THE North-east of Scotland has a state-of-the-art scheme to hold the waters at bay, writes John Cowe
Think of Moray and you might think of whisky, shortbread or even Cullen skink soup; miles of empty sands and rolling waves, the sparkling waters of the River Spey or glorious views across the Cairngorms.
But the small county in the Northeast, lying between the Highlands and Aberdeenshire, has a new claim to fame: it is home to one of the best examples of flood prevention works in the country, thanks to a state-of-the-art scheme which ensures that as well as boasting stunning natural beauty, Moray remains a great place to live and do business.
The stormy mountains and rumbling rivers of the North-east had always been a double edged sword for the historic settlements on the plain below, and some of Moray’s towns long held an unwelcome notoriety for spectacular floods that saw water engulf homes, shops and businesses. In recent years the problem became more acute as the population grew and extreme weather events occurred more frequently.
One of Scotland’s oldest towns, Elgin, has been growing along the banks of the River Lossie for more than 900 years. Flooding was not a new problem but it was an increasingly expensive one. The combined cost of tackling floods in 1997, 2000 and 2002 was estimated at £100 million. At the same time it was also becoming an increasingly common problem. Of about 20 flood events recorded since 1750, more than half took place in the last 50 years, despite Moray being one of the driest parts of Britain.
The distress for families was enormous – in the 2002 flood more than 200 households were evacuated at such short notice that some people had to be airlifted to safety But the impact extended far beyond the local area. The main transport links in the North-east of Scotland were cut, with the A96 closed for more than 48 hours, while serious damage shut the Inverness-Aberdeen railway line for several weeks.
The immediate impact on businesses was fairly catastrophic, with many suffering serious damage to buildings and stock, and some forced to move out of their premises for lengthy periods. More than 150 commercial properties were affected, with insurance claims running into millions of pounds. Businesses were forced to install significant flood defences and it was becoming increasingly difficult for some to get insurance at a manageable cost. Shortly after the 1997 floods, the wheels were set in motion for an ambitious programme of flood defences across the county. Following detailed investigations and design work, construction started on the scheme for Elgin – the largest of five separate schemes that make up the overall programme – in April 2011.
Construction of the scheme includes set-back flood embankments, flood walls and new diversion and relief channels. The flood plain between the set-back defences has been be lowered to form a two-stage flood channel that will allow heavy flows to pass safely through the town.
New bridges have also been built, to span the new river corridor. Further downstream, two further localised defences are being built at Kirkhill and Pitgaveny.
The Elgin Flood Alleviation Scheme alone is the single largest flood alleviation scheme in Scotland to date, and the largest civil engineering project ever carried out in Moray. With a further four flood schemes strategically built around Moray – at Lhanbryde, Rothes, and two at Forres, the damaging floods of the past should not now be repeated, giving businesses in the area the confidence to invest and grow and helping to attract more businesses to this desirable area.
The defences have already proven their worth: heavy rain in August 2014 caused some panic across Moray as locals anticipated the inevitable, but the flood schemes channelled the mounting waters and prevented the previously familiar scenes. It is estimated the defences have already prevented damages of £86m.
This confirms the Scottish Government’s assessment – an exercise carried out before they agreed to support the scheme – that the economic appraisal of its costs and benefits was robust.
An unexpected bonus has been the opportunity to develop cycle paths along the flood defences. This is proving attractive for visitors, as well as those looking for a healthier way to get to work.
With the schemes now complete and awaiting only an official opening, and having already received their baptism in 2014 – there is now nothing to stop people in Moray enjoying their whisky or shortbread as they gaze at the Cairngorms or into the River Spey – even when it is in spate. And with those miles of empty sands and rolling waves, it looks set to be an attraction for both temporary visitors and businesses looking for an idyllic, well-connected operations base in years to come.
• Councillor John Cowe, chairman of Moray Economic Partnership