I observed previously that in the UK we don’t really have a fully-fledged and diversified community and civil society land trusts movement, in contrast to, say, the US and many countries in Latin America. I’m not sure why this is the case, but there’s great potential, and one area where this seems particularly the case is riverside land – i.e. the often rather narrow bands of land that sit either side of even the smallest streams and which get rather soggy when it rains.
You can see the areas I mean in England if you look at the Environment Agency online flood risk maps here:
Zoom in to an area and you’ll see flood zones following river networks. They form often narrow ribbons of blue (i.e. flood risk) that meander their way through farmland and towns and cities.
We often go to extraordinary lengths to keep these areas dry, dredging the streams that flow through them, keeping drainage ditches clear and, in towns, we encase the channels in concrete, building right up to their edge.
Because they are frequently waterlogged or, in towns, vulnerable during larger flood events, they tend not to be the best yielding parts of your farm, and not the best place to build houses or industry.
I wonder if these ribbons of riverside land might be the focus of a new riverside land trusts movement. With appropriate start-up funding, charitable land trusts could be established at county or district level to work in the countryside, and city riverside trusts focused on urban river corridor acquisition and management. Some larger dollops of public cash could support one-off land purchases, particularly in anticipation of longer-term savings to the public purse on account of relaxed management once river corridors are under land trust stewardship. In towns, trusts could work with planners to ensure that local plan policies and proposals map identify strips of riverside land from which re-development must be set back, opening up corridors, and secure developer support via planning gain.
Of course, bringing riverside land into relaxed management will not address all the ills facing our stream networks – far from it. So many problems afflicting streams and rivers have their source well away from riverside lands, in the wider catchment, and these problems need to be tackled as close to source as possible.
But freeing rivers from intensive channel management, often conducted to increase drainage of remarkably narrow pieces of riverside land, would at least enable us to start to tackle physical river and riverside habitat quality. And we could start to establish new national riverside path networks, set at the edge of the floodplain or directly at the river channel edge in places, and with well designed river access points where people can get down into the river itself. I recall as a child visiting a big river ‘riffle’ where crowds of people gathered to play and look for bullheads and minnows in the riffle and downstream plunge-pool.
Streams and riverside land should be seen as a national treasure – an asset to be cared for and nurtured – not simply a water, nitrate and silt disposal facility.