Restoring urban rivers

David LindoThe Urban Birder -recently presented a piece about the buried River Effra in south London on the BBC series Open Country. As an urban birder myself, David’s piece reminded me of the time I worked on my own urban river ‘local patch’ in south London.

I spent a fair few of my formative years in rural Surrey and Kent, and another fair chunk, possibly the most formative, in south London. Rather than attend secondary school, I chose to watch foxes most nights in a high-rise housing estate and search for their signs by day among the rubble of local ‘waste’ grounds.

On the days that I did actually venture to school (I did actually go quite a lot, but failed to learn anything!), I crossed the usually wet and wind-swept Sutcliffe Park, an expanse of municipal grasscrete mown to within an inch of its life to provide a playing surface for the largely absentee football clubs of south London. I never saw a team playing football here during the week – Sundays, yes, weekdays, never.

Crossing Sutcliffe Park was a soul-destroying affair. Its saving grace in winter was that most of south London’s black-headed gulls appeared to gather there to loaf about, and among them were wonderful common gulls – by far my favourite London gulls. And, in Spring, mistle thrushes would build their nests in the forks of the huge chestnut trees that lines the parks’ perimeter path.

That perimeter path held another secret, one revealed by this headline in the local rag: ‘Authority’s Plan to Flood Popular Park’. Now, the word ‘flood’ will solicit joy and anticipation in the heart of any urban birder who’s patch lacks water. The addition of water will add substantially to any birders’ patch, especially an inland urban one.

Reading the article, I was shocked to discover that the park to be ‘flooded’ was Sutcliffe Park – the green desert across which I was forced to drudge to get to school. The article was venomously negative towards the plan being hatched by the National Rivers Authority, and, it reported, Greenwich Council was completely opposed, too.

But why flood Sutcliffe Park? Well, the Quaggy River, flowing as it does through Greenwich and into Lewisham Town Centre, had a habit of overtopping its banks and flooding peoples homes. And it transpired that one of the causes of this flooding was the earlier handy work of the Greater London Council to stick the Quaggy in a tunnel under the paths along which I walked in Sutcliffe Park. Without knowing it, I’d been walking every day along the route of a long-buried river – and now, in a bid to reduce flooding downstream, a government agency wanted to bring the river back above ground and use Sutcliffe Park for flood storage.

Actually, it wasn’t really the National Rivers Authority that wanted to do this. They’d been forced into adopting this approach by a local pressure group, Friends of the Quaggy,  who’s chairman, Matthew Blumler, had teamed up with the late Professor Ted Hollis at the University College London Wetland Research Unit to promote a flood alleviation scheme focused on strategic flood storage.

Originally the National Rivers Authority had wanted to encase the downstream sections of the Quaggy in brick-lined concrete, to get rid of the water as quickly as possible, as one does. Although the Quaggy would no longer be a river as such – it would be a concrete sewer – at least it would no longer flood (or at least not often, and at least in theory). In fact the authority had simply resurrected the old plan of the Greater London Council which it hadn’t managed to implement before being abolished. Concrete rivers were all the rage in those days.

So, Friends of the Quaggy (which comprised, incidentally, of riverside residents in Lewisham who kept getting flooded but still quite liked their river) had teamed up with a university professor to persuade a powerful government agency to dramatically change their plans for the river.

Trouble is, the alternative promoted by the Lewisham-based Friends of the Quaggy would entail flooding urban parkland in the upstream borough of Greenwich – hence the negative newspaper headlines and animosity displayed by the political classes in Greenwich.

Having seen the newspaper headline, and being somewhat keen on the idea of Sutcliffe Park being ‘flooded’ (it would enhance my walk to school – my birding, in other words), I decided to contact Matthew Blumler, chair of Friends of the Quaggy. On the phone, we agreed we needed to meet.

The meeting that followed comprised Matthew, Chris Ennis and Doug Landou (three Lewisham residents), and Charles Snell, David Goodfellow, Jeremy Cotton and myself (four Greenwich residents) and of course Prof. Ted Hollis from UCL. There and then we decided that we needed a group spanning both Lewisham and Greenwich, and this is how the Quaggy Waterways Action Group (QWAG) was born. Actually, according to Charles, we agreed to call it the Quaggy Watercourse Action Group but David I think got mixed up in the minute-taking and Waterways sounds better anyway.

The main aims of our new group were to ensure that the wildlife-friendly approach to flood alleviation was adopted and implemented, and to expand river restoration across the entire Quaggy catchment. To this end, we produced a strategy document – Operation Kingfisher – in which are a series of maps which I produced showing river restoration proposals for each and every section of the Quaggy, from source in the outskirts of SE London, to its confluence with the Ravensbourne in Lewisham Town Centre.

After much lobbying, QWAG managed to turn around local public opinion from over 90% against the wildlife-friendly flood alleviation scheme to over 90% in support. A public inquiry into the plans for Sutcliffe Park ensued a few years later, as the demands from Greenwich Council for ‘compensation’ for loss of sports pitches were tested by a planning inspector. Thankfully, the inspector found in favour of the scheme.

The Quaggy Flood Alleviation Scheme has been implemented: where once I had to walk across bleak, wind-swept football pitches to get to school, one can now walk along a restored Quaggy River as it meanders through wetlands teaming with nature – and people. People were a rare sight in Sutcliffe Park prior to restoration of the Quaggy. Yes, Sutcliffe Park does flood, now and then, just as the newspaper headlines warned – and people love the spectacle.

Since the campaign for wildlife-friendly flood alleviation initiated by Friends of the Quaggy and QWAG, other section of the Quaggy have been restored, and are ongoing, such that this could be the largest community-led urban river restoration project in the country. Let’s hope something similar can be achieved on the nearby Effra.

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