A Small Village in Gloucestershire Has Pulled Its Wagons Around Its 'Watery Meadows' As

A Small Village in Gloucestershire Has Pulled Its Wagons Around Its 'Watery Meadows' As

Tewkesbury Borough Council is suspected of underhand tactics to shoehorn flood-prone village of Twigworth into plans for mass housing – despite warnings from an international expert on flooding.

– by George Sharpley, former chair of Twigworth Parish Council

Twigworth has pulled its wagons around its ‘water meadows’, as the poet Ivor Gurney called them, in a last-ditch defence against the machinations of officialdom. The village lies two miles north of Gloucester Cathedral in open country, just. Gurney loved the village, learned his Maths and Latin at the rectory, and now lies buried in the churchyard next door. He might not recognise the village of Longford half a mile to the south, which has recently had several hundred houses controversially built in fields lapping the oft-overspilling brook.

Until now Twigworth has been luckier. It has escaped mass development three times in as many years. The village lies at the southern end of the borough council of Tewkesbury, which along with Cheltenham and Gloucester makes up the JCS or ‘Joint Core Strategy’, a partnership of three local councils set up to determine housing strategy. In 2014 Twigworth was considered for inclusion, but withdrawn. Then came an application from a local developer to build 750 houses, which was refused for a variety of reasons. And in October 2016, when the JCS was anxious to put Twigworth back in to make up numbers, the councillors voted against.

One look at a map suggests Twigworth as an obvious candidate for development. The village is after all relatively close to the centre of Gloucester, in a part of the county whose flat land is considered less precious than the Cotswolds a few miles to the east. For years Gloucester has been extended south, while little has been added to the north. But for longer than anyone can remember, there has been a good reason for that.

Twigworth lies less than a mile to the east of the River Severn, which every year or two spills its banks and ripples floodwater towards the village. In 2007 several houses went under. But the wider problem for Twigworth is not only the fluvial water from the Severn. It is also inundated with surface or ‘pluvial’ floodwater (‘fluvius’ is Latin for river, ‘pluvia’ for rain). In most circumstances pluvial flood-water would come and go. But Twigworth’s flat, clay-heavy fields, which lie at virtually no gradient to the fluvial floodwater close by, remain saturated for weeks, forming large ponds that will not drain away: the water table is only inches below the surface.

Data on pluvial floodwater is sketchy, partly by its nature, as ‘flash’ flooding can happen almost anywhere. In a place like Twigworth, however, the problem keeps repeating itself. Pluvial records only go back as far as 2011, and are not yet dependable: in 2015 the developer’s planning application included a pluvial floodrisk map which showed houses in Twigworth to be at minimum possible floodrisk ‒ houses that in 2007 had been inundated and then evacuated for many months.

Twigworth is accepting its share of new houses, for the village is currently increasing its housing stock by over 30%. But the far huger ambitions of local councils are causing serious alarm. After Tewkesbury Borough Councillors voted to exclude Twigworth last October, the council’s senior management pulled all the stops out to get this decision reversed. They targeted a meeting three months later. The chief executive, Mike Dawson, was also at the time chief officer of the JCS, and he made no secret of his desire to include Twigworth in the housing allocation. Not surprisingly Gloucester and Cheltenham Councils were in favour too, for it helped make up their quota without affecting their residents. Even the chief executive of the wider county council, Peter Bungard, sent an email to Dawson following their October disappointment: ‘Sad! I did have a go. Pete.’[1] Their view seems to be that Twigworth has to be developed to meet housing numbers, and to avoid talk of developing the open land between Cheltenham and Gloucester, which is currently occupied by the council-owned, council-subsidised Gloucestershire airport.

All officialdom across the county appears to share this view. The County Council is the statutory consultee on pluvial flooding, and earlier this year the parish council met their floodrisk officer, David Parish. He said the land at Twigworth could be drained effectively. He did not say how. Nor could he be persuaded to identify existing flood defences that function well in conditions like ours. The level of mistrust at this level is concerning. Mr Parish said he had no record of the properties that had ‘allegedly’ flooded in 2007. He said they depended on private householders telling them they were flooded, and sometimes people do not want to report it.[2] Well that’s no surprise given the impact it might have on their insurance premiums or sale potential. Thus the authorities depend on a source for their data which is unlikely to be forthcoming. And they assume that unknown flood potential equates to no flood risk.

We suggested to Mr Parish that the law should be revised: any development in a flood-sensitive area should ‒ prior to any buildings application ‒ be approved for its ‘water plan’, a detailed account of how it would be drained, ponds, plantations (trees drink water) and amenities. Water can be a positive enhancement.

In October one voice had an impact on the councillors’ vote to exclude Twigworth. Years ago I spoke with a professor of hydrology at the University of Bristol about Twigworth’s problems. Ian Cluckie is now retired, though he still acts as a senior advisor on flooding all round the world, including China.[3] Via specialist software he had followed the 2007 storm as it came up the Severn, splitting at Tewkesbury and then further up the Severn and the tributary Avon. He was intrigued, and came to see the lie of the land. Then, without any payment or prodding or any other interest in the area, he publicly expressed an opinion against mass development in this village. His intervention rocked council officers, who had been expecting an easy victory in the October vote.

A month after their reversal, Tewkesbury Borough Council officers (or the JCS, impossible to tell them apart) commissioned an additional ‘fresh’, ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ flood risk report, which would then be the subject of a fresh briefing for councillors. They contracted a new consultant, a professional drainage engineer, who was now working under his own name, Michael Thomas, although earlier in his career had started a company called MTC Engineering. Twigworth residents were initially supportive. But after our invitation to meet him and show him the worst affected areas was declined, the parish council became suspicious. It was then discovered that a director of MTC Engineering had been put forward by the JCS to speak on local radio to counter the concerns of residents, a month before Michael Thomas’ recruitment as a ‘fresh’, ‘independent’, consultant.

Michael Thomas did not carry out a fresh survey of the terrain; his brief was to look at existing reports. His work had to be squeezed in before the second vote was due in January. He did not even consider the one example of SUDS (sustainable urban drainage system) in the village, which is ineffective due to the high water table. He duly briefed councillors on 13 January, two weeks before the second vote; he was also then contracted to attend the meeting of the vote, presumably to reassure any waverers. Twigworth Parish Council asked if Professor Cluckie could also speak to councillors, either prior to the meeting or on the night, but this was refused. Instead Twigworth was allowed to present a written statement from him:

‘At best, in my view, any large-scale housing development in Twigworth, Gloucestershire, will require substantial engineering with significantly high cost implications; that it will also require intensive on-going management. It will increase the flood impact off-site given that the only option is to provide limited on-site storage of the pluvial runoff where the capacity will occasionally be exceeded; that fluvial flooding is going to get more severe sooner rather than later given the nature of future flood producing storms due to climate changes; and that it is altogether unwise to build so many houses in this location and far preferable to find alternative, safer, less restrictive locations elsewhere.’ [4]

Professor Cluckie’s words failed to preserve the October majority. Mike Dawson and his team had done their homework, and were delighted. ‘A bump in the road negotiated, we move on’ he emailed his colleagues. Councillors were also presented with the incentive of a £3m bonus to council funds once the housing allocations were complete.

Twigworth has felt thoroughly deceived. The council had written to Twigworth Parish Council explaining that the new flood risk work by Michael Thomas was to provide a robust evidence base for the exclusion of Twigworth.[5] This was clearly not the case. Weeks earlier councillors had voted to exclude it. That should have been the end of it. The Council/JCS management were throwing everything at reversing that decision. Following Michael Thomas’ briefing of the councillors on 13 January, Mike Dawson wrote to the other two council leaders in the JCS:

Jon and Tim,

Just to advise TBC’s JCS member workshop went well and a number of members I think will have changed their views.

This is not the impartial and scientific work of a council seeking ‘a robust evidence base to justify the exclusion of Twigworth’.

If TBC/JCS really needed such evidence to put before the Inspector, why not use what they had already: for instance, (1) Twigworth had already been excluded by the democratic process on 25th October 2016; (2) the village had previously been excluded by the JCS; (3) planning permission was refused in 2015 for a major development; (4) an independent and highly regarded hydrologist advised the council to build elsewhere.

Instead, the council somehow justifies a budget of £20,000 to the new consultant to shoehorn Twigworth back into their plans. It is no wonder that trust in councils in Gloucestershire is at an all-time low. You might expect such tricks from a developer, but surely not from your own borough council. Mike Dawson even denied that Michael Thomas’ company, MTC Engineering, had been involved in the Twigworth question prior to his recruitment ‒ despite one of their directors speaking to BBC local radio on behalf of the JCS against Twigworth a month before he was appointed. [6]

In June the JCS Inspector will review submissions and hear presentations for and against, so all is not yet sunk here, despite our strong feeling of having been sold by our borough council, almost literally, down the river. The decision to build these houses is not the same as picking a football team, which you can change the following week. When problems start you cannot pull up a thousand houses. As a neighbour put it: "Brexit or no Brexit, the bad news is when I wake up tomorrow morning Tewkesbury Borough Council will still be there."

Can we vote for Twixit?

George Sharpley

[1] A file (FOI) of council correspondence is available, with page references.

[2] Minutes of Meeting at The Oakwood, Twigworth, 28 March 2017, 2.30-4.00pm of David Parish, Naveen Tangri (both Glos County Council, pluvial floodrisk officers), Helen Ford (Chair, Twigworth Parish Council), George Sharpley (Twigworth resident).


[4] Notes on flood risk appraisal at Twigworth Gloucestershire: informal comments on two reports for the JCS (by Capita and Michael Thomas, 2016) by Professor Ian David Cluckie FREng, FRSA, Acad.CAE, 26th January 2017

[5] Letter to Twigworth Parish Council from the Borough Solicitor, 8 December 2016

[6] 9th March 2017 –Mike Dawson letter to George Sharpley: ‘Mr Thomas was commissioned by the JCS Authorities and he had not, until his appointment in November 2016, done any work in respect of the Twigworth site either in his consultancy or in any previous employment. MTC Engineering provided calculations at the request of Mr Thomas to inform his report but have not otherwise involved (sic) in any work relating to Twigworth.’

However, Mike Brindley, a director of MTC Engineering (which was the name given by the BBC) was put up by the JCS to speak to BBC Radio Gloucestershire on 25th October 2016, the morning of the first vote, to counter anxieties of Twigworth residents.