‘They spend it all on clipboards’

Liam Shaw

A stretch of the River Lugg was destroyed last week. ‘The river and its banks have been bulldozed, straightened and reprofiled into a sterile canal,’ Hereford Wildlife Trust reported, ‘with all bankside and riverside habitats completely obliterated.’ What used to be a gentle brook flowing between picturesque, entangled banks now looks like a storm drain: barren mud criss-crossed with the imprints of bulldozer tracks.

The Lugg is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, ‘one of the best British mainland examples’ of a clay river, and a ‘core refuge area’ for otters and other species.Several agencies have a statutory duty to protect it.

Investigations are underway, but the damage has been done. Feelings are running high. One local resident described himself as ‘shaking with anger’.But some others approve. Houses in the village of Kingsland have been damaged by floods in recent years. A video taken last February shows not a babbling brook, but a leviathan that has burst its banks. The river’s name is derived from the Welsh llug (‘light’), and means ‘bright stream’. But when in flood it is silt-brown, a torrent of destructive mud.

John Price, a local farmer, has admitted responsibility for the damage.He told theTelegraph he had acted out of frustration: ‘It was up to the Environment Agency (EA) to look after these rivers but they don’t do any work and haven’t got any money to do the work because they spend it all on clipboards.’ In his view, removing the build-up of silt and fallen trees will protect locals from floods.

The EA, as David Whyte notes in Ecocide, is charged with regulating more than a million businesses alongside its other responsibilities such as flood defences. Yet it employs only around a thousand frontline officers: ‘little more than the number of traffic wardens in London’. Since 2008, its funding has been cut by over 40 per cent. The problem is not too many clipboards, but too few.

The bulldozing of the Lugg won’t solve the root causes of flooding: climate change combined with the loss of soil and increased run-off from modern farming practices. But people who live in the countryside often feel, like Price, that central government places them in a double-bind: bureaucrats won’t pay to fix problems, but also prevent locals from fixing things themselves, as they would ‘traditionally’ have done. The Lugg dispute is a grim reminder of the realities of increased flood risk. More money needs to be spent, but government reports often pass the buck to ‘riparian landowners’: those who, like Price, own the land along rivers.

In the case of the Lugg, while there is confusion over what went wrong it is clear there was a serious breakdown in relations. EA officers had been to Kingsland Parish Council meetings in recent months to discuss management of the river, as well taking a site ‘walkabout’ (no doubt with a clipboard or two).It was ‘doubtful’ if more funding would be made available for flood defences, they noted, because ‘budgeting at the EA is prioritised by collective value of property affected’.

The Parish Council has released a statement, selectively quoting from a letter from the EA, which recommended some ‘reprofiling’ of the bank that it would ‘look to the landowner to carry out’. It seems Price went far beyond what was recommended; the EA wrote two weeks ago requesting that no further works be carried out. Government agencies have now joined forces to investigate ‘a series of unconsented works’.

People have been trying to turn the unruly rivers of the Welsh Marches to their advantage for centuries. The Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in February 1461 was a key victory for Edward IV in the Wars of the Roses (it features in Henry VI Part III). The exact site remains unclear, but it was no more than two miles upstream of the recent devastation, with the Lugg a strategic barrier on one flank.

Halfway through Henry IV Part I (nearly sixty years before the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross), Hotspur, Owen Glendower and Edmund Mortimer meet to divide up the country between them, using the rivers Trent and Severn as boundaries. When Hotspur looks closer at the map, he is unhappy with the course of the Trent: it comes ‘cranking in | And cuts me from the best of all my land’. He proposes a solution:

I'll have the current in this place damm’d up;
And here the smug and silver Trent shall run
In a new channel, fair and evenly;
It shall not wind with such a deep indent,
To rob me of so rich a bottom here.

Glendower is aghast: ‘Not wind? it shall, it must; you see, it doth.’