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Council scrutinised over failure to commit to River Thames flood defence scheme

Questions were asked over the Royal Borough’s failure to contribute to a River Thames flood defence scheme at a scrutiny meeting this week.

Members at the infrastructure overview and scrutiny panel learned what the council’s position was regarding the £635million Environment Agency (EA) led project.

The Royal Borough’s contribution stood at £52.7million but, earlier this year, the council was advised by it’s finance chief that it could not commit fully to the scheme due to its precarious financial state.

‘Channel One’ of the three-section project is based on building a new channel at Datchet and continuing south through Horton and Wraysbury, reconnecting with the River Thames at Runnymede, in Surrey.

The council’s head of commissioning and infrastructure, Ben Smith, said during the meeting on Wednesday that the borough has a shortfall in cash of about £40million.

The project is still commencing as planned, but not in ‘Channel One’ – the Royal Borough’s area.

In September 2017, the council approved £10million worth of funding for the scheme, in the hope that Government legislation could be changed to allow the borough to fix a ‘flood levy’ to council tax.

Mr Smith said this ‘has never happened’ after previous ‘positive noises’ from Government.

Other local authorities – including Surrey County Council – have committed to paying its share, and the project is now in a detailed design stage.

Mr Smith reassured members that the EA is ‘working with’ the council to see if there are ‘more local flood measures’ that can be progressed.

“We are yet to see those solutions or what the costs are, but there is certainly more funding available from the overall River Thames scheme budget, and our own approved budget,” Mr Smith said.

He added he was meeting with the EA in two weeks to discuss this further.

Councillors questioned the borough’s role within the scheme, with Cllr Jon Davey (OWRA, Clewer & Dedworth West) accusing the council of ‘promising things based on fiction’.

“What I struggle with is that the council made a decision to proceed and do something based on a flood levy that was not in place,” Cllr Davey said.

“You can’t go around promising things based on fiction until it is a reality. It’s quite embarrassing.”

Mr Smith responded by saying the council made its decision three years ago based on the information it had at the time.

He added that costs have altered as more work has happened and that at the time, ‘there was positive commitment’ from Government that the flood levy would be taken forward.

Cllr Ewan Larcombe (National Flood Prevention Party, Datchet, Horton and Wraysbury) waded in on the debate, adding he was only made aware of the shortfall in funding in March.

“From my point of view, this is simply another chapter in the failure of the financial governance as exposed in the CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) report,” Cllr Larcombe said.

“The result is that people at risk [of flooding] downstream of Maidenhead and Windsor are now denied the opportunity for effective flood defences.”

Cllr Larcombe concluded by reading out a number of questions which he was advised by Cllr Julian Sharpe (Con, Ascot and Sunninghill) to send in formally after the meeting.

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