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Holding back the tide - Planning for the future of flood risk in the Thames estuary

Posted by: and , Posted on: - Categories: Climate change, Flood

As part of London Flood Week, Senior Advisors Sarah Campbell and Katy Francis from the Environment Agency's Thames Estuary 2100 team talk about the future of flood protection in the estuary.

Thames Barrier during its annual test closure in October 2018

Did you know that the tidal Thames can rise and fall by up to 7 metres a day?

Did you also know that throughout the ages London has been affected by tidal flooding - including in 1953, when, tragically, over 300 people lost their lives along the east coast of England?

The 1953 event led to the construction of the iconic Thames Barrier, which today works with other defences along the Thames estuary to protect 1.3 million residents and £275 billion worth of property from tidal flooding. That includes key government buildings, hospitals, power stations, world heritage sites, airports, tube and rail networks and over 400 schools.

Staying protected

The Environment Agency’s Thames Estuary 2100 team is working with partners such as councils and infrastructure providers to deliver the Thames Estuary 2100 Plan. The plan sets out how we can work together to manage tidal flood risk from now until the end of the century.

London benefits from extensive and complex flood defences in the estuary, including the famous Thames Barrier, but with climate change, and more people living and working in the estuary, flood risk will increase. The Thames Estuary Plan gives us an ‘adaptable strategy’ to use to manage this future risk. Essentially we can change our approach to managing flood risk in the future depending on how conditions, such as sea level, change over time.

Staying relevant

Over time, our understanding of what the future Thames estuary will look like evolves, and these changes need to be reflected in the strategy. It’s our job to make sure we keep up with those changes and how they affect our estimates of what a future estuary will be like. This allows us to change our approach if necessary.

This month, November 2018, sees the release of the latest UK climate change projections (UKCP18). This is the most important piece of climate science we have seen for several years in the UK, so it’s an exciting time for us! Our team will be using this information to check whether our recommendations for how to manage the flood defences are right.

Together we work with our team to ensure we are collecting the right information so the strategy is kept up to date and reflects the aspirations of the Environment Agency and its partners. We want to be at the forefront of delivering this type of adaptable approach. Working on achieving this means we get to carry out new and exciting research with partners and find out about what others are doing at home and abroad when it comes to adapting to climate change.

Working together

Whilst the strategy manages flood risk, it also aims to deliver wider benefits than just flood protection.

It’s essential we work with our partners in the estuary to understand their aspirations for sustainable growth, improved public amenity and an enhanced environment. We can then incorporate these into our strategy for the estuary.

Flood defences take up space so it is challenging to construct new or improved defences in an estuary where land is in demand. It’s important that we work with our partners to plan for a riverside that is better for everyone - which is why we promote an approach where local aspirations and flood defence requirements can be brought together in a single vision.

We are currently working on reviewing the entire strategy and updating our recommendations. We will publish an updated Plan in 2021.

The Plan also includes objectives for maximising the environmental, social, cultural and economic value of the tidal River Thames, its tidal tributaries and its floodplain. This supports the ambitions of the Government’s 25-year Environment Strategy by increasing the natural capital of the Thames and enhancing the value of the river to society.

The Environment Agency is investing over £2.6 billion of government money to better protect the country from flooding and coastal erosion between April 2015 and March 2021. This includes over 1,500 schemes, which will better protect 300,000 from flooding into the future.

Get in touch

If you’re interested in hearing more about the current strategy, or how to get involved in the review and update, then sign up for our quarterly newsletter by emailing



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  1. Comment by John Swallow posted on

    Essentially there is an urgent and undeniable need for very high level, EFFECTIVE conversations to take place which have to include time constrained DELIVERABLES. PR statements, of the type used all too frequently by many of us in the past were often issued JUST to gain breathing space before we actually sat down and committed to a course of action or, worse used to delay knowledge arriving in front of the political opposition of the moment. The use of such tactics has to stop immediately.
    This is now lifeboat time and the rules have changed. To keep the boat afloat, the occupants have to work as a team and its individual members should be kept aware of what is being attempted for the common good but not necessarily constantly reminded of the consequence of failure. There may not be a perfect answer to the management of the lifeboat during the course of its life, however if it does nothing else but sustain hope, then part of its purpose has been fulfilled. At one end of the boat, experts in a variety of fields can be given space and tools to search for solutions. In the midship are the navigators and discussion intermediaries and at the other are those who cannot contribute other than put their shoulders to the wheel, which would involve catching fish and collecting rain water. No one group can consider itself to be more important than the other.
    I recall my own Royal Navy Destroyer Captain, speaking to his Communications rating, me aged all of 15, fresh from Boy Telegraphist Training in 1951, “It matters not out here who pulls the plug, young Swallow, we all sink. Now review that course alteration you have just received and sharpish.........”!
    Contradictory behaviour will continue to occur – an activist group, with very deeply held convictions, feel that the only way they have of being heard is to close off vehicle routes. The Policing “need?” arising and their own attendance are both counterproductive in factual terms. In that more greenhouse gases are generated because vehicle journeys become much longer and slower than previously, travel of all participants to a location and a supervising helicopter taking to the air. XR, to its credit so far, has been peaceful but picking people up off the street and taking them to court, plays directly into the hands of the chaos generators among the population. Note I do not have connection to XR.
    How do we get over this unwanted aspect of protest? We simply take note of their argument and invite them in to discuss how we can best use our current powers. Don’t overlook the truth that all governments, regardless of their ideology, exercise power by consent. The XR group may, for the very first time in history, clearly show that government and the governed have a single, mutually beneficial, objective. Government has but one chance to demonstrate its own depth of understanding and reply sensibly, as opposed to the business as normal stance, of a PR type reply. If you hold to the view that being President of a country, a King or Queen, a very rich person or a very poor one means that in some way or the other, you will escape the outcome of ignoring climate change, then you could not be more wrong. The negative impact of climate change will affect everyone with impunity, regardless of their status. So Mr Vice Chancellor, Mr President and Mr Swallow, combine your thinking and try to get us out of this mess!
    The following observations or proposals have 6 common factors
    • They are doable
    • They are imperfect solutions
    • The are necessary just to gain time
    • They cannot be cost justified with current accounting process – a new process is required
    • They give a breathing space to engineer solutions that have greater efficiency
    • Politics and personal ambitions need to be put on the “back burner until 2070”
    Simple but possible and not requiring vast amounts of cash. Get children planting seeds to grow trees, make a label (not plastic of course) for the child to attach to the tree and in due course, get those trees into the ground and then looked after by older but still supervised children and anyone else who wants to help. Where do we plant them? Easy, take 10ft of the grass margin to The Downs (Bristol), for example. Forget the 1861 act of Parliament, when that was written no one ever thought we would be tackling the current problem. In the meantime, buy in trees for adults to plant in their own gardens and charge them with their care. Every day these trees will be seen and interpreted as a signal of hope. The population will see evidence of real effort. Outside our own house at least 50 trees could be planted which would add to the 20 that we already have growing and all of them sequestering carbon. If we push the climate clock just 10 minutes further into the future.................The discussion continues but I will need an email address to send the document to. This panel, sensibly, does not allow unregulated volume. I need c30k


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