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Musselburgh Flood Protection Scheme – A 7-minute introduction

What is the Musselburgh Flood Protection Scheme?

An approximately £100m building project designed to protect Musselburgh from a hypothetical 1-in-200-year flood event. It began in 2016 as an £8.9m scheme, but has since grown to a figure close to £100m (before it has even started…)  and now also incorporates:

  • Major repair works to the existing ash lagoon sea wall (£52.4m)
  • Flood protection defences along the river and coast (£43.5m) 
  • Building of a Musselburgh Active Toun transport/cycle route (£122k, design only)
  • Musselburgh River Esk Restoration (Budget and details unknown)

The official website of the project is at:, where you can also view the Outline Design, exhibited for two days at Eskmills in June 2023, and set to be voted through by East Lothian Council in January 2024.

What is being proposed?

The building of concrete walls and sloped embankments along both banks of the Esk, from the weir up the Grove down to the coast, and along the whole of the beach front from the mouth of the river to beyond the harbour. ​​The walls will, in most places, be more than 5 ft / 1.5 metres high and in many places, such as by the Goose Green Footbridge, be 6 feet / 1.8 metres high, which means most people will not see over the walls and the connection to the river and coast will be lost for future generations. The images below represent the scale of these barriers. Full details of the contractors’ Outline Design can be viewed on this page of the project website.

What will it really look like?

The images below are from the recent Selkirk flood protection schemes. Same consultant, same contractor. There’s also a recent photo taken near the QMU in Musselburgh. How long before the Musselburgh flood walls also feature graffiti?

How far along are the plans?

The Outline Design was ‘revealed’ to the public in June 2023. In the following two months, the size of our Facebook group doubled to 1400 members, such was the opposition. The design is set to be voted through by councillors in January 2024. If passed, building will likely commence in 2025 and take anything from between 5 and 10 years to complete.

Who are we and what are our aims?

We’re a group of Musselburgh residents who want what’s best for the town. We think the outline design far exceeds the needs for our town, is unsightly, destroys our valuable green spaces and does not include enough upstream nature-based solutions in Midlothian. We believe the scheme needs to be paused and reevaluated. Musselburgh deserves better.

But Musselburgh does flood, doesn’t it?

You can’t have a river running through your town and expect to never have had a flood in your town’s history. But Musselburgh rarely floods. Over the last 30 years of available data (1991-2021) the frequency of flooding is about the same as the frequency in the previous 30 years (1960-1990). Musselburgh’s coast has never flooded. The consultants call any storm wave water coming over the harbour walls a flood event. That’s part of their justification for building a 1.7m barrier along the whole of the coast and along the Back Sands beach to beyond the Mussel monument on the Edinburgh Road, destroying our community’s connection to the beach and the sea. To protect us from something that’s never happened.

To some, this is further evidence that the Outline Design is a huge overreaction, full of unnecessary measures. We know that the funding scheme set up by the Scottish Government may encourage unnecessary expansion of flood protection schemes such as this, and in response, the Scottish Government is now changing the rules.

And what about climate change? Won’t that increase the flood risk further?

Climate change has been underway for 40-50 years now. Flood risk in Musselburgh is likely to go up over the next few decades. How much that risk goes up is really anyone’s guess, because something as serious as climate change has never happened before. But if you just look at the actual river level data for the Esk, there has been no significant change in flooding in Musselburgh over the last thirty years. It’s a very different picture in other parts of Scotland, where places that used to flood once a decade are now already flooding five times a decade or more. That’s one of the reasons why we want the Scheme paused and reviewed. There is time to collect more data on Esk river levels over the next 5-10 years and see what local impact climate change has on the Esk and our coastline. There is time to properly assess alternative approaches to flood protection that actually help reduce the impact of climate change. These are called Natural Flood Management or Nature-Based Solutions.

It’s very easy for the contractors, consultants and counsellors to shut down any objectors to the scheme by claiming that they are not taking climate change seriously. It’s also very easy for them to scaremonger by publishing fake photoshopped images of cars floating down the High St, and supplying them to the press, which they did.

Fake Photoshopped image made by CPE Consultancy and supplied to the East Lothian Courier, who published it.

However, the effects on future sea levels are still unknown, but are unlikely to require a 2m wall along the beach any time soon! We object to the use of scaremongering and talk of a hypothetical, apocalyptic future flood event to get locals and councillors onside with the scheme. We would also like the data and the modelling upon which the projection is based to be made public. Currently, the only experts asked to determine Musselburgh’s flood risk are the contractors in-house analysts!

Hang on, why would the Council build something if it’s not really needed?

Councillors have a difficult life. They come from all types of backgrounds and we believe most of them are trying to do something for their community rather than their own egos. They generally are not in an easy position to challenge the advice of their Council-paid consultants and technical officers. Flood risk assessment is a pretty complex 21st century technical issue. In our opinion, our councillors have handed too much control of this project to the consultants and companies that are going to profit the most from this £100m project going ahead. There is no external review in place to provide proper technical and financial governance of this project. The same companies have modelled the flood risk predictions (and won’t release their modelling assumptions and data for independent review). The same companies have already made millions from the progression of this project to the design stage. The same companies are going to be allowed by the Council to build it and pocket the fat end of way more than £100m by the time it’s built – unless we stop them!

Are we being too cynical? Perhaps. The Council are in huge deficit, and are getting three new bridges from this project, some cycle paths and, additionally, the whole of Musselburgh’s catchment area will be available for sale for housing development afterwards, including Fisherrow Links and the land beyond Goose Green behind the ash lagoon sea wall, as it will all meet SEPA’s statutory 1-in-200 flood risk protection if this scheme goes ahead. Hmm…

So what is it you are proposing instead then?

We want the scheme paused in order to:

  • Have independent experts review the flood risk modelling data in order for the Community to have confidence in the flood risk to Musselburgh.
  • Have independent experts evaluate the state of the sea wall at the lagoons.
  • Collect more data on the impact of climate change on the coast and the Esk.
  • Engage the community in co-producing a new flood management plan for Musselburgh that has, at its heart, upstream Natural Flood Management across the Esk catchment area.
  • Await the outcome of the Scottish Government’s policy review.
  • Find a solution that preserves the character of Musselburgh and the amenity of our greenspaces in the town.
  • Allow the Council time to conclude their confidential negotiations with Scottish Power over who pays for the £50m ash lagoon wall repairs.
  • Explore dealing with the problem further upstream in Midlothian and the Pentland Hills to reduce the need for ‘last resort’ concrete walls to be built in Musselburgh. This ‘joined-up’ approach between Councils happens in England, for example in flood risk schemes in Leeds (West Yorkshire) where measures are being taken upstream in Skipton (North Yorkshire). Similarly, the Severn Valley scheme includes measures across both England and Wales.

Tell me more about Natural Flood Management

The River Esk catchment is a vast area of land that feeds water into the Esk. It spreads through Dalkeith, Bonnyrigg and into the Pentland Hills. Centuries of human activity – housebuilding, deforestation, farming – have reduced the ability of the land upstream to hold and absorb rainfall. The river was also straightened to make the water run faster for the benefit of the mills in Musselburgh. Upstream Natural Flood Management solutions are an accepted part of flood management and work by reducing and slowing the volume of water flowing into the Esk.

Construction companies who specialise in hard-engineering solutions of concrete walls and bridges don’t typically find Natural Flood Management solutions attractive as they are less predictable in terms of profit.

But aren’t East Lothian Council in huge deficit?

They are. They face a funding gap of £71million gap from the period 2024/25 to 2028/29. One interesting end result of the Outline Design would be that areas of Common Good land including Fisherrow Links, the land by Goose Green and the land behind ash lagoons would no longer be considered to be ‘at flood risk’ according to SEPA, and would therefore theoretically become more eligible for sale by the Council for housing development. We want to know if the Council plan to sell this valuable land at the end of the project to solve the deficit problem. Loretto Playing Fields would also be considered flood protected by SEPA.

What about those cycle paths? Aren’t they a good idea?

Many of the cycle paths that have been incorporated into the design via the Musselburgh Active Toun project, are far too large, in the wrong place and solve travel problems that don’t exist. At least the Council are being consistent – they didn’t listen to the cyclists either! A 2021 consultation with cycling groups and the public highlighted that safe cycling routes from Musselburgh to Portobello/Edinburgh/Leith would most benefit commuters, young people and older people alike. So what have they designed? Huge cycle paths along the riverside … that use Sustrans funding to try to greenwash and distract from the great environmental damage that this project will cause, in terms of loss of mature trees and use of CO2-producing concrete.

Hasn’t there already been a petition?

Yes, the original petition of 2,300 names was rejected by the Council. However, it is interesting to note that the rejection statement attributed to the Council included quotes that had previously been attributed in the East Lothian Courier to Conor Price, who is a paid flood consultant and the main spokesperson for the Council’s Flood Plan. It is not a democratic, impartial or fair process if one of the key individuals whose flood plan we query is allowed to dictate the reasons for rejecting the Community’s petition. This was clearly aimed at stifling democracy and preventing our petition from being placed before our elected Councillors. This is just one of many issues that are causing so much Community disquiet with how this £96m scheme is being forced upon us.

Who are Jacobs and why were they awarded the contract?

Jacobs are a US-based multinational, specialising in contracts for government agencies. Worldwide revenue for 2022 was $14.9 billion. They didn’t win the contract. CH2M Hill were the initial contractors who were bought out by Jacobs within 7 days of winning the contract.

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