Monday, 7 November 2011

Big Society

Rivers are at the heart of many of our cities and in most cases the cities are only there because of the existence of the river for transport or for providing mill power in ancient times. As industry and cities began to grow the rivers then became a dumping ground for all kinds of pollution.

The neglect was compounded by modifications that were made to the streams that fed the rivers. Streams became culverts and in time were paved over. The rivers that were once natural have been modified by the hand of man beyond recognition. Many of the changes that were made in the headwaters of our rivers are no longer needed. There are weirs that were created to hold back the water. The weirs also held back the wildlife such as the Salmon from reaching their spawning grounds. Now that water quality has improved, wildlife is returning to our rivers. We may need to remove the man made obstacles or as a minimum to modify them. To aid wildlife progress at recolonisation of their old grounds. Whilst the food web remains incomplete the return to nature is slowed or stalled.

Canals were a man made transport system. During the birth pangs of the industrial revolution canals were the answer to the old problem of transporting goods on a large scale. Where rivers were to shallow to support the boats, canals bypassed the shallow sections. Much of the River Don has been managed in this way. The canal between Rotherham town centre and Eastwood is typical of this kind of change. The canals have historical significance and at the same time have been adopted into the environment. They do however provide potentially attractive spaces for the people who live around them. The industry has gone and the brown spaces are now prime targets for redevelopment. It is important that we get the balance of green space, living space and work space correct.

The railways grew to be the replacement for canals and rivers. Like canal companies railway companies abounded. One curious element was that many of the canal system were bought out by the railways. Like the rise and fall of the roman empire. Water and rail transport had their heyday but had to give way to road transport. As the needs grew, so road improvements were made, Towns and villages were bypassed, just like the river shallows. Gridlock on the roads is fast approaching, our transport systems have reached saturation.

Have you heard about the governments new idea, to address such issues. Its called the "Big Society". Most people may have heard the phrase being bandied around but do not understand its meaning. Big Society is nothing new in principle. (I have commented on the Big Society before!)

However, the big society as a formalised recognition might just enable and empower local communities to take a more active role in identifying environmental problems and finding solutions. Those solutions should be all encompassing and cover not only rivers, canals, railways and roads. It should at the same time cover green spaces, living spaces and work spaces. It should also cover the environment and habitat for our wildlife.

It can only do this if there is a great deal of co-operation between the interested parties. Vested interests and NIMBYism have to be put aside. Can it be achieved at a local level, yes but it will take a wide ranging overview to make the correct changes. One groups improvement can't be made if it is going to damage improvements to another groups work.

For instance if you want to culvert a stream within a wetland area to give additional living space. This will have a significant effect upon the available green space. If the culvert is then paved over there will be no green space left at all. So checks and balances have to be in place. A long term planning overview has to be taken. However, one way that those checks and balances can be put in place is by having a keystone to any such plans.

Culverting may not even be the best option. Research from Switzerland is suggesting that we should remove all culverts and return the land back to a more natural stream / ground soak to help reduce the effects of flash flooding.
I believe that the keystone should be that all changes have to improve the environment and the habitat for our wildlife. Everyone benefits (not just financially) by improvements to the environment and wildlife habitat. If all developments had to do this as a key task. Then think of the improvements that might happen around you.
  • Nimby is an acronym for the phrase "Not In My Back Yard". The term is used pejoratively to describe opposition to a proposal for a new development by those living close to the development. The term was devised by Emilie Livezey. But is oft wrongly attributed to Nicholas Ridley, who was Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment and Thacherism sycophant.

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