Concern over £16 million plans for Whaley Bridge's Toddbrook Reservoir

Two and half years since a partial dam failure caused the evacuation of Whaley Bridge, High Peak Borough Council looks set to approve plans for new infrastructure to manage the waters of Toddbrook reservoir – but not everyone is convinced that the proposal will guarantee the town’s safety.

By Ed Dingwall
Friday, 4th March 2022, 4:39 pm
Updated Monday, 7th March 2022, 9:14 am

The Canal & River Trust, which owns the reservoir, is seeking permission to build a replacement spillway and associated dam to control the release of excess water into the River Goyt, as well as new access and facilities for Toddbrook sailing club, plus replacement play equipment and landscaping at Memorial Park, which part of the new structure will encroach on.

The council’s development control committee will meet on Monday, March 7, to debate and decide the fate of the application, which has been recommended for approval by planning officers, subject to certain conditions being met.

The project is expected to take two years to complete, as a cost in the region of £16million, and proponents say its primary objective is to make the dam, reservoir and downstream community safe, while also allowing the reservoir to be refilled to its previous level and ushering in a new era of leisure use for the site.

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An RAF Chinook helicopter drops bags of aggregate on the damaged section of spillway of the Toddbrook Reservoir dam on August 4, 2019 (photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP).

But there are some onlookers who believe that major concerns are being glossed over, and that it may only be a matter of time before new issues emerge at Toddbrook with potentially devastating consequences.

Higher Disley resident Graham Aldred said: “They’ve jumped into the middle of a plan, believing they have the right to reinstate the reservoir and not thinking about how it nearly killed people.

“It was so close, it was horrifying – and had that happened the issues would have been much more exposed. It’s a miracle really, and we still can’t guarantee what happens next time.”

He added: “The Canal & River Trust should be going back to square one, proving that they need this reservoir and this much water. There have been times in the past when the canals have functioned perfectly well without water from Toddbrook.

Artist impression of the reservoir and dam from the Memorial Park

“I would hope they could also acknowledge there were things wrong with their approach to safety which they still haven’t addressed. There should be recognition that the village school is 300 yards from the dam. There has to be much more control and consideration.”

Graham, a retired computer engineer with expertise in systems failure, has spent many days since the August 2019 emergency trying to understand what went wrong, who was responsible and whether lessons have been learned.

While both planning officers and the Canal & River Trust have acknowledged and responded to the concerns he has raised, but those answers have left some people unconvinced, and few have the necessary skills to analyse the evidence.

Whaley Lane resident Ruth Gay, who has been lobbying local politicians to take more time over the decision, said: “I think it’s gone over the heads of lots of people in Whaley, and they aren’t aware of the history of faults with the dam. I think we’re being too trusting, and the Canal & River Trust could have done more to inform the public.

Toddbrook Reservoir

“A lot of the discussion happened during lockdown and the consultation exercises were a bit of a sham. People were presented with options A and B for the new design, and it became an emotional thing about which trees were going to be cut down.”

Councillors on the committee have been presented with a report Graham has produced which may give them more pause for thought.

Much of its content draws on two expert analyses of what caused the concrete auxiliary spillway to collapse, one commissioned by the Government from Professor David Balmforth, and one from Dr Andy Hughes on behalf of the trust.

The Balmforth report highlighted critical issues for the reservoir sector as a whole, describing “a lack of investment has led to poor levels of surveillance and incomplete maintenance … compounded by cases of inadequate supervision and poor reporting of statutory inspections by reservoir engineers.”

The Hughes report closely detailed the structural flaws and excessive pressures on the Toddbrook spillway which caused it to fail.

Graham said: “The vital thing is the clay core of the dam, behind the failed spillway. When the reservoir was full, waves would be driven into the gap between the dam and the concrete, and that could also have caused erosion channels to develop. The ones that blew are just the ones we know about.

“It’s got all this excess concrete laid over it 50 years ago, but there may be errors luring underneath. Dr Hughes thinks it has leaked since day one. The concrete should be carefully taken off to find out what really went on, repair it, and test its ability to cope with loads. All the bags of aggregate dropped which the helicopter dropped to shore it up in 2019 are a sticking plaster, they cannot possibly be part of a permanent solution.”

“They’ve chosen the water level they want in future without consulting the dam. Work on the dam is phase six of the project, by which time they’ll have spent millions on the new spillway and sailing club – they’re not going to say the dam is no good at that point.”

A Canal & River Trust spokesperson said: “The trust recognises the severity of the 2019 incident and the disruption it caused to residents. We appreciate the ongoing cooperation of the local community as we work to safely maintain and restore the reservoir.

“The proposed new spillway design, as set out in the planning application, meets the strict UK reservoir legislation and standards, and is designed to withstand extreme flows of water, significantly more severe than those of August 2019. Our team continues to review all public comments received and is working to demonstrate how these have been considered.”

For the planning officers’ full report and more detail on Graham’s response, go to https://bit.ly/3K7CI5D.