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Thames Barrier – protecting London and the Thames Estuary for 40 years

Duran Duran at number one, Sweden shocks Eurovision with Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley, the Apple Macintosh goes on sale in the UK and the late Queen officially opens the Thames Barrier in East London.

Today (Wednesday 8 May 2024) marks the fortieth anniversary of the garlanded opening ceremony for the Thames Barrier, one of the largest movable barriers in the world. It continues to provide vital and reliable protection from flooding to the nation’s capital to this day.

Operated and maintained by the Environment Agency, the Thames Barrier and the other flood defences across the wider estuary protect 125 square kilometres of central London, encompassing 1.42 million people, four World Heritage sites, more than 4,000 listed buildings, 711 healthcare sites, 116 railway and tube stations and more than 300km of major roads. The value of residential property protection stands at £321 billion.  

Without the barrier, storm surges and frequent tidal flooding of the Thames would submerge buildings along the river as well as the underground, wrecking properties and livelihoods and causing billions of pounds worth of devastating damage.

In its 40 years, the barrier has closed 221 times for flood defence purposes, underlining its importance to helping London thrive.

The original design life was only to 2030, but due to the excellent design and build, the Thames Barrier will continue to protect London until 2070.

The Thames Barrier’s future is encapsulated in the Thames Estuary 2100 plan, updated last year. This sets out how flood risk will be managed in the Thames estuary to the end of the century and beyond from both the existing risks faced from tidal flooding, as well as the growing risks that climate change will bring. 

To ensure the capital is protected over the longer term, the Environment Agency is committed to working with partners to review and decide on an end-of-century option by 2040. 

The fortieth anniversary of the Barrier also marks the Thames Barrier’s Manager’s final day. Andy Batchelor will step down following 25 years in the post. Andy’s career will always be intertwined with the Thames Barrier, as he began his first job in construction building the associated flood defences where he watched the Barrier being built and started a new job at the Barrier on the same day it was opened by the Queen and he has remained there ever since.

Andy will continue in his role as Chair of the Delivery Board of I-storm, the international network of storm surge barriers he co-founded in 2006 to connect specialists around the world.

Andy Batchelor, Thames Tidal Defences Operations Manager, said:

Having witnessed and worked on the Thames Barrier’s opening, I am immensely proud of the protection it has provided London for the past 40 years and will continue to provide for years to come.

Its reliability and effectiveness demonstrate the sophistication of its design by a very talented group of engineers and the continued maintenance and operation carried out by the Barrier team.

However, we will not rest on our laurels given the threat of rising sea levels, which is why we have committed to working with partners to review and decide on an end-of-century option by 2040 in our Thames Estuary 2100 Plan, to ensure the capital is protected over the longer term.

Caroline Douglass, Executive Director for Flood and Coastal Risk Management at the Environment Agency, said:

The Environment Agency is hugely proud of the protection provided by the Thames Barrier, which has defended London for more than 40 years and continues to do so now and into the future.

Alongside the invaluable role of the barrier, the approach set out in our Thames Estuary 2100 plan ensures we and our partners take the steps required between now and the end of the century to bolster the capital’s resilience to climate change and enable it to continue to thrive, by effectively managing flood risk from rivers and the sea in London.

The Thames Barrier’s feted history demonstrates the nation’s ingenuity in the face of threat. Following the devastating floods of 1953 where the East Coast was struck by the combination of high spring tides and high-speed winds, causing the loss of 300 lives, the nation needed a rethink on how to protect London from flooding. Sir Hermann Bondi’s report in 1966 concluded that the best solution was to build a flood barrier near Woolwich and raise the banks downstream.

The Greater London Council appointed Rendel, Palmer and Tritton to design the barrier and their designer Charles Draper came up with the idea of ‘rising sector gates’, inspired by how the taps on his gas cooker worked.

Construction took eight years to complete and cost £535 million (approximately £2.4 billion in today’s money). The design sees 10 steel gates that can be raised into position across the River Thames when needed. Once raised, the main gates stand as high as a five-storey building and as wide as the opening of Tower Bridge. Each main gate weighs 3,300 tonnes.

The Thames Barrier saw arguably its finest hour when the UK was battered by devastating storms in the winter of 2013/14. During this period, the Thames experienced its highest tide since the barrier’s construction and it was closed 50 times in 13 weeks. As a consequence of the barrier’s operation, no properties in London flooded.

The Environment Agency knows the devastating impact that flooding can have, which is why protecting people and communities is its top priority. We are already seeing the impacts of climate change in the UK and around the world. Urgent action is needed to adapt the impacts of climate emergency at the same time as reducing emissions. 

The Environment Agency has a strong track record: its new flood defences meant 314,000 homes were better protected between 2015-2021. Between 2015 and 2020, we have invested more than £1 billion on maintaining flood and coastal defences. This includes investing in developing technology and direct maintenance work such as dredging, inspecting assets, and carrying out repairs.

Between 2021-27, the Government is investing £5.6 billion in creating new flood and coastal defences to better protect hundreds of thousands of properties across England including in London, where the Thames Barrier stands proudly as testament to the Environment Agency’s work.

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