Environmental officials cannot afford to dredge the River Thame

Pensioner June Gumm surveys the overgrown River Thame as it disappears under the A41 towards Bicester
Pensioner June Gumm surveys the overgrown River Thame as it disappears under the A41 towards Bicester

A river and its banks which once won awards for its appearance has been left to overgrow because the Environment Agency can’t afford to maintain it.

There are 6ft high weeds in the River Thame as it passes under the A41 towards Bicester, just before the Berryfields crossroads, but the Environment Agency (EA) says it has not been able to dredge the river for at least 12 years.

Workers carried out a selective weed cut around five years ago but continue to clear any obstructions such as trees when needed.

It is estimated that the part of the River Thame in question would cost around £3,500 per 100m stretch to dredge, but the EA says every reach of watercourse differs as different machinery may be required, and the disposal of waste costs differ.

The playing field behind the homes in Dicks Way is within the floodplain of the river and so regularly floods during periods of moderate flows, but the EA says it currently does not have funding or the resources to do any dredging work on the Thame using its permissive powers.

A spokesman for the EA said: “It is a financial issue and we also compete with our other 15 areas across the country to fund maintenance work we’d like to do.

“There is an implied obligation on all riparian (land next to the river) owners – in this case, Aylesbury Vale District Council – to keep their banks in a reasonable state of repair or to carry out works of maintenance in the watercourse.

“Implied because not to do so would risk the bringing of actions from neighbouring land owners in nuisance and/or negligence.

“The Environment Agency has permissive powers to carry out maintenance on main rivers, any work we undertake using these powers is based on flood risk and subject to available resources.”

The EA is allocated funding for the areas it is responsible for, but this funding has to be split between the agency’s 15 other areas across the UK.

One Aylesbury resident has hit out against the lack of action in tackling the river’s growing weeds and claims the place used to be ‘alive’ with wildlife.

June Gumm, of Dicks Way in Quarrendon, said: “It breaks my heart. The river used to be alive with swans, ducks, fish and other mammals.

“The animals have been choked to death by these weeds. It’s just criminal. Those in charge of looking after it should lose their jobs.

“They bill it as a river side walk. What river? You can’t see the water.”

The EA hopes to find funding for a selective weed cut this summer, which involves leaving a ‘margin of grow’ intact for habitat and leaving the cuttings on the bank to degrade.

This is usually done using an excavator with weed cutting attachment or via a weed cutting boat or by hand depending on water levels and circumstance. Funding from the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is available towards reprofiling and dredging where it is shown to be a cost effective way of managing flood risk, taking account of the other options available.

However though it seems lke the best option, the effectiveness of reprofiling and dredging in managing flood risk varies for each stretch of river so the EA often assesses its value on a location by local basis.

An Environmental Agency spokesman said: “In some areas, reprofiling (to lessen the slope of an eroding bank) or dredging can be the most cost effective approach. “In others, either can make flooding worse downstream, be ineffective or divert resources away from other flood risk management activities which are far more beneficial to local communities such as maintaining pumps, sluice gates or raised embankments, clearing vegetation and obstructions etc.”

In response a spokesman for Aylesbury Vale District Council, the river’s riparian owners, said: “We carry out an annual maintenance programme of our land and river banks, while taking care to protect wildlife habitats.

“The river banks are inspected in April/May and then we carry out maintenance work at the beginning of September.

“If anything urgent is identified during the inspection in April/May then we will carry out whatever work is necessary as quickly as possible.”

This time last year, residents of The Willows in Aylesbury were fighting back against flood water after Stoke Brook overflowed in heavy rain for the first time in the housing estate’s history.

For information on how to protect from flooding, visit the government’s website here.