In November and December 2018 there were two incidents of illegal dredging in the River Lambourn in East Garston. This was captured on video and received considerable publicity at the time. You can read the post we created about the matter here.
The Environment Agency immediately got involved, its two goals being (i) to restore the damage that had been done and (ii) to take action against those responsible. The first of these had been done by the time the water returned in the spring of 2019. The second, however, is still ongoing.
Opinions locally on the first matter were divided. Many, including local environmental groups, were adamant that the damage needed to be repaired and an example set; others felt that a cheaper and lighter touch solution may have worked just as well and that nature would have done the rest. To an extent, the EA risked criticism whichever route it took: spending money on restoration work which it might never recover, or taking a more laissez-faire approach and so inviting others to believe that such breaches were not that serious. All agreed, however, that for the people involved to have done any work on an SSSI-protected river without permission was unwise and that to have carried on doing so after being unambiguously told to stop was even more so. If one disagrees with regulations the solution is to try to get them changed, not to ignore them. Actions have consequences.
This is one of the matters that the EA is trying to bring home to the perpetrators and, indeed, to anyone tempted to do the same thing. No one could claim this action has happened quickly. Both Penny Post and the Newbury Weekly News have regularly asked for updates over the intervening forty months and the replies were generally variations on the theme of “we cannot comment on an ongoing investigation.” It’s widely known that those probably responsible are no longer in the area, or perhaps even in the country. It’s also widely accepted that the cost of the restitution work alone is a fairly meaty five-figure sum with other fines and costs on top. This is income that needs to be recovered if the EA is going to be able to pay for the even more serious cases which come up every day. What the state of play is on this one is, therefore, a matter of legitimate public interest.
I contacted the EA again on 4 March 2022. “The Environment Agency’s investigation into what happened opened several leads we have pursued, ” I was told. “We have made numerous attempts to interview various parties we consider have useful information regarding the unplanned work on the Lambourn in November 2018, including one person currently overseas, but they have yet to respond to our environmental crime officers. Our investigation continues, keeping all enforcement options under review.
“We would like to hear in confidence from anyone with concerns about activities in the East Garston and Lambourn area since the unplanned work on the river in November 2018. Our incident hotline on 0800 807060 is open around the clock.”
The enforcement options include a range of possible measures. These include “taking an individual or organisation to court; enforcement undertakings, whereby an offender explains measures they have put in place to prevent further harm from occurring and makes a donation to a relevant environmental charity; and serving warning notices against future conduct.” I imagine that the the costs of this must be mounting up given the time that’s been spent on it to date and presume that these will be added to any final bill.
The spokesperson was unable to comment on the exact whereabouts of the person or persons believed to be responsible nor on when a conclusion might be reached. I understand that, when it is, this will be a matter of public record and we’ll be sure to publish the details. Hopefully, the result won’t involve a writing off of the debt. I have no feelings of malice or anything else in particular towards the people responsible – to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never met them – but the matter has now become a matter of public finance which thus affects us all.
The main moral of the story is that if you’re going to do anything that might impinge on an SSSI or similar then you need to proceed with caution. The whole south side of our garden is bordered by the River Lambourn so this is more than just an abstract idea for us. Should we felt the urge to dredge this stretch of the river bed (which, by the way, we don’t), we’d know that consequences would probably follow. How long they might take to do so is, as this case has shown, another matter.