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Politicians: 'we'll get cash to repair canal'

By Mid Devon Gazette  |  Posted: December 04, 2012

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POLITICIANS pledged to do everything within their power to see that the Grand Western Canal is repaired swiftly at a public meeting on Saturday.

Around 150 people were told their community spirit was needed more than ever to overcome the embankment collapse, which caused 80 million litres of water to flood into fields on the north side of the waterway.

The Grand Western Canal Rescue Fund was launched at Halberton Village Hall on Saturday.

Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton and Honiton, and Devon county councillors Des Hannon and Ray Radford all pledged to do everything they could to secure cash for the cause and were met by rousing applause.

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Cllr Hannon, who represents Tiverton East, hopes to inject £10,000 which is left over from the county council's Exeter Airport sale into the campaign. He said he does not want to see a huge hole in the canal on its milestone birthday in 2014

He added: "It is not just an accident that happened in the community, it happened to the community, and the community is part of the solution to this problem.

"I have never seen the canal do what it did on that day, it was like two substantial rivers and a biblical deluge that created the lake on John Browse's land.

"The emergency services, not unreasonably, found it very difficult to understand why a leaky canal was an emergency – one-tonne blocks of earth were flooding away into an abyss and people were standing on top of it.

"The biggest Godsend was that nobody was killed or seriously injured. The power of the water was ready to take peoples' lives. It was a terrifying day and well beyond anybody's job description."

Cllr Radford, for Willand and Uffculme, said: "I will make sure Devon County Council digs deep into its pockets because this is something that has got to be repaired – I will put some of my money into the fund."

Cllr Ken Browse, chairman of Halberton Parish Council, said the meeting was called to publicly thank those who prevented the "catastrophe from becoming a disaster" and to provide information on the repair operation.

He recently met Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who he showed last week's copy of the Tiverton Gazette, which featured a picture of the breach on its front page.

He thanked members of the farming community, police, the fire service, Devon County Council, and the Environment Agency for the risks they took in securing the affected stretch of the canal on Wednesday, November 21.

Nick Bott, chief engineer for Devon County Council, said the breach had been isolated, with water kept behind dams either side of the hole.

Monitoring of any potential movement of the canal embankment will continue, but there had so far been no further issues.

He urged people to keep well away from the collapsed bank, and said the hole was clearly visible from a safe distance.

The lagoon formed by the leak was made up of between 50million and 80million litres of water at its peak but most of that has either drained away naturally or has been put back into the canal.

Geotechnical experts say it will be possible to repair the bank using some of the original material but an investigation will be carried out so a report can be drawn up for consideration by the council's cabinet in the next few weeks.

Some think a complete re-engineering of the raised section of the canal – which leaked significantly even before the breach – is the best option, but such a solution could be expensive – one engineer has suggested a figure of around £5m.

Others, such as Phil Brind, the managing director of the Canal Company, think compacted substrate might prove an inexpensive and swift option.

It is hoped that Government emergency funding might be available.

Canal ranger Mark Baker said fencing and signage near the site will be regularly checked to make sure people cannot put themselves at risk. A close eye will also be kept on the water levels, which are 10-12mm lower at the basin in Tiverton.

Engineer Kevin Dent said high volume fire service pumps reduced the depth of the lagoon significantly but work to remove 200 cubic metres of water a day continues around the clock.

He added: "I have been a civil engineer for 28 years and I have dealt with quite a lot of emergencies, but this was among the most stressful."

Halberton resident Rob Farley, operations and services director for the Met Office, said Devon was affected by relentless rainfall since April which lifted water tables and saturated the ground.

During the peak of the storms across Devon, the Met Office said around 91mm and 79mm of rain was recorded to have fallen between November 20-23 by weather stations at Dunkeswell and Exeter Airport respectively. The average rainfall for the entire month is 116mm.

Around 350 homes and business across the county were said to have suffered internal flooding, but it is thought this could be an "underestimate".

Mr Parish said: "Whatever troubles there are and when the chips are down, we get stuck in – I have every confidence we will get this done between us.

"Once we have got it back together, we will have to watch the water levels a little more than before. It was over-topping for a while and we didn't necessarily see the seriousness at the time but this is not the moment to go into why it happened. What we have got to do is fix it."

Mr Brind told the meeting: "We don't have an option to not go ahead and repair it. The reason for that is the water comes from the other end of the canal and if repairs are not done it would be unsustainable to keep the Tiverton end alive – we have got to go ahead with the repair for the good of the canal."

Donations can be made at www.friendsgrandwesterncanal.org.uk.

An operation using volunteer help to rescue fish from the canal was due to take place yesterday but is now likely to take place on Thursday and Friday.

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