“We can’t stop the rainfall, but we can stop the tide”: Meet the man who stops London flooding

The Thames Barrier in 2014. Image: Getty.

Late at night on 31 January 1953, a heavy storm erupted in the North Sea. By the early hours of the morning, strong winds combined with low pressure and fast currents had produced a surge that devastated the UK’s east coast. The storm caused damage all over the country – 30,000 people were evacuated from their homes – but it was particularly intense in the Thames. The river was already full to the brim after days of rain, and the extra water pushed into the estuary by the surge broke sea walls and inundated thousands of properties. More than 320 people in the UK died that night, many of them in Essex and the other coastal counties north of the Thames Estuary. It remains one of the country’s worst ever natural disasters.

Andy Batchelor has been working to prevent a similar catastrophe for all of his professional life. The 56-year-old manager of the Thames Barrier began his engineering career in the aftermath of the flood, building embankments in the outer estuary to keep the water out. Though more than half a century has now passed, the 1953 disaster is still shaping the UK’s approach to flood prevention.

When we meet in his office overlooking the south end of the Thames Barrier in Greenwich, Batchelor is keen to point out how much has changed in the 65 years since that terrible night. “What a lot of people don’t appreciate,” he tells me, “is that in 1953 there were no systems. There was no real way of telling local authorities and police groups along the coast that something was coming. They all saw it for the first time separately, and because of the lack of preparation, that’s what added to the loss of life.”

The Thames had flooded before – 14 people drowned in 1928 when the river broke its banks at Millbank in central London, for instance – but it was the 1953 surge that made policymakers think, “We’ve got to do something different,” Batchelor says. Four options were considered: do nothing, move the capital out of London, raise all the walls along the Thames by three metres, or build a flood barrier on the river. It wasn’t until 1972 that the fourth option was written into legislation. By the time Batchelor graduated from Westminster College in London in 1979, the Thames Barrier was under construction. It began operation four years later.

A tall, spare man with a precise manner and mode of expression, Batchelor says that it was always his dream to work at the barrier. As a young engineer, he admired the scale and originality of the structure, which has ten gates spanning the river’s 520-metre width between New Charlton on the south bank and Silvertown on the north.

Batchelor joined the maintenance team at the barrier in 1984 and became its overall manager in 1999. He leads a team of 87 people who work on a variety of day-to-day tasks, from servicing the barrier’s moving parts and forecasting future floods to leading tours for school groups around the site. He feels a great sense of duty to do his job well. Though very self-effacing, he makes it clear during our conversation that much is at stake on whether he closes the barrier or not. The safety of important landmarks and infrastructure – such as the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, several major hospitals and parts of the London Underground, as well as thousands of homes – depends on him. “It’s 375,000 properties, something like £300bn worth.”


His team takes great pride in the job that it does, Batchelor says. At times, he has to call on his colleagues to make sacrifices for their work. In the winter of 2013-14, when there was flooding in the Somerset Levels and elsewhere, the barrier was working hard. The rain was so intense that it closed 50 times in a three-month period, with 20 of the closures on consecutive tides. Staff worked round-the-clock shifts to make this possible. Most Londoners probably had no idea what was going on downriver to keep them safe. As of early January, the barrier has only been closed 181 times since 1983.

When he goes on holiday, Batchelor finds it hard to switch off. He trusts his team absolutely but he tells me that if there was any sign of a flood, he would be on a plane home immediately.

The decision to close the barrier (a process that takes about an hour and a half for all ten gates) is deceptively simple. Batchelor explains it patiently, with what I sense might be his habitual laid-back, logical tone. If A, the amount of rainwater forecast to flow down the Thames, plus B, the height of the next incoming tide, equals more than C, the amount of water the river can contain without flooding, the barrier must be closed. As a result, Batchelor works with a constantly updating bank of computer-generated forecasts. “We can’t stop the rainfall, but we can stop the tide,” he says.

When the barrier was designed in the 1970s, terms such as climate change and global warming “weren’t even in the dictionary”, Batchelor says. It was originally designed to be superseded by other flood defences by 2030, but more recent studies have shown that it is robust enough to remain the Environment Agency’s main point of protection for London until 2070.

As sea levels rise, a new barrier will eventually have to be built further downriver and other flood defences will also have to be improved. Who knows whether Andy Batchelor will be here to oversee those new structures, but for now he remains a vital, if mostly invisible, presence on London’s great river. If he does his job well and keeps the city dry, we barely know he’s there.

This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.