Whaley Bridge residents who refused to evacuate during Toddbrook Reservoir crisis 'put responders at risk'

Whaley Bridge residents who refused to evacuate during the Toddbrook Reservoir crisis ‘put responders at risk’, Derbyshire’s Chief Constable has said.

Thursday, 20th May 2021, 3:35 pm
Updated Thursday, 20th May 2021, 3:43 pm

Rachel Swann, who was in charge of the policing operation at the site, made the comments during a meeting of the House of Lords’ Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee on Wednesday.

During the incident in August 2019, 1,500 residents were asked to leave their homes after heavy rain caused damage to the dam wall, leading to fears that the dam could collapse and flood the town.

Most complied, but some refused, and with no legal power to force people to go, this put those involved in the operation to save the dam, and indeed the town, at risk, the Chief Constable said.

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Chief Constable of Derbyshire Constabulary Rachel Swann.

“I had no legal power to ask those people to leave their homes,” she told the meeting.

"I could tell them it was a risk to their lives if they stayed but there was a small handful of people who chose not to leave and there was no legal authority for me to make those people leave. We went through everything, but actually in that crisis we relied on common sense and peoples consensus.

"They weren't all doing that and they were putting responders at risk by repeatedly having to go back in and ask them to leave.

"Part two of the Civil Contingencies Act does make provisions for those emergency powers but they’ve never yet been used or enacted.”

A Chinook helicopter creates a rainbow in the spray as it prepares to drop sandbags onto the dam wall at Toddbrook reservoir. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

During the meeting the Chief Constable also paid tribute to Derbyshire’s emergency volunteers for their work during the crisis.

"We’ve got around a hundred Derbyshire emergency volunteers which we utilised during Whaley Bridge – they are trained, they’ve undergone security checks so that we know they can be deployed safely to what we’re dealing with. At Whaley Bridge we deployed those very quickly to the rest centres, to the family assistance centres so they had the skills and the training and the checks in order to enable them to be deployed very, very effectively.”

She also made reference to how previous funding allowing an off site plan of the reservoir to be created had helped as the crisis unfolded.

Engineers and members of the emergency services assess the damaged spillway of the Toddbrook Reservoir dam on August 5, 2019. (Photo - OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

"One of the things that did really help us was that we had present at Whaley Bridge the off site reservoir plans. We’d had some money previously that we’d put to some of our more at risk reservoirs and we’d got that off site plan which if you like maps out everywhere in terms of where the water will flow, who you would need to evacuate, what your rendezvous points would be, what roads you need to shut off.

"That is not in statute or expected anywhere and it was simply by having some previous money that enabled us to do that and I think that in itself really assisted in terms of the way we responded to Whaley Bridge and the way in which we were able to come together as an LRF (local resilience forum) and a partnership and deal with that crisis and make sure that there was no loss of life.”

Asked if she felt there should be a legal requirement for off site plans of reservoirs, she responded: “I absolutely am saying that. Whaley Bridge is a large reservoir but its one of our smallest.

"It was high risk because of when it was built but we have much older ones that were built in the early 1800s.

"It was supposed to survive a much higher chance of rainfall or level of rainfall than it did survive and one of the things I’d really advocate for is for there to be a statutory obligation like there are with COMAH (control of major accident hazard) sites around off site reservoir plans given the impact and scale of devastation that they could have.”

An independent report published last year found that poor design and intermittent maintenance were behind the failure at Toddbrook dam.

Reservoir owners The Canal and River Trust announced a £16 million repair plan for the site in March 2021, with work due to start at the end of this year, subject to planning permission, and the reservoir re-opened to the public in 2024.