Questions asked over Lancaster floodgates delay

Coun Nick Wilkinson next to the flood gates at St George's Quay
Coun Nick Wilkinson next to the flood gates at St George's Quay
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A councillor has called for an inquiry after it emerged quay defence gates stayed open for five hours after a flood warning on the day the River Lune broke its banks.

Coun Nick Wilkinson, residents and emergency services all raised the alarm because the floodgates on St George’s Quay were not shut as the river rose to record levels during Storm Desmond.

Susan Millward sent this photo of firemen giving her children a ride whilst evacuating the flats on lower St Georges Quay on Sunday, December 6.

Susan Millward sent this photo of firemen giving her children a ride whilst evacuating the flats on lower St Georges Quay on Sunday, December 6.

Nearby homes and businesses were already flooded and police were even on standby with bolt cutters ready to close the gates amid fears the Environment Agency (EA) would not arrive in time to shut them.

The EA said they had the situation under control and claimed they closed the gates before properties were flooded.

But Coun Wilkinson, councillor for Castle ward, has written to Sir Phillip Dilley, chairman of the Environment Agency, asking him to explain why the gates were not closed sooner.

His call comes as the Environment Agency faces questions over a decision to open flood barriers in York city centre, leading to hundreds of homes being evacuated.

Coun Wilkinson was in Lancaster city centre on the afternoon of Saturday, December 5 as Storm Desmond struck.

He walked down to the quay but was forced to go around via the castle as flood waters rose into Cable Street.

Coun Wilkinson then spoke to residents and businesses who said they had phoned the Environment Agency asking for the flood gates on St George’s Quay to be shut.

He phoned too at around 4.55pm, but an operator said they were unable to confirm when the gates would be closed.

Coun Wilkinson then told the fire service, who at the time were pumping out water from flooded properties in Damside Street next to the Quay.

Police were also on the scene with bolt cutters ready to close the gates if required.

After around an hour, two Environment Agency officers arrived and shut the gates.

Later that evening, the quay and other parts of Lancaster city centre were under water.

Coun Wilkinson thinks the situation could have been even worse.

He said: “I was surprised that the gates were not closed as a matter of course when the Met Office weather warnings were issued.

“It took myself, and the emergency services, whose resources were already stretched that evening, over an hour to get the Environment Agency to close the gates.

“I’m concerned that if I had not sought the help of the fire service, who passed on the problem to their ‘gold’ emergency on-call room, that my call may have been forgotten and the gates may not have been closed which would have increased the flooding on the quay.

“There should be a way that emergency services can speak directly with the Environment Agency officers rather than having to go through a call centre.

“This lack of direct communication led to a number of police and fire people being tied up standing at a gate for an hour waiting rather than dealing with emergencies.”

The Environment Agency had issued a flood alert for the quay area just after 1pm on December 5 and said at the time that they were monitoring the situation.

The Guardian asked the Environment Agency why the gates were not closed until around five hours later.

A spokesman said: “Our river forecasting and operational duty teams were monitoring the situation closely both before and during this flood event, ensuring that all our operational activities across Lancashire were coordinated, balancing requirements to clear blockages in watercourses whilst ensuring that our assets such as flood gates and flood storage basins were operated as required.

“After monitoring river levels on the Lune throughout the day our operations teams arrived to close the gates at Lancaster quay at approximately 5.50pm.

“At this time the river levels were below the footpath on the quayside and all the gates were closed before levels threatened flooding to properties on the Quay.”

But Coun Wilkinson said the EA was missing the point and needed to ensure that the “near miss” didn’t happen again.