I know when you look at the price of the a day on a prime chalkstream it might be fair to assume that someone, somewhere must be coining it, raising a glass to us fly fishing fanatics from the sun-drenched beach of a tax haven far, far away. A bit of me (actually quite a big bit) wishes this was true, but it is not which makes the latest news from the Environment Agency all the more depressing. Here is the story so far.
Chalkstreams are very much the product of man. That much you well know, the original rivers created many millennia ago as primitive man drained the marshland to provide fertile farmland. Over time the streams have been variously, to use the modern argot, re-purposed: for navigation, irrigation, drinking water, numerous industrial and agricultural needs and more latterly fishing.
Until the early part of the 20th
century this was largely a process of evolution, river owners doing whatever suited their requirements until oversight appeared in the form of government bodies such as Drainage Boards and Water Authorities that eventually combined into the National Rivers Authority that in turn became what we have today in the form of the Environment Agency (EA). I would attempt to tell you in a brief sentence the duties of the EA but they straddle a list so diverse it almost blows my mind from licencing passenger carrying boats to radioactive substance regulation for nuclear sites. Rivers are just one tiny bit of this regulatory monolith. Take a look if you dare at the EA services information page on their web site
How does this impact on the chalkstreams? Well, if I or anybody or any organisation wants to embark on a river conservation project they must seek EA consent in the form of a Flood Defence Application. I know that in itself might sound weird but the EA duty of care (sorry, more jargon) is to prevent flooding as opposed to improving habitat. That is the benchmark by which they will measure the application.
Fair enough you might say, why should you have the right to flood your neighbour? And I would agree though in reality few projects would have the potential to have this effect however badly implemented. So, you dutifully fill in your SR2015 form. That in itself will not be easy; you will require the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon and many hours. I am paid to complete them and I find them confusing, designed as they are to cover every eventuality, for every type of river across England and Wales.
But you do it because in the case of most clubs, societies, river trusts, owners, tenants and passionate anglers you love your river. You want to make it better. Better for fishing. Better for trout. Better for all the bugs and creatures. And preserve it for the next generation. And then the EA stick you with a bill and here is the rub. Two years ago it was a nominal £50. No problem. Then in 2016 the charge rose to £240. Ouch we all said, but austere times and all that. Now the EA are proposing to raise the charge to £764, a bill the experts tell me will likely rise to double that for anything other than the simplest of schemes.
If you are wondering what I mean by a ‘scheme’ here are a few helpful examples put together by Jeremy Legge, the incisive Executive Director of the Test & Itchen Association:
- £446. The proposed cost of an application to carry out activities such as putting up a notice-board, erecting a fishing shelter/hut or creating or improving a riverside track or path.
- £764. The proposed cost of an application to carry out bank protection work over a distance of less than 100m, construct a footbridge or install a flow defector affecting a distance of less than 200m.
- £968. The proposed cost of an application to remove silt, sand or other material, to install gravel, or to manage woody debris over a distance of more than 200m.
I suppose in some respects these sums do not sound a great deal but actually in most cases the cost of the application will greatly exceed the cost of the project itself. For the vast majority the cost is just few hundred pounds on materials but hundreds of hours of freely given labour.
For that is the truth about river conservation. Nobody is making fortunes from our rivers so all improvements rely on goodwill and enthusiasm; volunteer effort if you like. And it really is happening out. I have a Google news alert that flags up anything chalkstream and every week new projects pop up that are simply the product of enthusiasts – schools, clubs, associations, wildlife groups – the list goes on and on, who want to preserve our rivers. But put this EA administrative and financial burden in the way and they simply will not happen. Given the choice between spending your hard won money on gravel and chainsaws or lining the pockets of government what would you do?
The simple fact is that the EA is being both greedy and short-sighted. The net result of these proposals will be to discourage conservation work, send other projects underground and in the end the EA will be a financial loser as the applications dry up. Except of course, ironically, for all those grant aided projects which are for the most part funded by government, which makes for nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul.
EDITORS NOTE: The deadline to respond to the EA consultation document that contain these proposals is today (26 January). The new charges are due to take effect 1 April. If you would you like to write to or email the Environment Agency with your views I can supply a draft response template which provides the postal and email addresses for your submissions. Or visit the EA web site here