The historical integrity of the River Stour is threatened
The River Stour is about to change its character completely. This is apparently due to a comical over-reaction by the Health and Safety inspector to an accident at work. As a result, the Environment Agency are to 'temporarily' relinquish their responsibilities for the management and maintenance of the water-levels of the River Stour for the foreseeable future.
Why is this of concern to the Local Historian? It is because we are is only too aware of the consequences of mismanagement of the Stour in the past, and ready to defend the loss of the heritage whenever this most wonderful area is threatened.
The Sluice gates on the River Stour, which, since time immemorial, have maintained the levels on the Stour, and which have acted to prevent flooding in times of heavy rain, are to be 'locked' so that they can no longer be used. Most of these gates are to be locked in the 'Up' position, meaning that the rivers will be at a low level.-until the floods come that is...
There will be two immediate consequences, Environmental and Flooding.
Firstly, the flooding problem
Some of the floodgates will be locked in the 'down' position. Whenever there is heavy rainfall, the tried and tested technique is to open every gate as soon as possible, from the lower part of the Stour upwards, to maximise the flow and drain the water out of the river before the consequential floodwater hits the river. This makes a small but vital difference to the flood levels. Any change in this method of flood-prevention will have the consequence of flooding, damage to property, and misery on a large scale. This is not just a matter for a few riverside dwellings: In September 1968, the water ran through the houses at Ballingdon, and residents had to take refuge upstairs. The worst flood got as far as All Saints Church in Sudbury. There are wide areas of Cavendish Ballingdon, Cornard and Long Melford that are at risk of flooding and any increase in that risk would be highly unfortunate. In that flood, the inundation of several houses in Cavendish was blamed on the failure to raise the gates at Pentlow Mill quickly enough.
Secondly, the Environmental problems
The river is the habitat of a large number of plants and animals, which rely on the continuation of current river levels. If the sluice hates are raised, their habitats will suffer and so, in turn, will they. Willows Poplars and Alders in particular are extremely sensitive to long-term changes in the river levels, and the birds, mammals and insects that exist only on the river edges will take a hit in their population. How much of a hit? We don't know as this has never been tried before, but one needs little imagination to guess. Even if there wer no consequences to the water margins, the consequences to fish stocks is likely to be considerable.
There will be other problems, such as the recreational and agricultural ones, which need to be considered too.
About three years ago, there was an unfortunate accident to one of the staff of the environment agency whilst working a sluice gate at Nayland. Mercifully he was not permanently disabled, but it could have been worse. As a delayed reaction from this incident, which appears to be the first ever such accident, the Health and Safety experts have condemned the hand-operated sluice gates as being a hazard. I have worked such a gate myself for twenty years in all weathers, and can say with authority that this is bunkum. Nevertheless, the Environment Agency have felt compelled to react by placing all such gates (almost all) out of bounds to their staff.
This matter is unlikely to be resolved for some years. Most of these gates are, by some bizarre quirk, still privately owned as they date back to the commercial use of water-mills. Even with generous government funding, it would be difficult for the Environment Agency to convert these gates to modern safety standards, as they don't own them.
In the meantime, the water companies are planning to pump much more water down the Stour than ever before in order to accommodate the huge number of 'Prescott Homes' that are being built in Essex. The Colne and Stour are to become conduits for water to fill the reservoirs at the mouth of the Stour and Colne. This is going to put an extra strain on the spillways and sluices that maintain the level. It is obvious that this scheme will have to be put on hold until the problems with the gates is resolved.
The management of the river is a considerable part of the work of the Environment Agency. It is not the most exciting or high-profile work, but is essential. It seems unprecedented that such a statutory body can relinquish their responsibilities, yet retain staff funding and facilities allocated to them to do the work. Besides, it is a strategy fraught with far worse hazards to human life than that imagined by the Health and Safety officer responsible for the crisis in the first place. The river has had artificial levels since Roman times, and has always been managed. There is no 'laissez-faire' solution.