Damn Disaster Ahead

Last year was a bad year for Hampstead Heath, writes David Lewis. This year, 2015, will be much worse. The attempt by the Heath & Hampstead Society to stop the so called Ponds Project because it ignores protections contained in the Hampstead Heath Act 1871 was dismissed by a High Court judge on 28 November 2014; the judge also refused the Society Permission to Appeal.

The last chance to stop or modify this disfiguring and unnecessary project took place on 15 January  2015 at Camden Town Hall when LB Camden Planning Committee made its decision to go ahead with the project in the face of almost unanimous opposition from the Public.

The whole meeting was devoted to this single application and over a 100 members of the public packed the public Gallery.

As predicted in the original version of this article, published in the Hampstead Village Voice on the morning of that meeting, the City started to fell 176 mature trees (raised by nine at the last minute) within days of  the decison. By 1 March all 176 trees had been felled and large areas of so called "scrub" including saplings have been cleared by bulldozers. The rear of the Catchpit area has been completely destroyed.

All the trees were in sensitive locations, especially at the Stock Pond where the plan is for an ugly reinforced grass spillway to replace a charming glade of 23 mature trees bordering the pond edge of this nature reserve.Thirteen of those trees were mature healthy oaks. A last ditch attempt was made to save these trees but as predicted in an earlier version of this article, it did not happen.

In the last 100 years there have been around 400,000 deaths caused by road traffic accidents in the UK. During the same time period there have been 21 deaths caused by dam collapse and none in the last 90 years.

The driving force behind the proposals is not that anyone is really in danger of being killed in a massive storm. These proposals are self-evidently ridiculous. Before any work has been done, the cost of the contract has risen from £2.4  million, then £15 million and now to over £21 million. This project is more about private profit than public safety.

Unfortunately the City of London Corporation is a trustee which has exclusive power over Hampstead Heath. Unlike most local authorities, which are elected by local people, the electorate in the City of London is the 6,000 people who live in the City together with 24,000 nominees of the mainly big businesses based there.

All the consultations were overwhelmingly against the work
The Corporation claims to have consulted widely among local residents. But criticisms and alternatives to the current design, including those from the carefully chosen Stakeholder Group, whose membership originally deliberately excluded the project's most outspoken critics, have largely been ignored or rejected.

A public consultation was overwhelmingly against the project. Three packed public meetings in Hampstead, in January 2012, in Belsize Park in November 2013, and in Highgate in February 2014, overwhelmingly condemned the proposals.

To date 12,608 people have signed a petition against the works, 905 people wrote with detailed objections to the Planning Application. The Ham & High, the Camden New Journal and the Village Voice have published over 70 articles and letters against the project. Articles and critical comments have been published in the Guardian, The Times, the Evening Standard and broadcast on Radio and TV.

The heaviest storm ever recorded in the UK happened over Hampstead Heath in August 1975 depositing 170mm of water on the Heath. No dam was breached; flooding which occurred in some streets was a result of water running down the hills and roads and inadequate drains. As a precautionary measure a number of the dams were later strengthened with steel sheet piling. Also a large underground flood water containment tunnel was built under Parliament Hill Fields by Thames Water.

Money makes the world go round
Power over the dams under the 1975 Reservoirs Act is in the hands of one civil engineer. The High Court judge considers that the word of that engineer is absolute. The fact that the engineer's company has a contract from the City which can provide revenue of up to £2,500,000 is not considered relevant.

Civil Engineers also set the standards. The rules for deciding what sort of safety standards apply to dams are not contained in legislation, either primary or secondary. They are contained in a document called Floods and Reservoir Safety published by the Institution of Civil Engineers. This is not a mandatory document but is treated as such by the engineers, the City of London and now a judge.

The engineers who implement the “guidance” in Floods and Reservoir Safety and profit from works arising out of it, are the same engineers and their employers who drafted the guidance. When the guidance is republished it becomes more stringent. A new 4th edition has recently been published and the works on Hampstead Heath conforms to the new standards because the engineer in charge of the Heath is a leading light in the group which sets these standards.

These same civil engineers gave evidence to the Pitt Enquiry into flooding, have advised the Government on the provisions of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 which amends and broadens the the 1975 Reservoirs Act and are consulted on the drafting of secondary legislation under the 2010 Act. The consequence is that engineers and their employers benefit financially from the extra work generated by these new rules which they draft and implement.

This is called a conflict of interest - a situation which is not confined to engineers and which in the UK is not regarded as a corrupt practice nor is it a criminal offence.

Conflict of interest is not discouraged or banned by the Institution of Civil Engineers in its Code of Professional Conduct. Indeed the phrase conflict of interest does not appear in the Code. This needs to be addressed.

The Heath dams are safe
At the present time only three of the dams on Hampstead Heath are large enough to be regulated. When (or if) all of the 2010 Act is brought into force, all 11 dams on the main Heath will be regulated. It's almost as if the 2010 Act were drafted with Hampstead Heath in mind.

Until 1935 there were no laws about dam safety in the UK. That was first introduced following the failure of two dams in 1925 in North Wales and in the same year a dam in Scotland failed through faulty design. It should be noted that both of those dams were less than two years old.

It is very unlikely that any dam will fail: but the biggest predictor of dam failure in the UK is the age of the dam. The newer the dam, or recent modifications to it, the more likely it is to fail according to an experienced dam engineer. Construction or modification are the most dangerous times. Comments that the Heath dams are old and therefore need attention are wide of the mark. This is born out by an Environment Agency paper Lessons from Historical Dam Incidents (2011).

How do the Hampstead Heath dams compare with the dams which failed? Other factors which make dams safer are low height, long length (measured from bank to bank) and low capacity. At least three of these four characteristics which indicate a low risk are present on every dam which forms part of the so called Ponds Project.

The only dam break in the UK with any significant casualties since 1798 was Dale Dyke in 1864 which was newly constructed and where 244 people were killed. Dale Dyke had a capacity of 3,250,000 cubic metres. The total capacity of all 11 ponds on the Heath added together is 177,200 cubic metres, just 5% the size of Dale Dyke.

This project is all about scaremongering.
The Ponds Project started with a chillingly large estimate of loss of life. In the 2011 Haycock report it was claimed that 3,069 lives could be lost1. This figure was reduced to 319 in the 2013 Quantitative Risk Assessment Interim Report produced by Atkins plc 2 . It was further reduced to between 31 and 104 in a September 2014 document called Consequence Analysis Technical Note,  dated September 2014 by Atkins plc which is quoted in a report under the heading Average Societal Loss of Life by dam engineers Aecom commissioned by Camden Council. 

In a 
Position Paper submitted to the Judicial Review in November 2014 by Dr A K Hughes, he stated that “...it is estimated that hundreds, if not thousands, of lives would be lost on failure of the Hampstead Heath ponds”.3  No source or substantiation was provided for this alarmist statement which is inconsistent with the calculated research cited above.

The statement that people will die at Hampstead Heath if the dams are not rebuilt has no factual basis. The odds used, that the storm might only occur once in 400,000 years, when rounded to two or three decimal places shows a zero probability of such a storm occurring. That's not “a very low chance”. It's a zero chance. RIP Hampstead Heath.

1 Haycock, quoted in Aecom Independent Review for LB Camden in table 5.2 under paragraph 5.4. The loss of life claimed to be saved by the project started at 3,069, then became 319 in the Quantitative Risk Assessment Interim Report of 2013 and now it is claimed to be between 31 and 104 (Aecom ibid).  A small change in the assumptions would almost certainly bring the predicted loss of life figure to zero
2 Quantitative Risk Assessment Interim Report of 2013, Atkins plc
3 Position Paper Regarding Quantitative Risk Assessment for the Hampstead Heath Ponds Project by Dr Andy Hughes at page B0926 of the Court bundle.

Originally published in the Hampstead Village Voice 15 January 2015.
This revised version below was published on 10 February and updated on 7 March 2015  


Big business will be flooded with cash while the Heath is mutilated

Watched over by City of London constables from all directions but left unharmed, the Hampstead Village Voice Valentines Day flash protest was a huge success. Here are some of the participants. Photo: Ron Vester.