A world of water in West Berkshire: some thoughts following the first Election Special discussion on Kennet Radio on 7 April 2023

Following the Election Special on Kennet Radio on 7 April – which included three spokespeople from the three parties currently represented on West Berkshire Council and which discussed the environment, transport and the countryside – we received the following open letter from Paula Saunderson. She is the Flood & Drainage Warden for Clayhill in Newbury and has over the last few years made a number of contributions to the many discussions in the district about flooding and there environment. We’re happy to publish her comments in full below.

Dear Gentlemen,

Thank you all very much for the session on Kennet Radio on Good Friday. Most informative and very enjoyable – thanks to all involved.

In my role as the Clayhill Flood & Drainage Warden, which has been quite a lonely path, I have written to all WBC & NTC Newbury Clayhill Candidates in the May elections. And whilst it was lovely to be nominated by NTC for an Environmental Award it would be better if this had been a group of us.

And having listened to the Broadcast on Good Friday I am prompted to write to the participants in the broadcast.

Our West Berks world of water

The topic of flood risk and drainage covers the many aspects pertaining to what is mostly down to precipitation (rain). The capture and use of that water, and how it flows around the West Berkshire’s underground aquifers and our above ground surfaces until it reaches the oceans.

As a yacht-master who has sailed across the Atlantic I am passionate about all tidal and saltwater aspects as well: thankfully we do not have those to contend with in our inland location and can just concentrate on fresh water.  But we do send many micro-plastics down into the salty seas and the stomachs of whales…

Over the past few years, I have been trying to engage Clayhill Councillors in our specific world of water which I have been engaged in since returning to my homelands in June 2018. I have previous experience of the world of water under Hants CC, Eastleigh BC and on the River Hamble, and in my childhood playing in the bourns around Peasemore, Chieveley and other villages (before the boreholes arrived).

It has been a difficult road to travel without the aid of fully functioning Ward members for Clayhill and a not quite fully engaged part of the Place Directorate. Often, simple requests for information are not answered fully or in an honest way. I have tried hard to engage, and it took me five months after escalation to Laura Farris MP, to find out there was no Surface Water Management Plans (SWMP) for our area, this despite its complexity and despite almost every other village with a flood history having such a catalyst in place.

We also do not have the work that was promised under planning policy CS18 to identify and map our green/blue Infrastructure and categorise our public spaces. Without this contextual framework, strategy and a delivery plan other strategies such as the Playing Pitch Strategy have become overly dominant and its delivery plan may be preventing a more balanced view of public open space usage, especially nature-based pieces with no buildings.

The broadcast

I was particularly interested to hear what was discussed under the headings of:

  • Environment – huge subject.
  • Transport – never heard the words “modal shift”.
  • Countryside – not a term that describes well what it covers.

The discussion on the very topical subject of untreated sewage discharges was interesting given that many of the improvements which are undoubtedly required are driven by central government policy and the speed of implementation of very necessary changes. Thames Water has worked well with the Lambourn Valley Flood Forum to get improvements and we know more is required at a cost.

What we can do

What particularly caught my attention in the countryside session was when you were asked to suggest what you could do at local level and what residents can do to help mitigate untreated sewage outflows.

Several months ago and after last year’s drought I sent in a suggestion to the Climate & Ecological Emergency team (WBC calls this the Environment team) to do a specific newsletter around many things relating to the World of Water which has a varied and very interesting scope. I wanted it to include many actions that residents can take to help mitigate the issues of what goes into our drainage systems, black and grey water volumes, our contaminates, impermeable surfaces, groundwater, pluvial/surface water, fluvial/river water, stored water, used water, and much more about flood risk.

In fact, there are so many sources of useful information that we could be using to give public information and raise awareness of all matters to do with precipitation and water that it is hard to know where to begin. Maybe that is why?

You all know I monitor quite a few local authorities, and many do cascade information on these topics in a more comprehensive and cohesive way than WBC. Fundamentally, I think there needs to be a shift in thinking which can be driven by councillors of any persuasion.

Our ecological emergency and nature recovery

We are not concentrating enough on the ecological emergency and nature recovery. Everything is focused around the needs of humans. I think a good percentage of the public is gradually getting ahead of you and wants you to lead faster by example on these aspects.

We cannot wait for a Berkshire-wide piece of work when we need to interact with Hants, Wilts, and South Oxon as well as Reading and Wokingham. We don’t appear to have undertaken a current state assessment of all the pieces of land that we own or manage. This would look at opportunities for enhancement or just to stop destructions of habitats for flora and fauna that are currently happening. Also, the concept of connecting nature corridors with public land and using them for offset is not visible.

There appears not to be enough joined-up thinking. I sincerely believe you need to set up an ecological emergency and nature recovery function which involves your ecologists (without a planning hat on), tree and hedging experts, a nature-based drainage engineer, a nature-passionate planning officer, experts from the public like an entomologist, representatives from small-mammal societies, badger protection, reptile preservation, and biologists who are experts in our native flora. BBOWT cannot do it all: neither can ARK when our waterways do not have a clear management structure in place.

Planning applications

And when I am reviewing planning applications, I see so many disconnects between the planning officers’ reports and the comments from the LLFA, EA and Thames Water that it sometimes seems that the Planning Department is in a concrete world of its own, or just does not have enough knowledge. With smaller applications, the applicant often gets away with wildlife murder and the disregard for statutory buffer zones for waterways by planning committees sends out completely the wrong messages and does not emulate best practice.

From my discussions with officers and councillors, I have no doubt that not enough is understood about what government is intending in respect of nature recovery. A simple thing like signing up to DEFRA, EA and NE blogs as part of their PDP can start people thinking outside the box before a piece of often vague legislation gets down to local-authority level.

Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG)

And if you want a realistic view of BNG, you should sign up to BNG social media sites which Ecologists are using to get sight of the mathematical process driven scheme that this is. You will find it hard to recruit truly nature passionate ecologists into a municipal role unless they are given their wings and not stuffed four or five layers down under “Planning” in the council’s hierarchy.

Moreover, it is a misconception that our AONB is an ecological paradise – it is intensively-farmed land using pesticides and artificial fertilisers, with about 7% native woodland coverage. It is geologically beautiful but not full of wildlife and is subject to much hidden destruction including raptor persecution and elimination of bats (which are indicator species).

The future

If there are more radio sessions like this, I sincerely hope a topic can be “Nature Recovery”:  mainly because it is not even a main objective in the new local plan review (which I find exceedingly disappointing, and quite worrying.)

I know you will all take this as it is meant. I always strive for continuous improvement, I do not do blame as we are where we are, and I do not do politics. However, we do need to quickly improve the education of users and managers of our world of water and improve the speed at which WBC is addressing the ecological emergency and nature recovery.

Paula A Saunderson, ACIB

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