Hampstead Heath dams: Expert defends double role

Published: 30 January, 2014

THE engineer behind controversial plans to build £15m dams on Hampstead Heath has said his role as safety advisor to the City of London and as engineer for the firm which has designed the scheme is not a conflict of interest.

In an interview with the New Journal, Dr Andy Hughes, who has masterminded the scheme that would radically alter the Highgate and Hampstead ponds, dismissed fears that his role in recommending that the work should be done, coupled with his employer Atkins drawing up the project, would leave the City open to criticism.

The City of London says it must follow his recommendations that state a severe storm could lead to a catastrophic breach of dams, flooding homes and killing up to 1,400 people.

Dr Hughes said: “Every dam owner employs a panel engineer. Once you write a report for them, your role is finished. The owner can go to any company to do the work, or to another engineer to act as a referee to check your findings.

“I can be challenged at any time on my results. I am detached from the engineering work, except to make sure it is safe. There is no conflict of interest.

“The Institute of Civil Engineers has a professional ethics committee and I could be disbarred if they found otherwise.”

Dr Hughes is vice-chairman of the British Dam Society, which provided evidence to Parliament over the 2010 Flood and Water Management Bill that has led to the City of London saying it must do the work.

He said: “We produced a document at the government’s request.”

Dr Hughes was appointed in 2010 by the City to be the panel engineer to study the risk of the ponds flooding.

He has worked as an advisor to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and is a director of dams and reservoirs at engineering firm Atkins.

He is set to face the public at two guided walks in February and will explain why he thinks the scheme is necessary.

The Heath and Hampstead Society is campaigning against the dams project.

The society’s Helen Marcus said: “Computer modelling behind these proposals is not based on facts, which are that the ponds have never breached. They are based on the worst possible case scenario of a one-in-400,000-year storm, which then prompts a catastrophic collapse of all the dams.

“We feel this is so exaggerated as to be quite uncalled for.”

On the question of whether there is a conflict of interest in using an engineer who has lobbied for stronger rules covering dam safety to draw up plans for the Heath. Mrs Marcus added: “This is an interesting question and should start alarm bells ringing as to why this project has been pursued.”

Dr Hughes told the New Journal that the risk of flooding was based on estimates that measure the consequences of a dam bursting against its likelihood.

He said: “For example, if a reservoir is in a remote area and no lives are at risk the work would not be insisted on.”

He added that, because Hampstead Heath’s reservoirs are in a highly-built-up area, work would need to be done.

Dr Hughes said the new legislation was the result of a study by engineer Sir Michael Pitt that found previous laws drawn up nearly 100 years ago were no longer adequate as weather patterns become more extreme.

“We use rainfall studies by meteorologists going back hundreds of years to calculate the probability of severe storms,” Dr Hughes added. “We calculate how much the water level could rise, and consider how we cater for it.”

The guided walks are on Tuesday, February 11, and Saturday, February 15, both from 9.30am to noon. They start at the Parliament Hill staff yard and finish at East Heath.