Doncaster Floods (Issue 36)

From issue 36, Tony talks about the recent floods that had a devastating impact on some of the areas in Doncaster.

Words: Tony Nicholson

Photography: Suzanne Wass

Thursday 7th November the rain was unrelentless. When the call from the environment agency came in at around 2:30am to warn us that flooding was imminent, it wasn’t a great surprise. The heartbreaking scale of the floods in Bentley and Fishlake, however, certainly was.

Immediately though, the community response was incredible. Individuals and community groups turned up to help, finding temporary, dry accommodation and providing essential items such as toiletries, cleaning products, clothing and food. The kindness of residents confirmed that Doncaster citizens are just amazing. It has to be said that the arrival of sandbags to houses already flooded did nothing to quell the feeling that the local authorities were completely unprepared and many residents were feeling completely let down.

I spoke with a few and one told me “the only warnings about flooding we’d had had been from our neighbours who knocked on our door and gave us updates but we really hadn’t realized how bad it was. The street itself was full of dirty sewage water but, due to the landlord’s timely arrival with sandbags on Friday, our house was saved”.She acknowledged that the authorities, when they got their act together, worked incredibly hard “but they were just too slow to get going”.

Meanwhile at Fishlake, untouched in the floods of 2007, resident Janice Aldred told me “things are a little easier for us today [Sunday], we managed to get to the church for supplies, though the water covered our boots. People have lost so much, but the community spirit has been amazing. The surrounding communities donated so much food, clothing and bedding they filled the church hall.”

Yet, as the clean-up gets underway, perhaps it’s time to consider how this could have happened again in such a short period of time. There are many contributing factors to flooding. Climate Change, development of areas which previously were flood plains, the knock-on effect of flood prevention elsewhere, underfunded waterways, drainage and dredging programs being just a few. A significant if hidden factor with regard to the Don is moorland management.

Further upstream, beyond Sheffield’s robust defences that protected the Meadowhall shopping centre, the source of the Don lies in moorland above the city of Sheffield, privately owned but in receipt of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to fund their management as a Special Area of Conservation.

However, according to Bob Berzins who spends his time trying to preserve the landscape and wildlife of the Peak District: “Residents and businesses in Sheffield and beyond face increased flood risk because these moors are actually managed to increase red grouse numbers.”

This means the moors are subject to managed heather burning that dries out peat, lowers the water table and leads to decomposition in the upper peat layers that allows carbon dioxide to be released contributing to global warming.

All this reduces the capacity of the landscape to retain rainwater and we need the moors to have good hydrological function with mosses and rough vegetation to slow down surface flow. The uplands above Sheffield have many steep slopes leading down into streams and rivers. So, ironically, given the condition we find ourselves in today, we need to re-wet the moor and stop the heather burning if we are to reduce the risk of flooding for communities like ours downstream.

The five moorland owners in the Upper Don Catchment receive millions of pounds annually in taxpayers’ money for moorland restoration work to create sphagnum bog and for environmentally beneficial management practices. At the same time, they have burned large areas of these moors, damaging fragile vegetation including sphagnum, negating any benefits gained from any moorland restoration.

The moors above Sheffield that form the Upper Don Catchment have an area of about 8,000 hectares or 80 square kilometres. Heather there is typically burnt on a ten-year rotation, so each year around 800 hectares are burnt. It takes around 3 years before any cover of vegetation reappears on the burnt sections.

In order to strengthen flood defences around Doncaster we need to tackle the flooding issues at source. We need to see that the Environment Agency, Natural England and Sheffield. City Council ensure natural flood management measures are put in place across all the moorland surrounding Sheffield as a matter of urgency, funded by existing money earmarked for moorland management and moorland restoration together with a complete ban on heather burning.

Back down the river at a local retail park Nicci Bentley, a community organiser, is supporting homeless residents at a caravan site. Earlier in the year she set-up a grassroots initiative called DN1 Street Project to help Doncaster’s homeless community. In partnership with local businesses and residents, they have raised funds to bring a purpose built double decker bus to Doncaster in order to support the homeless community this winter. It couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

“We decided to bring the bus to Bentley to help the residents of Willow Bridge who were still sleeping in their caravans damaged by the flood water. We have 10 beds available. It was inhumane not to try and help”. Although there have been no fatalities, floods have seen hundreds of traumatised people leaving their homes. The DN1 Street Project is providing a warm place to stay, hot meals and support.

“Community spirit has been phenomenal to say the least. People supporting people! It’s been emotional and tough for us but if you multiply that by1000 you might get a feel for the effect it’s had on those who have been displaced.”

Tony Nicholson is a musician, and Green Party activists, in 2018 he led Magic Magids Mayor campaign across South Yorkshire. He is also a Bentley resident.

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