THREE-and-a-half years after Storm Desmond caused widespread destruction across Carlisle, work is finally set to start on a £25m scheme to bolster flood defences.

Contractors will today break ground on the project, which the Environment Agency says will better protect 1,600 homes and businesses across the city once fully complete.

Phase one will focus on the Warwick Road area, which - despite new flood defences built after the 2005 floods - was one of the worst-affected areas during the 2015 disaster.

To improve protection, the Environment Agency plans to build and improve flood defences at Melbourne Park and raise land at the entrance to Tesco, at the junction off Warwick Road. Work will also be carried out on and around Botcherby Bridge - which residents say contributed to the flooding by acting as a dam - to improve the flow of water.

Those behind the Carlisle Flood Risk Management Scheme say the first phase, costing £8m, will reduce flood risk to more than 1,200 homes and 100 businesses.

It is expected to increase protection from the previous scheme, completed in 2005, to a 0.5 per cent chance of flooding in any one year.

The Environment Agency has faced widespread criticism over the time it has taken to start the work, with £25m pledged by the Government right after Storm Desmond.

Many feared their properties would flood again before any work got underway.

However, project leaders said extensive planning and mapping work was needed to ensure they did not simply move the flood risk from one part of Carlisle to another.

Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the agency, is visiting the city today to officially launch the work by putting the first spade in the ground at Walkmill Crescent, near Botcherby Bridge.

He said: “I was in Carlisle during the 2015 floods and witnessed first-hand the devastating effects on people’s lives and livelihoods. So I am personally delighted to be here to see work starting on this new £25m scheme which will better protect homes and business against flooding for decades to come.”

This phase of the work will also include enhancing wildlife habitats in Melbourne Park and improving recreation facilities, including new park benches and entrance features.

The Environment Agency will also be planting wildflower meadows to boost populations of native birds, amphibians, small mammals and pollinators, such as bees.

Sir James added: “This important project will also benefit the environment by enhancing essential habitats and increasing biodiversity across the area, creating better spaces for local people and wildlife.”

Stewart Mounsey, flood and coastal risk manager for Cumbria, said they have looked at many different options and combinations of options for reducing flood risk in Carlisle, and have shared and consulted with the public to design the best possible scheme.

“The community of Carlisle have seen how devastating flooding can be. That’s why I’m so pleased we can start work to further reduce flood risk to more than 1,600 homes and businesses,” he said.

“It is hoped phase one of the scheme will be completed by the end of this year better protecting Carlisle this winter against another Storm Desmond-sized storm, with phase one delivering the greatest improvement to homes in the city.

“This scheme will have the highest standard of protection outside London and York, and whilst we can never guarantee that there will never be future flooding, we hope that this scheme will bring peace of mind to the public.”

A planning application for the further phases will be submitted this winter. The entire flood protection scheme is due to be complete by 2021.