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Saturday, 25 October 2014

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Building collapse 'an accident waiting to happen'

One angry neighbour described the bank holiday disaster as an accident waiting to happen.

Miraculously, because of the holiday, no-one was in Mill House when all four storeys fell away and toppled into the river which runs behind the building on Vale View.

A temporary flood defence has since been put in place.

The drama unfolded early on Tuesday morning but worried residents say that Hartley’s Weir – which controls the river flow at that point – had been damaged weeks before. The dam finally broke away and that, combined with torrential rain all weekend, is believed to have shaken the foundations of Mill House.

But Malcolm Mounsey, who was in his home only four doors away, also accused the Environment Agency of leaving Vale View residents “high and dry”, saying locals had recently voiced their fears to the Agency over the state of the weir.

The river was in full spate – at 40-50mph – when the house collapsed.

Countering criticism that it failed to take action to repair the dam, the Environment Agency said it did not have ownership and is trying to identify the owner. However, after concerns were raised, Agency divers went into the river to inspect the weir.

Hartley’s Weir started to break away only a fortnight before the house collapsed. Then over the holiday weekend 48 hours of torrential rain turned the Ehen into a raging torrent, pushing levels up dramatically and allowing water to gush into the foundations of Mill House (known locally as Barracks Mill). As dawn broke on Tuesday, all the floors at the back of the high-rise property collapsed into the river, leaving furniture standing perilously in the exposed rooms.

The rest of the wrecked house was declared unsafe and by yesterday morning most of it had been demolished to avoid any more risk. The road remained closed to traffic. Vale View residents were not evacuated but occupants of two houses opposite moved on advice to the back of their homes to avoid any potential danger from flying debris.

Surveying the scene of devastation from his porch backing on to the river, Malcolm Mounsey told The Whitehaven News: “What everybody feels down here is that the Environment Agency in actual fact have left everyone high and dry.”

The co-owners of Mill House, Ken O’Hara and Belinda Taylor, of the Blackbeck Hotel, Beckermet, were left stunned. Normally they occupy the bottom two flats and the top two are let to two Sellafield contractors who fortunately were also away. The adjoining house was also unoccupied as owner, builder Vince McShane, was away. Yesterday scaffolding was being put up to safeguard his property.

Mr O’Hara said: “We’d contacted the Environment Agency before it happened, told them and told them. It didn’t help.”

It was lucky, he pointed out, that he and Belinda had spent the weekend at the Blackbeck where there was a bank holiday party.

Ken added: “I couldn’t believe it when the police told me, it’s unbelievable. Luckily there was no one in at all at the time. It would have been awful otherwise.”

Belinda said: “How do you judge anything like this? It’s lucky it all fell into the river and only damaged the fish.”

Mr Mounsey, who owns Ponsonby Joinery, said: “Prior to it all happening, Vince and I had both spoken to Environment Agency engineers trying to get somebody to look at the weir. We knew as construction people – Vince being a builder and I used to be a construction foreman – that something like this would happen.

“Basically it was an accident waiting to happen. To be quite honest when the weir started to give way – earlier in the week it actually broke in the corner – I went to Blackbeck Hotel to see the lady who owns Mill House. She also rang the Environment Agency.

“When Vince built the neighbouring house and I renovated my house, we constantly had the Environment Agency people in our hair complaining about anything that fell into the water. If we had any development close to the water we had to tell them, they said we weren’t allowed to do this or that. Vince has had environmental inspectors haunting him as if they owned every single piece of the river.

“We didn’t want to do anything detrimental to the river or the weir so consequently we expected the Environment Agency to take full responsibility.

“My property seems to be sound at the moment but what we’re all concerned about is that the river will continue to wash out the depth of the weir where the houses were built and it could harm our foundations. What we want to see now is the weir to be reinstated – it’s part of the history of Egremont, and protects our properties.

“I wouldn’t like to think I’m going to wake up in the middle of the night and the back of the house has fallen into the river.”

Another neighbour, Carol Johnson, said she woke at about 6am to see that the back of Mill House had disappeared. “I heard a crashing sound and thought it was a heavy lorry going past. I have a balcony outside at the back so I went and had a look, I thought I was seeing things.

“I am concerned now, especially as the weir needs repairing and has been like that for over two months.

“The last little bit of it went out recently and I think has caused this damage.”

Further up Vale View, Tony Smith said: “The weir fractured two weeks ago and disappeared a week ago and over the holiday weekend the water started to rise due to the heavy rain. Mill House got the brunt of the sheer force going down the river.”

An Environment Agency spokesman said: “We are looking to identify who the owner of the wear is – it is not us.”

Keith Ashcroft, the agency’s area manager for Cumbria and Lancashire, said: “Our sympathy lies with the local residents. The dramatic images of this building collapse really highlight the need for people owning land adjoining a river to understand the potential risks and their responsibilities.”

The agency said erosion on the building may have been made worse by high river flows and the partial collapse of the weir. They added that a previous flood risk assessment found that “if the weir were to collapse it would not cause any additional flood risk to properties in Egremont”.

The agency has put temporary flood defences in place which will be replaced with semi-permanent defences once demolition material is removed.

Copeland Council leader Elaine Woodburn spoke to Vale View residents about their concerns and later contacted the Environment Agency. “They told me they didn’t own the weir but they can’t just wash their hands of it. You have to have some responsibility, it is historic and I think they should have responsibility for the weir.”

Egremont Anglers Association, worried about the effects the damaged weir would have on fishing, was also in touch with the Environment Agency but chairman Neil Thompson said the Agency had been put “in a no-win situation”.

“Because of the constant rain, the water level was never low enough for any repairs to be done to the weir,” he said. “They did send a diving team. Repairs (since June) would have been almost impossible due to the high volume of water coming down the river.”

Mr Thompson scotched rumours that the Agency had denied the Anglers’ permission to do repairs themselves. “We probably would have been allowed to do so but because of the river conditions and the cost it wasn’t on.” The cost could have been as much as £50,000.

He added: “Egremont Anglers have over 200 members and to lose such a stretch of fishing will be a blow. The stretch above the weir is prime salmon fishing. There will be a dramatic effect on fishing in the foreseeable future but in years to come it may settle down as the course of the river changes and the river bed also settles.”

He said the weir was first damaged at the end of June when a large spate of water removed a substantial amount of stone.

OTHER parts of Copeland also suffered from the atrocious Bank Holiday weather, with roads flooded and some householders resorting to sandbags to keep their homes dry.

Copeland Council leader Elaine Woodburn expressed her concern and said staff would be talking to affected residents to see how best the council could help.

Fire crews were called out to pump out water from the basement of Arrighi’s chip shop in Whitehaven’s Market Place on Monday night.

Waterlogged roads around the borough included Coach Road, Whitehaven.

In last week’s Whitehaven News, we reported flooding on the road and surrounding area of Dryden Way, Egremont, on August 18. A resident says three houses were flooded, not two, as reported.

Copeland Council said following the incident, it had not received any request for sandbags for the residents from the fire service.

However, a meeting was held last week between Copeland’s flood engineer and residents, where one household asked for and was given sandbags.

Request for sandbags can be made to Copeland Council on 0845 054 8600. A direct out-of-hours service is available.

Have your say

Its all very well the Environment agency washing its hands and saying well its not ours, same as the backroad between Gulley Flatts and Becermet that has now been closed for years due to erosion, no one wants to fix that either, the main duty should be to protect people, as bad as this is it would have been a tragedy if the house had been fully occupied.

Posted by Mark on 30 August 2012 at 15:45

just to put lornalou right reads was next door the building in question was a mill before it was turned into flats

Posted by james on 30 August 2012 at 00:32

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