A CONTROVERSIAL multi-million-pound flood defence project opposed by hundreds of people it is intended to protect may move a step forward on Tuesday.

Residents of Musselburgh are calling for a halt to the proposed scheme which would see high concrete walls built along the River Esk and harbour seafront which they say will scar the town’s green spaces, damage the environment and involve the felling of mature trees along the riverside.

More than 2300 people, including the town’s former lord provost and five former East Lothian councillors, have signed a petition calling for a pause in the plans.

They claim that the flooding risk has been overstated, nature-based solutions have not been properly considered and the scheme is not worth the financial cost which has rocketed from £8.9 million in 2016 to £96m so far.

The scheme has also been criticised by academics.

“The plan to build structures on both sides of the river in Musselburgh will damage the environmental quality of one of the urban gems of East Lothian,” said David Sugden, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Edinburgh University.

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“It seems a harsh approach to a problem that can be tackled by more environmentally sensitive nature-based approaches.”

Angus Macdonald, Emeritus Professor of Architectural Structures at Edinburgh University, also questioned the approach being developed by Jacobs, East Lothian Council’s consultants.

“The use of hard engineering in the past is not an argument for using it in future, especially if it will have grave effects on the amenity of Musselburgh,” he said.

“As a structural engineer myself, I am well aware that nature-based solutions constitute an important part of the broad-based approach to flood control that is currently favoured by the majority of the civil engineering profession.

“What is now required is a second opinion, from other consultants with expertise in river-catchment-scale and nature-based flood protection, alongside which the recommendations of the current consultants may be properly scrutinised. This is normal practice for major infrastructure projects.”

The National: Emergency crew help evacuate people in Brechin during recent floodsEmergency crew help evacuate people in Brechin during recent floods (Image: (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Dr Simon Shackley, a Musselburgh resident and a climate change researcher, added: “We all accept the climate is warming but precisely how extreme rainfall will affect the Lothians over the next 75 years is far from certain. The project team has not explained this clearly to the community and, when challenged to show the range of potential change, has confused matters rather than illuminating them.

“Technical questions about how natural flood management has been investigated by the project team remain unanswered.

“Scientists always use independent review by other experts as a way of ensuring the quality of their work. Why haven’t East Lothian Council insisted on an independent objective appraisal?”

At the current sum of £93m to protect 2500 properties, the cost works out at £39,000 per property on the possibility of a one-in-200-year flood risk, according to the campaigners.

“We are not against some barriers through the town because it has flood risk and that will increase in the future because of the estimates of climate change,” said Professor Roger Crofts, the former first chief executive of Scottish Natural Heritage and a Musselburgh resident.

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“But what we have been arguing for is to let nature help to slow the water coming into the river channels.

“We don’t want our properties flooded and we certainly don’t want people harmed or killed by a flood but the community want to be involved in a collaborative effort.”

On Tuesday, a paper will go before an East Lothian full council meeting on nature-based solutions elsewhere but the project developers are recommending that while nature-based solutions should be investigated further, this should be done independently of the current scheme so that it is not subject to delay.

The campaigners have written to all the councillors asking them to refrain from approving the paper.

A spokesperson for the council said: “East Lothian Council has worked hard to consult and engage with the people who live, work and visit Musselburgh.

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“There have been a number of public meetings arranged by the Musselburgh Flood Protection Scheme team providing opportunities for discussion and raising queries.

“In addition, numerous invitations have been made to individuals and collectively to the Action Group to find out their concerns with no responses received. It is therefore wholly untrue to suggest otherwise.

“In June 2023, the first vision of the outline design was presented to the public. We received a lot of feedback regarding the scheme’s outline design which has truly been remarkable. The project team are busy reviewing all feedback and we are considering changes to the outline design which will be confirmed when the final outline design is presented to full Council in January 2024.”

Referring to the rise in costs, they pointed out that the original plan had been expanded to include additional projects.

They added: “Jacobs was appointed as the designer for the scheme following a robust tendering process.”