Who to talk to
For anyone who doesn’t like lists, it’s probably best to look away now. But for those of you who don’t mind too much, read on…
This month, I’ve tried to distil some answers to one double question that’s bothered me for as long as I’ve been involved in restoring a river in South London. A double question evolved from one central uncertainty: who should I be talking to, and when?
First, you’ll need to talk to the Environment Agency (EA). Successor to the National Rivers Authority of England and Wales, this is the catch-all government agency charged with “creating a better place” for us all to live in, divided and subdivided into more departments and cells than I can comfortably get my head round at the moment. Flood Defence interacts with Fisheries interacts with Conservation interacts with Development, and that’s just a start.
Depending on whose opinion you listen to, this is the agency that has the power to make your dreams come true – or wreck your river so royally you’ll wish you’d never seen it before they turned it into a desiccating gutter filled with wood-chip.
Like most big contradictions, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but the point remains: don’t do anything significant to your river without their say-so. EA Officers have the full force of law behind them, and you’ll need their formal “Land Drainage Consent” for any structural changes within the river channel or within a prescribed distance back from the bank.
You’ll also need “Section 30″ clearance to release the little baby trout you’ve lovingly reared in your Trout in the Classroom programme. It’s complicated, so you can be sure we’ll come back to all this in due course. For now, just concentrate on building good relationships with your local EA Officers: they could be the best friends you’ll ever make. They should also be able to point you towards any contacts you may need at English Nature and the other quangos.
(If you’re reading this from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Outer Mongolia or anywhere else, your mileage may vary, as our American cousins say, and your river authority may be some other organisation entirely. But many of their empirical concerns, and yours, will be the same, so don’t let that stop you taking ideas from the rest of this article).
Secondly, your local Council. After the EA, Council personnel may be the people you’ll work with on the most regular basis. Local Councillors will be keen to show off their fashionably green credentials, especially around election time, but the people you’re likely to see most often may be your Council’s Biodiversity Officers.
Theirs is a newish role, in line with recent European legislation, and almost without exception they should be pleased to hear what you can add to the biodiversity of their patch. Not least, they may also be able to help you negotiate with their Council’s Waste Services Department: invaluable when you’ve just pulled a tonne and a half of old iron snags out of the river, and don’t know what to do with it, bar blowing several hundred of your hard-earned on a private skip.
Thirdly, your local water company. Rather like the EA, this is an organisation that wields a power of life and death over your river. Unlike the EA, it’s a privatised, profit-making company with few clear responsibilities except to its major shareholders and – some have suggested – an inbuilt desire to put profit and loss accounts before environmental obligations.
You’ll already be guessing that this can cut several ways, but from a river-ecologist’s point of view it’s advantageous to form a relationship with your water company if you can. At first, it may come as a shock to your local executives that anyone cares about the river they’ve been happily – and profitably – abstracting and polluting for decades. (Most normal people are a bit scared of rivers, remember?) But the agenda is moving on, and you’re in a strong position to offer them good news stories as well as bad.
In the early twenty-first century, Big Water has big budgets. Getting sponsorship for your project, and entering a mutually beneficial partnership with your local water company, should be one of your primary objectives.
Fourthly, what I call the River Adoption Agencies. Some of these are closely linked to the water companies we’ve just been discussing – the Rivercare Project, for instance, was founded about five years ago as a joint venture between Anglian Water, Keep Britain Tidy (EnCams) and the EA – and now covers a swathe of country from Essex to South Yorkshire. If you’re reading this from any of those areas, www.rivercare.org.uk would be an excellent starting-place to reconnoitre possible rivers to work on, or existing projects to join.
Many parts of Britain are also covered by Rivers Trusts: I’ve just tapped those two little words into Google, and came back with more than 29,000 listings from UK sites alone. If you don’t have time to browse through them all right now, the shortcut is www.associationofriverstrusts.org.uk - where you’ll find listings for most of the charities concerned, including the Tweed Foundation, the Eden Rivers Trust, and Thames 21, our own Adopt-A-River partner on the Wandle. They’ll have all sorts of useful advice for you – and maybe kit, insurance and Health and Safety support too.
Fifthly, local interests – of which there will always be more than you could ever imagine. The world of sports clubs, charities and voluntary groups is notoriously full of fragile egos – but at risk of sounding boring, it’s best to make friends with everyone if you can.
Riparian landowners are clearly key to the success of your project: get to know them, and keep communicating, because no-one likes to hear about someone else’s plans for their property at third hand. Equally, as John Gierach said in his essay “The Trout Wars”, it’s amazing how fast attitudes can change once habitat improvements start putting more cash in the till.
You may find a few traditional opinions if you’re working with a fishing club, too. Fortunately, as when you’re talking to the water companies or even a golf course with a river running through it, the environmental-economic balance is slowly but surely shifting to your side of the fulcrum.
If it costs every club member many hundred pounds a year for the privilege of dragging a brace of rag-tailed stockies out of the river every time they go fishing, wouldn’t that money be better spent on a barbless catch-and-release rule, environmental improvements for truly wild fish, and a visit to the supermarket fish counter? The precedents are there: just look at the Haddon Estate’s new “Going Wild” project in Derbyshire, or the Wessex Salmon and Rivers Trust’s “Swap a Salmon” tie-up with Tesco.
Your club could also consider joining the Anglers’ Conservation Association (ACA) – if nothing else as a pre-emptive strike or insurance policy against damage to your fishery by polluters existing or as yet unforeseen. Plan towards a catchment-wide strategy if you can, and don’t forget about collaborating with the clubs and landowners above and below you in the meantime.
Local wildlife fora and other environmental groups are worth getting to know, as I suggested last month for slightly different reasons. Each will have its own priorities and private obsessions, but unless they’re completely outlandish (ever-closer union with brown rats and cormorants?) those should usually converge very closely with yours. Take a little time, find your common ground or water, and see where a combined, sustainable outlook on trout, alders, water voles, bats and little blue butterflies could go.
Beyond these… how far do you want to push it? The Parish Council and Women’s Institute? Not a bad appeal to hearts and minds at all. The local diving school? Handy for deep-water cleanups. Social regenerators? Groundwork has brokered at least one very successful river restoration deal across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland.
I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
Sixthly, funders. Money for environmental projects is such a complex subject that I won’t even try to address it in this article. Local businesses, landfill tax credits, the Big Lottery, the EU: this list is almost endless. We’ll come back to it later, in more detail.
And finally, the Wild Trout Trust. Normally I wouldn’t put my next-to-favourite eco-charity nearly so far down any list – but I’m doing it this time for shock, awe, and so you won’t forget.
If you’re even thinking about working with a river, at any point of your life, get online to www.wildtrout.org, the very next thing you do, and order a copy of the new “Wild Trout Survival Guide”. Completely rewritten this year by one of their leading surveyors, this new handbook will walk you through every stage of restoring your river, with the WTT’s support from first reconnaissance to Advisory Visit to examples of successful projects.
I’ve just realised that it may even make the rest of this series redundant, but what the hell. Actually, buy one for all your friends too: it’ll be money well spent.
In the meantime, I’ll be back in September, to talk about some practical ways of getting to know your river. Will I repeat chapter and verse from the Wild Trout Trust? For now, that’s for me to work on, and you to wonder …