I’m sitting here with this idea for a blog post and it is along these lines: I natter on about ‘what you should do’ to manage rivers but I never really talk very much about the politics of this, and how difficult it can be to actually get things done. I’m also watching BBC Democracy LIVE in the House of Commons and they’re debating the The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Politics permeates everything we do, and although it would be flippant to compare the politics of gay marriage to the politics of watershed management, the vigour and passion with which people talk about their rivers should not be understated.
Any why not? The way rivers behave, the ecosystem services and natural resources they provide, and their aesthetic value are all important to someone, whether they realise it or otherwise. You might be a fisherman (97% of all people who fish are male – if you haven’t read the 2012 National Angling Survey then I’d recommend it), spending your weekends catching trout and salmon. You might be a water utility company looking for an abstraction licence, or an avid canoeist who enjoys the recreational amenity of our rivers. Perhaps you have no direct connection with rivers, but have been effected by rising water bills or flooding.
And with different interests and concerns come different opinions and therefore conflict. Restoring a knackered river to a more natural state might be great for biodiversity but throwing a load of wood in the channel isn’t going to help navigation for barges or small river craft. Equally, over-abstracting water from a river may increase a utility company’s profits but may have damaging effects upon stream ecology, fluvial geomorphology and overall river functioning.
It’s no wonder then that sometimes there’s bad blood. I’ve linked to this article in a previous post and I really think you should read it. To summarise, the article reports on a meeting between farmers and Paul Leinster (Environment Agency Chief Executive) to discuss, amongst other things, the impacts of recent flooding upon arable agriculture. The article is interesting in itself but the comments made by readers are even more so.
Whatever side of the fence you’re on, you need to get a saw and maybe a hammer with one of those nail remover thingies, because that fence needs to come down. In my experience the best way of dealing with conflicting concerns is to talk them over. Sit round the table, have plenty of tea and biscuits available (you’ll need them) and thrash the issue out. Be transparent and if you can manage it, be objective.If you’re lacking evidence then go get evidence. If you’re lacking technical expertise then go get technical expertise. It’s very business speaky but if you can, make your final decision using a risk-based approach. Nothing should be insurmountable.
On a related note a colleague of mine said to me today that I might want to consider my use of the word ‘stakeholder’. She said that they’re not stakeholders, as they don’t hold stakes. I said to her that sometimes they do. I said to her that sometimes when they see me coming they adopt a square formation, like a regiment of medieval pikemen ready to absorb a cavalry charge. Partners? Customers? People? River management can be tricky enough without getting bogged down in semantics, and yet our choice of words is all part of the Politik.