River Thames Society's Recent & Current Campaigns

The Society has conducted many campaigns since it came into being in the early 1960s. Recent and current campaigns include support for the Tideway Tunnel , a possible take-over of non-tidal navigation responsibilities by the Canal & River Trust, the listing of the paddle and rymer weirs, Tidy up the Thames, MPs' Parliamentary Group, and the Lock Keepers' Houses.

September 2014:  Thames Tunnel gets the green light!

Environmental charities and amenity groups representing over 5 million people who have been campaigning for a cleaner Thames in London have welcomed the decision of the government to go ahead with the long awaited and much needed Thames Tideway Tunnel.

Peter Finch, RTS Chairman, says “The Tideway Tunnel will see an end to the scandal of untreated sewage pouring into the Thames, removing a health hazard and restoring the river to a state of which we can all be proud.” 

The Thames Tunnel Now (TTN) coalition comprising national and local organisations - including RSPB, WWF, London Wildlife Trust, Thames21, Angling Trust, River Thames Society and angling and boating groups - has been calling since 2011 for the construction of a new tunnel under the Thames to stop tens of millions of tonnes of sewage overflowing into Londons river each year through the citys 36 Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). The result of more than ten years of exhaustive research and development by Thames Water and the Environment Agency, the tunnel proposal has been declared by independent studies as the only viable solution to dealing with "Londons dirty secret whereby as little as 2mm of rain can cause the sewers to overflow directly into the river with devastating effects for fish and other wildlife.

At the launch of Thames Tunnel Now in October 2011 a spokesperson for the coalition said: "It is completely unacceptable for people to be faced with raw sewage in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, and for tens of thousands of fish to die from suffocation every time it rains heavily in the summer. Opponents of the scheme should ask themselves if they would like their child to go sailing or fishing among human faeces, sanitary towels and condoms, or if they would like a healthy river full of wildlife for millions of people to enjoy for generations to come."

We now have pleasure in adding: "This is great news for the environment and an historic moment for one of the most famous rivers in the world which will be given a long overdue new lease of life".

The project will now proceed to the construction phase.  You can see more information at:  www.tideway.london.

Thames Navigation

3 July 2013:  Environment Minister, Richard Benyon, made the following statement to Parliament:

"On 28 February 2011, I made a statement about inland waterways policy for England and Wales (WMS 52).  I set out the Government's vision of a national trust for the waterways that included the British Waterways and Environment Agency navigations.  I said that there would be a phased approach to the delivery of this vision.  In phase 1, the functions, liabilities and assets of British Waterways in England and Wales would transfer into a new charity and that in phase 2, the EA navigations would transfer in 2015/16.  I made clear that the transfer would only take place if sufficient funding could be found in the next Spending Review to enable the charity to take on the liabilities associated with EAS's navigations, andthat a transfer would be subject to the agreement of the charity's Trustees.

British Waterways' functions, assets and liabilities in England and Wales were transferred to the Canal & River Trust on 2 July 2012.  This was a great achievement which has been widely welcomed and has already delivered considerable benefits such as raising almost £1m and drawing upon 29,000 volunteer days to support the waterways.

The fascal situation remains challenging and as a result Defra must identify additional savings in 2015/16 to  help deal with the deficit.  Initial scoping work on transfer costs which was undertaken during the New Waterways Charity Project indicates that the transfer of EA navigations is unlikely to be affordable in the current climate.  The Government has therefore decided that the Review planned for 2013/14 to consider options for the transfer will be postponed until Defra's finances improve and there is a realistic prospect of the transfer being affordable and that it can take place on terms which would enable CRT's Trustees to manage the additional liabilities involved.

I realise that this decision will come as a disappointment to all those with an interest in our inland waterways who share the Government's view that a transfer to CRT offers the most sustainable long-term future for EA's navigations.  The Government, however, remains fully committed to transferring the EA navigations when the economic circumstances allow us to do so.  The Government will review the position after the next Spending Period and will make a further announcement at that time on the timing of the transfer."

17 June 2013:  The River Thames Society has argued consistently that responsibility for non-tidal navigations should remain with the Environment Agency and not be transferred into the new waterways charity, as proposed by the government.  The article below draws together all the reasons for maintaining the status quo:

FUTURE OF THAMES NAVIGATION

GOVERNMENT PLANS

In 2010 Waterways Minister Richard Benyon announced that British Waterways (BW) in England and Wales would move from being a public corporation to a new waterways charity. In 2011 Mr Benyon spoke about “a compelling vision of a national trust for the waterways that included BW and Environment Agency navigations”.

This would be achieved by a phased approach :

  1. Liabilities and assets of BW in England and Wales ( Scotland having opted out ), to be transferred to a new charity, alongside an “endowment”consisting of BW’s property portfolio.

  2. The Environment Agency (EA) navigations would transfer into the new charity, if sufficient funding could be found in the next Spending Review to enable the charity to take on the liabilities associated with them and subject to the agreement of the charity’s trustees.

  3. Public consultation would take place, with a review in 2014 and transfer in 2015/16, if it is affordable to do so.

Mr Benyon acknowledged that, whilst BW came with a dowry (mainly the property folio he had managed to keep from the Treasury), it was not the same for EA navigations. It was later revealed that the new charity would be known as the Canal & River Trust (CRT).

Since 2011, there have been various consultation meetings and discussions, resulting in the great majority of organisations on the Thames, coming to oppose CRT taking over the navigation responsibilities. Their views have been conveyed to the Minister, DEFRA, EA, CRT and at many meetings and in the media.

ARGUMENTS FOR A CRT TAKE OVER

A number of arguments were put forward for the creation of the CRT and, as applied to the Thames, they are:

  1. That waterway users and their local communities will gain a greater involvement in how the waterways are managed.

Our response is that there are already many opportunities for involvement – River User Groups, the Navigation User Forum, the River Thames Alliance (with welcome local authority contributions) and its Moorings, Environmental, Planning and Learning Sub-Groups , formal and informal trade and organisation liaison with the EA.

  1. CRT will help waterways be more financially sustainable, with access to new sources of commercial and private income and fund-raising, including legacies and donations.

None of the consultation documents we have seen explain how this applies to the Thames and what these new income streams could be.

  1.  CRT will create an opportunity to grow a strong base of volunteers who can help maintain a range of waterway assets.

There is already much volunteer activity on the Thames – the EA’s volunteer lock-keepers and boat crew, the River Thames Society’s river warden scheme, National Trails volunteers looking after the Thames Path, community involvement in clean-ups, together with a large number of clubs and societies.

REASONS FOR OPPOSING THE TAKE OVER

The proposal concerns the 136 miles of EA navigation from Cricklade to Teddington, not the tidal 96 miles from Teddington to the outer Estuary, under the jurisdiction of the Port of London Authority.  We are not aware of any intention to replace the PLA by a mutual organisation or charity.

Over the years there have been a succession of management bodies including the Thames Conservancy, Thames Water Authority, National Rivers Authority and, since 1996, the EA.While responsibilities differed they looked after all aspects of river management, not just navigation and the result is the well-regarded and much-used Thames of today.

A CRT take over of navigation responsibilities, while leaving the EA to continue with all its other duties, is a recipe for inefficiency, waste and confusion.

A recent EA employee briefing ( also sent to us ) on the “Future of Navigation Project” refers to  the thousands of assets …each to be identified, its running and replacement costs quantified and its legal status in terms of ownership, operation and any access issues clarified. Where assets have a multi-functional purpose – providing navigation, water resources, flood risk management and biodiversity benefits – the importance of that asset for each function has to be assessed.

Looking at a weir, one such “multi-functional asset” where all the above purposes apply and where lock and weir keepers perform many roles, demonstrates just how difficult and absurd it is to separate navigation from other functions.

The consensus of the organisations we represent is that the EA has done much useful work, addressing a backlog of lock and weir maintenance, providing improved moorings and other facilities. In addition to navigation the EA covers flood and pollution control, land drainage, water abstraction, licensing of river works and fishing, environment protection and promotion of recreation.  All these responsibilities are part and parcel of good river management and together have resulted in our world-renowned river.

Accountability is another concern, as the EA is responsible to the Secretary of State and can be scrutinised by Parliament, but it is not clear what form of public audit will apply to the CRT, particularly during the 15 year transitional funding arrangement when it will receive Government funding.

COST FACTORS

An issue not mentioned in any briefings is the change under a CRT take over from the current boat registration, for which VAT does not apply, to a licence system where it does. Will CRT absorb the VAT charge or expect Thames licence holders to meet the 20 % increase, leading to a likely loss of boats from the river?

The crucial caveats to navigation transfer are that the CRT’s Trustees should be in agreement and that it is affordable to do so.

In replacing British Waterways the CRT received a settlement of £ 39 million for the first and subsequent 15 years, during which time it will need to find alternative sources of income, while competing with many other charities.

Presumably, CRT will only find the EA waters attractive if the Government grant (assuming there is one) for accepting this liability is equal to the cost of running the EA navigations. If not, they will have less to spend on canals and other waterways, which in effect would be subsidising the Thames, Nene and Great Ouse.

We note that during recent flooding CRT had to make appeals for outside funding to repair canal breaches.

Without in any way being complacent about future EA grant-in-aid from the Government, the EA navigations attract around 2% of its national budget, which means there is scope for budget transfers, particularly in the event of any serious problems, such as the aftermath of recent flooding.

CONCLUSION.

The Minister says he understands our concerns on the future of the Thames and assures us that he will carefully consider all the issues and involve stakeholders during the review period, before deciding its future.

We wish CRT well with its aims and responsibilities but we maintain that it is vital for the non-tidal Thames and the wider river basin to be managed holistically  by one unified body , the Environment Agency.

Peter Finch

June 2013


Lock Keepers' Houses

February 2012:  Another Threat to Resident Lock-keepers: In 2008 the Environment Agency announced plans to dispose of a number of lock houses along the Thames, with the consequent disappearance of resident lock and weir keepers.

The Society opposed this decision as being detrimental to the safety of those who travel on and live near the river, and further stated that it would alter the character and traditions of the Thames while dealing a serious blow to a loyal and skilled group of employees.

After a substantial campaign involving a wide range of organisations and with the support of many MPs, the Agency agreed not to proceed with lock house disposal while retaining a lock and weir keeper at each of the 45 lock sites.

However, in October 2011 the Agency reneged on this commitment by stating that currently vacant houses at Grafton, Cleeve, Sunbury and Chertsey, for which resident keepers had not been appointed, would be put on the market for rental. In addition, when houses at Goring, Whitchurch and Blakes become vacant later in the year, they would also be leased , to be joined by another two over the next few years.

The vacant resident posts associated with these houses have been “frozen”, with peripatetic staff to take over.

Although the River Thames Society recognises that the Agency faces serious financial challenges due to a reduction in Government grant-in-aid, it considers that the employment of resident lock-keepers remains of crucial importance to the safety and well-being of the river.

The Society again urged  the Agency to shelve the rental proposal and re-examine the placing of staff based on that fundamental principal –a resident lock-keeper at every lock. 

September 2012:  Waterways Working Group to Examine Lock  House Disposals:  Following a meeting with the EA Chairman, Lord Smith, rentals were halted with a steering group, including user representatives, to consider the future of five rented houses.  While River Thames Society welcomes the opportunity to fully explore all aspects of current arrangements and proposed plans, it remains opposed in principle to the disposal of any lock houses

 

Paddle and Rymer Weirs

 March 2012: A paddle and rymer weir consists of removable upright bars (or rymers) which are slotted into a horizontal base plate fixed to the river bed. These rest against a fixed upper beam which is notched to hold the rymer, in between which are placed removable timber paddles, stacked vertically depending on the depth of water. All are held in place by simple water flow, but are moved in sequence to control the levels.  This technology has been used on the river since the 17th Century and in association with other structures, such as flash locks and pound locks, they provided greater control of river flows and so enabled navigation of the upper reaches of the Thames.

Although periodically rebuilt, the structure at Rushey Lock is the oldest surviving paddle and rymer weir in the country. The River Thames Society successfully campaigned for listing of the weirs at Rushey, Goring and Streatley, to  help to ensure that this important part of our river heritage is not lost.  

In February 2012 the Society opposed the EA's plan to drastically reduce the paddle and rymer weir at Rushey and we continue to press for listing of the structures at Northmoor.  We were pleased to be informed by the Environment Agency, in March 2012, that following significant concerns raised by local residents and other groups, the weir upgrade at Northmoor has been postponed until these issues can be resolved.

 

 

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Paddle & rhymer weirs

 

Paddle & rhymer weirs pic 2