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Flood Prevention v Nature Preservation - Slugging it out on the Lugg

by Stoker

The River Lugg...Before

Stoker seems to have developed a minor obsession with water works; the Editor thinks it’s a sign of the passing years. More though, we think, to do with passing waters. In the last issue it was The Wash and all those eastern rivers – the Welland, the Nene, the Great Ouse, and the Witham which flow into it; and all the cuts and canals and navigations and streams and ditches and dykes which flow into them from the low-lying flat lands of the Fens. But now we are moving west to the wonderfully named River Lugg, and a sorry tale of those who live on her banks.

But worry not; it all turns out well in the end. Or at least it has done so far. But this is a tale of modern Britain; the people versus the state; the urge to tidiness and order struggling with laisse faire and rewilding; locals versus London.

The waterways of the Fens are a highly man-made creation, dredged and dug and ditched to create prime farmland from peat bogs. And to make sure they do not revert to bog, they are man-managed, with pumps and locks and back-up holding basins and all sorts of basic but very efficient systems which can deal with high tides and low, to say nothing of downpours and droughts and even burst lock gates. The vital local agencies are the drainage boards, mostly made up of local worthies with financial interests at stake and great knowledge of the mysterious ways of fens water and its perils. Those who wish to know more can do worse than read Dorothy L Sayers great 1930’s thriller, The Nine Tailors, where the action is set against a background of poor lock maintenance and continuous rainfall.

But we are not in the Fens; we are in the beautiful rolling countryside of Herefordshire, grass and cow country, but also famed for growing potatoes, barley, and hops. The valleys are deep and the hills steep, high, and often wooded, served by great rivers flowing ultimately into the Severn and the Bristol Channel. The best known is the Wye, but equally deserving of fame is the Lugg, rising in north-east Herefordshire and flowing south until it meets the Wye just below Hereford. The Wye is more dramatic; the Lugg serves the more prosperous farming part of the county.

Which is why management of the Lugg is as important as those complex Fenland waterways. Or at least, has been until recently. And now we must introduce our hero. Or, depending on your view of life, villain. His name is John Price and he is a farmer whose land adjoins the Lugg. But in recent years Mr Price has found that his land does not so much adjoin the Lugg as intermingle with it. The Lugg has taken to flooding in a fairly dramatic way , not just Mr Price’s three farms (he is a farmer in a pretty substantial way of business) but also the lands of his neighbours, local villages, churches, and workplaces. Mr Price owns the riverbanks and even the river bed, and has watched the river become silted up and increasingly obstructed with stone, mud, and gravel debris, bushes and trees, the results of storms over recent years.

There is, of course, a regulator for river management, not local drainage boards as in the Fens, but the Environment Agency, a massive ministry of many things (as its title implies). The EA, as we shall know it, has many cares, and it says, few resources, at least not for managing rivers. It traditionally has been happy to leave this job to those who own the riverbanks and indeed, even more traditionally, would chivvy up owners who allowed the rivers to become obstructed and thus cause flooding.

But this has changed in the last twenty years. The EA now firmly says it is in charge of river management and woe betide he who digs out a shingle bank or fiddles with an obstructing tree. Partially this is no doubt due to the good old attitude that if you have the power you might as well use it, partially (pardon our cynicism) that if it finds more things to do it can request more money from government to do them, together with the delights of more employees, more senior jobs, and maybe even more bonuses. But mainly it is to do with the latest countryside fashion, or at least the fashion among rich people who are buying up the countryside, of rewilding, that is, low input or no input or complete abandonment of Nature. Let it do as it likes. Fallen trees should rot, feral boar can freely roam, hedges grow into spinneys into woods, and rivers get blocked and flood. Farmers and graziers and market gardeners, foresters, inhabitants, and indeed most of those who make a living from or live in the countryside tend to prefer a bit of order and discipline applied to nature, especially when they find the River Lugg in their kitchen and coming up the stairs, as the dog kennel floats past the bedroom windows.

Now, Farmer Price has always thought it his job to manage what is effectively his bit of river, save his neighbours from this close communion with the Lugg, enable him to sow and harvest, and keep the wildlife and especially the fish thriving. So as before, in 2020 he got some big machinery, dredged the river, took away the dredged soil to put on his land, cleared the banks to prevent vegetation getting too big and falling in, and let the river flow free. Result: the Lugg stayed in its banks and went chortling on its way to meet the Wye. The banks were barren for a year or two but the vegetation has grown back, the temporarily evicted wildlife has quickly returned, and the river has filled up with fish.

All-round happiness, yes? Er, no. The EA did not like this exercise of farmerly independence at all. It indeed was very cross and pompous about the whole thing and called in its lawyers. They charged Mr P with seven offences, including unauthorised tree felling and, remarkably, dumping silt in the river – as some fell in during the dredging works. Mr Price was advised (surprisingly) to plead guilty and was sent to prison for a year, and fined costs of £600,000. This seems a grossly heavy-handed way of dealing with this well-meant neighbourly gesture (next time Mr Price wishes to turn to crime we would suggest bank robbery or car theft would be much less likely to result in prosecution and any penalty considerably lighter).

He actually served four months and has just been released for good conduct – perhaps he helped clean out the prison drains. His neighbours all applauded what he did at the time and have been further praising Mr Price on his return, not least because his actions saved the nearby village from certain flooding by the recent Storm Dennis. Mr Price had time to reflect in prison and is now even more certain that what he did is sensible and morally right; he is not surprisingly pretty angry about his treatment. The EA continue to say that he was wrong and his actions were unauthorised and may cause flooding lower down the valley of the Lugg (the answer to that, should it occur, would be to get the lower stretches dredged). The local MP has pointed out that the failure of the EA to dredge the watercourses of the Somerset Levels, caused extensive flooding and damage there in 2014; since dredging resumed in 2015 there has been no serious flooding in that area.

As we said, an unhappy tale, with we hope, a happy ending, at least for the folk who live near the Lugg. But it is very much a cautionary tale of Britain today: big government out of touch with local needs, disregarding local knowledge and willingness to be neighbourly, and hurt, damage, and shame to those who just wish to be helpful. Centralisation has overcome community, at least temporarily. Whitehall is discredited and the poor old taxpayer is shelling out for bad actions and alien philosophies. That actually does not make for much of a happy ending.


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