Torquay Letter: Tourism badly hit by storms

Cameron given rescue plan to help ‘English Riviera’

The side table in the hall of The Lindens, Sue and Larry Elliott’s bed-and-breakfast in Torquay in Devon, is filled with thank-you cards from guests, extolling its virtues.

Business, however, is not good. The couple, in business for nearly three years, have just come through their worst month: “It has been down by half on what we would normally have.”

The Devon town – the English Riviera, in the words of its slogan – was battered during the winter storms – the seafront sustained damage, trees were felled, roofs damaged. However, for Torquay, along with other parts of southwest England all the way down to Penzance in Cornwall, the biggest problem has been the fracturing of the railway line at Dawlish.

A journey to Torquay can now takes four hours: a train to Exeter St David, a bus to Newton Abbott and another train to the seaside town.


Meanwhile, Labour Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw says the service to "Bristol, south Wales, the midlands and the north is still under 18 inches of water for more than a mile of its stretch near Bridgwater in Somerset".

Public image
However, the biggest problem is public perception, Sue Elliott believes: "People outside think the southwest is closed for business, they think that Devon is underwater. It isn't."

Parts of the southwest, of course, are still flooded, particularly the Somerset Levels – the 25,000-hectare district northwest of Torquay suffering since before Christmas.

Yesterday, local MPs, Somerset County Council, the Environment Agency and residents presented a rescue plan to British prime minister David Cameron.

Putting forward measures that will test Cameron’s declaration “that money is no object”, the centrepiece is a £26 million tidal barrage at the mouth of the Parrett, near Bridgwater.

The barrage, an idea put forward a number of times over the centuries, would hold back the highest tides, and slow the rate at which silt builds up.

Dredging stopped in the mid-1990s on the Parrett and its sister river, the Tone, after the Environment Agency took over greater day-to-day control from drainage boards.

Now, the agency has reversed policy, committing itself to dredging the Tone for 4km upstream of the King Alfred pub at Burrowbridge and the Parrett for 4km after it joins the Tone.

Such work would bring the rivers back to their 1960s state: “This will begin as soon as it is safe and practical to do so, ideally from the end of March, and will be completed by autumn 2014, weather permitting,” said the paper.

More pumping stations will be installed to drain the levels, which are at, or below sea-level, while 44km of roads will be made “more resilient” to flooding by March 2015.

Meanwhile, planning authorities in Somerset, along with Wessex Water, the Environment Agency and the department of environment, food and rural affairs will identify urban areas where the most water runs off.

Pressed by a local MP, Cameron said: “I agree that the cameras and the press have now departed, but it is important that we do not take our eye off the important issue of draining the Somerset Levels.”

Engineering, however, is not the only solution. Restoration of peat bogs on Exmoor over the last five years – where drainage ditches put in over centuries are being blocked up – has cut water flow by a third.

“By blocking up drainage ditches, the moorland can hold more water and release it more slowly, bringing benefits to raw water quality and quantity,” says Prof Richard Brazier and University of Exeter researchers.

“This enhanced water storage, could, if replicated across the whole of Exmoor, provide a significant buffer against downstream flooding in rivers like the Exe.”

The Exmoor restoration of 2,000 hectares of bog by 2015 is being carried out by South West Water, working alongside the Environment Agency, Exmoor National Park Authority and Natural England.

Cleaner water
Besides holding more, the repairing Exmoor bogs are releasing cleaner water – which already cuts the costs faced by South West Water at its water-treatment plants.

Back in Torquay, the Elliotts are praying for good weather, particularly since forecasters have tempted fate by promising a weekend of sun.

The southwest needs to change perceptions. Locals have been urged to post photographs of good weather, if it comes, wide and far on social media.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times