On 20 July 2007 over 100 cms of rain fell on west London in just a few hours. It really was an extraordinary rainstorm.
I was at an event under the Westway at the time and we were imprisoned by walls of rain. The Met Office later described the downpour as a once-in-a-130-year weather event.
Unfortunately, our Victorian sewer system was overwhelmed by the volume of water and well over 400 properties in Kensington and Chelsea were flooded. And some of the flooding in the W14 area came in the form of sewage; not good, especially for those in basement flats.
The 20th was a Friday and the Town Hall was winding down for the weekend and preparing to switch to the out-of-hours phone service. Even so, enough calls from residents had come into our switchboard to alert us that there was a problem.
A rest centre was set up, volunteers found to staff it and mutual aid agreed with a neighbouring borough; but that wasn’t really the help people were looking for. And in the meantime more calls were coming in to other council departments, and to the local police, whose control room, as fate would have it, was also affected by flooding and therefore unable to share situation reports with the Council.
The upshot was that on Friday we never really got a proper handle on the scale of the crisis and our full organizational response wasn’t triggered. Instead, our response was underpowered and some affected residents ended up feeling let down.
It was not our finest hour and that was a source of serious regret to the Council. We therefore held an inquiry and published the conclusions and recommendations a few months later.
The phrase ‘crooked timbers of humanity…’ springs to mind.
Attempts to design perfect systems are doomed to failure. Trial and error is how we actually improve. Our systems in July 2007 didn’t work but we responded with openness and transparency and a determination to do better next time; about that at least, we can be proud.
I’m telling you this because one of the things we did, post-rain as it were, was to first lobby and then work closely with Thames Water to address the fundamental problem of sewer capacity. To its credit, and despite many other pressures, Thames Water has been listening and has brought forward a major and complex scheme designed to solve the problem.
It involves many months of work in multiple locations. A consultation is presently going on, aimed at trying to find the best balance between getting this vital work done expeditiously and ameliorating the inevitable disturbance to local residents.
You can find out more about the work and how to comment at www.thameswater.co.uk/counterscreek
Kensington and Chelsea is a largely Victorian borough and some of its infrastructure is now struggling to cope with the demands of a modern and much more densely populated city. The sewers are a case in point. But we’ve also got massive gas main replacements going on right now too; we are having to renovate and refurbish our schools and regular readers will already know my views on the need to upgrade our creaking transport infrastructure.
If we want to remain the best borough, we need to face up to these and other challenges. That is what your Council is trying to do.