Access to Information December 2009

I have previously written about the nationalisation of our rivers being a deliberate policy of the government to prevent individual owners having the opportunity to stand in the way of social demands. This is a situation that is always going to exist whilst the current structure adopted by the Agencies is permitted to remain in situ.

We had an anachronistic situation where the old Water Authorities charged with over seeing land drainage, flood defence, fisheries etc whilst also managing water supply and waste treatment. The Water Authorities were then morphed, very cleverly, into the NRA (National Rivers Authority) with water supply/waste fully privatised. That was the start of the rot; the NRA applied national policies and the needs of the local catchments became subservient. Obviously we have subsequently changed again into the EA but the emphasis is still very much on a national policy. Unfortunately our rivers do not fit into a national "one-size-fits-all" strategy with each geological region having rivers totally different from their neighbours.

This geological difference was recognised in the EU Water Framework Directive legislation but ignored at national level by Defra. Wherever possible the EA chose to establish its concept of River Basin Districts along existing administrative boundaries with the obvious exceptions of the larger rivers such as the Severn and Thames. I have previously highlighted the anomalies with our own area in that the Avon and the Test actually share aquifers yet sit in different river basin districts.

How can this come about? Through an ineffective consultation and those supposedly representing the Chalk Rivers failing to fight their corner. I should add, I count myself as one of those who failed to stop this situation arising. Unfortunately the major representative groups in the SW and SE plus the RFERACís lobbied hard for the EA position. There was no incentive to do anything other as the creation of further RBDís would only dilute the promised funding - I say promised as very little actual funding has appeared but thatís a different story.

We now have a situation where our river is failing, according to current yardsticks yet we are powerless to try any innovative ideas unless they fit into the national strategy and have the blessing of the agencies. Be it salmon, trout and grayling or any of a plethora of strategies designed seemingly to prevent individual investment or direct action. I know the stock answer (no pun intended) to this from the EA is that it is for the protection of the entire river and from their position to see a holistic picture. Thatís management speak for sitting on the fence and doing nothing.

We certainly cannot rely on the EA to protect the private fishery interests and riverine interests of the individual. They do not have the funding and in many cases the officers involved do not have the experience. The full time representative non government organisations appear in many instances to have become more concerned with their own survival than that of their members assets. As random examples ask the CLBA or the S&TA what their views are on any issue you feel should be part of their sphere of interest. In our case locally; CAMís, Avon Strategic Restoration Strategy, WLM plans, WFD implications, Gravel cleaning, Weed cutting, Climate change and see if they meet your requirements to protect your interests. The local fisheries groups are fighting your corner but are the voluntary officers sufficiently experienced? Do they have sufficient time and funds to effectively protect your livelihood or interest? More importantly can you reasonably expect a voluntary group to protect your interest when they are faced by the array of professionals and unlimited funds, both private and public, thrown at supporting various potentially damaging schemes? To produce the evidence to counter a claim from a water company or mineral extraction company that may be prepared to invest a six figure sum to support their scheme is a horrendously complex job. How does your voluntary officer research and counter this weight of argument? Having researched the problem this volunteer has then to acquaint you with the problem to ensure he is representing your views; that is a most unenviable workload.

Faced with this situation as an owner or lease holder you may wish to have a greater personal say in "your" river but how do you go about this? If you are familiar with the convoluted workings of the EA it is possible to keep an eye open for likely areas of concern arising from the multitude of departments. You could personally contact the agency departments, both Natural England and the Environment Agency and ask to be placed on their mailing list and be notified of all their various actions in a set radius from your property. I donít think that facility exists but itís a nice idea! You could become involved with the voluntary groups to help with the gargantuan workload. Good luck youíre going to need an awful lot of time and money, I say money as the EA in cost recovery mode will charge you twenty five pounds a time for each piece of information supplied plus twenty five pounds an hour to search for information, for a major research project that could run into thousands. Or, you could pay more in subscriptions to the local and national representative bodies, to enable them to employ fulltime professionals to properly fight your corner for you.

Whatever you may choose to do the first requirement of protecting private assets is to discover what is happening that might impact upon them. If that is so just what would make the difference in flagging up the potential risks to your river or interests. The one mechanism that would make all the difference to being able to detect the potential problems before they arise would be area websites. This could simply be achieved by a serious commitment from the agencies to have comprehensive websites, as does every local authority in the land.

These websites must be interactive, exactly as with the four hundred plus local authority sites any member of the public can access. It must allow direct contact to the officers involved in damaging, or improving our interests, just as the local authority sites do. It must also contain all the relevant information about every consent application, survey, flood defence scheme, land drainage, environmental and fishery project, not only from individuals and NGOís but the agency themselves. It must contain all the documentation that is required for these processes within the agencies; you guessed it, just as the local authority sites do.

With that information readily to hand the individual, the local interest group, local businesses and representative groups can have their say. It means that committees such as RFERAC and the numerous liaison and forum groups are not required as intermediaries between contractor and client. It would appear to have enormous advantages and I have requested this facility on several occasions over the years and have never received a satisfactory answer as to why it doesnít exist. I could be down to funding but this seems unlikely due to the number of precedents to copy? It could be beyond the capabilities of the management to implement such a scheme? Or it could be down to a disinclination to have a transparent window into the working practices of the agencies?