scheme installed, in particular Caroline Potter and Elizabeth Goodman; and also Andrew Gorton and James Potter for their work in monitoring and maintaining it. I doubt that many people immediately downstream of Eastbury realised until this week how much they owed to this.

And more good news

Another good piece of news, particularly for East Garston, is that – as Martyn Wright from the East Garston Flood and Pollution Forum (EGFPF) says in his recent newsletter – “the filter unit that Thames Water installed before Christmas near Mabberleys handled everything thrown at it with no reported problems.” Howard Woollaston’s above-mentioned reports from Lambourn show how overloaded the sewerage is. This unit therefore has taken some of the pressure off the local situation when Thames Water’s tankers are so badly needed elsewhere.

Martyn Wright was, however, keen to stress that these filters and tankers are only temporary solutions. As he observed following the meeting East Garston Parish Council convened with TW in December, “installing a filtration unit is an admission of failure.”

The evidence of the bubbling manhole covers and foul water discharging onto roads certainly proves failure on a large scale. Local responses – including the work of the Eastbury flood wardens and the EGFPF and the response of parish councils with sandbags – were able to mitigate the worst effects of the recent flooding. As regards the sewage, however, there is little anyone apart from Thames Water can do. It’s becoming increasingly clear that it has not been doing nearly enough.

Vick Rieunier, the Chair of Lambourn Parish Council, told Penny Post on 6 January that LPC would be discussing the matter at its next meeting at 7.30 in the Memorial hall on Wednesday 10 January – members of the public are welcome to attend. Councillors will also be attending the flood forum meeting on 15 January.

Following the floods, a new community service called Lambourn Response is being launched by The Lambourn Junction to connect those in need with those volunteers who have offered to help. For more information, click here.

Less good news

The latest EGFPF newsletter says that although the groundwater levels are falling, this is happening slowly. In particular, there are problems in Eastbury, which we look at in more detail in the Lambourn Valley Weekly News column for  11 January.

The same source also reports that the ATAC in East Garston is unusable to cope with the volume of water in the sewers: expect, therefore, overflowing manholes and (if they can be obtained) more tankers in the village.

Given the high groundwater levels and the fact that, even if there’s no further rain, the land is completely hidden, it would be worth expecting that the current situation could continue for weeks rather than days.

Great Shefford

Great Shefford also suffered problems but, also protected by the work at Eastbury, these were less severe than they might have been. The village has been waiting some time for a flood alleviation scheme, its £80,000 contribution having been raised back in October 2019. Work is now expected to start in the spring of 2024. Such a time-lag is apparently normal for projects that involve the Environment Agency.

Residents of the village can keep their eye on the latest situation through the Great Shefford Villagers FB page.

Help from the government

On 6 January, the government announced that “flood-hit communities impacted by Storm Henk (2 Jan to 8 Jan) can now apply for thousands of pounds from the government to help them recover.” The financial support will be available to eligible areas in England that have experienced exceptional localised flooding.

The five groups which can currently benefit from this are: flooded households in eligible affected areas; households and businesses significantly affected; small-to-medium sized businesses in eligible affected areas; eligible flood-hit property owners; and farmers who have suffered uninsurable damage to their land.

Support will be available through councils which will announce further details on eligibility and how to apply.

The next few weeks

As Martyn Wright of the EGFPF points out, “our main threat now is groundwater” and he adds that WBC’s Emergency team is “working on the basis that it could be as bad as 2014.” Levels are currently high and it’s hard to know how long it will take for the results of the recent deluge to filter through the aquifer and what effects these will have on the water table. If your house is prone to groundwater flooding, you should prepare for the worst.

For the rest of us, the main result is likely to be felt through the sewerage system. As is widely known, the higher there groundwater levels, the more water will rush in through the cracks in the pipes and overflow the network, with the disgusting results we’re all too familiar with.

For the reasons mentioned above, there’s also likely to be groundwater around for some time, some of which will be on the roads: which, if the forecast is correct, may freeze.

With all the above in mind, bear the following in mind:

  • Please report any incidents of surface-water flooding, overflowing rivers and the like to West Berkshire Council. Please report any incidents of overflowing sewers to Thames Water. Do not assume that someone else will have reported these. Please also take photos it it’s safe to do so.
  • Please drive slowly through any areas, particularly villages, where these is flooding on the roads. The Eastbury Flood Wardens advise that “anything above crawling speed creates bow waves and pushes or sprays contaminated water against houses, people and cars.”
  • Please drive carefully if the temperature drops as there may be ice on the roads as a result of the surface water.
  • Please allow extra time for your journeys; as well as needing to drive slowly through the affected areas, there may be road closures in place (which will also cause disruptions to matters like postal deliveries and rubbish collection).
  • Please be careful what you put down the toilet (which should only take the three Ps: pee, poo and paper). Wet wipes (even the ones that claim to be flushable), cotton wool, dental floss, condoms and anything else will cause blockages. Also avoid washing oil, fat, grease or plate scrapings down the sink. See Thames Water’s Bin it Don’t Block it advice.
  • Please sign up to receive the newsletters from the EGFPF which keep residents of East Garston up to date. Email martynwright345@btinternet.com to be added to the list.
  • Please click here for more advice about coping with flooding and where to report issues.

Brian Quinn

Header photograph by James Potter.


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