Jubilee River Scheme: A Flagship or a Failure?

By Harnoor Kaur, WSPM ’19-’20

On 18th October 2019, WSPM students explored the Jubilee River Scheme in Maidenhead and Eton. The “Jubilee River” flood alleviation scheme opened in 2002 with the goal of averting flooding in Maidenhead, Windsor, Eton and Cookham by creating an artificial waterway parallel to the River Thames; the new channel allows additional capacity of water to flow through during times of flooding, bypassing over 3,000 properties in the area.

[Figure 1] The main channel of the River Thames at Maidenhead. The Jubilee River channel leaves the Thames upstream of Maidenhead and re-joins it downstream of Windsor.

During the field trip, the UK Environment Agency described the planning and creation of the Jubilee River Scheme. The scheme’s parallel channel has helped avert floods 30 times since 2002 and has prevented damage to property and life during the floods of 2003, 2012, and 2014. Additional benefits of the project were also highlighted: this £110 million project has provided the local community with new water and recreational services—religious & community feasts, embankments, footpaths, landscaping, navigation, water quality assurance—beyond flooding prevention.


[Figure 2] The WSPM class exploring the Dorney Wetlands.

In assessing residents’ perception of this project, the Agency found people living in the flood zone were extremely satisfied, while those living downstream of the installation were not. However, this was not a formal survey, and they did not conduct an inquiry to understand and incorporate residents’ opinions into the project.  The Environment Agency believes the scheme has led to greater resilience to floods, and has thus labelled the project a success.

Though the project was a flagship in the field of flood risk management in England, Ewan Larcombe, a local activist whom we met, viewed the scheme as a “structural” failure. Larcombe claimed that the design capacity of the project was disclosed to be 215 cubic kilometres during the Public Enquiry, but upon inauguration, it was only 170 cubic kilometres. He considers that the scheme led to structural flooding because the Agency undermined the construction by extracting excessive soil & gravel in Eton.

Larcombe has broader concerns that the issues of structural integrity and lack of integration of public input are more of a standard operation for the Environment Agency than one-off issues with the Jubilee River Scheme. For example, the Myrke Embankment, built in 1999, had a ratio of bend radius to watercourse at 2:1, which is greater than the required 10:1. Also, the backfill material of unconsolidated gravel was not favourable for compaction and foundation support, thus making the embankment prone to flooding during high waters. Additional fixes to repair the bend added to the expense of the project.

With regards to residents’ perception, the populace of Wraysbury and Datchet has felt that their reservations regarding extensive construction have been disregarded during the project appraisals. Even Larcombe pointed out that his parish in Slough was neither consulted nor briefed on the construction of the Jubilee River.

To counter his controversial claim, Larcombe has taken positive steps to create changes by joining the Thames Regional Flood and Coastal Committee (RFCC), established by the Environment Agency as a mechanism for ensuring flood projects link relevant stakeholders and consider both communications of risks and assessment of risk-based investments.  Now he is working with the agency to solicit and incorporate people’s opinions in different phases of project planning such as initial decision-making and post-implementation monitoring. 

[Figure 3] Jubilee River in Eton.

Like any other project, the Jubilee River Flood Alleviation Scheme has its advantages and disadvantages. Through this field-trip, the students discovered the different approaches to flood risk management including the importance of public participation.