Cities are where the battle to save planet earth will be won and lost. But it is not the urban environment that matters, but our relationship with nature within it. What can the story of one dying river, plagued by sewage and indifference, and the campaign to save it, teach us about how to reconnect with and value nature?
I’d never heard of the Brent River. The Brent Cross shopping centre in North London – sure, I’d been there. It never crossed my mind that the place where I bought Christmas presents was named after a tributary of the Thames. I’d never seen it, let alone cared about what happened to it.
Most of London’s ancient river network is a secret; submerged and straightened over the years by layers of concrete and brick. Fleet Street. Bayswater. Knightsbridge. Westbourne. Holborn. All named after the streams that flow beneath the city.
Why this story?
Raw sewage was dumped into UK rivers and coastal areas for a total of 1.7 million hours last year, and it’s starting to make us sick. Who’s to blame? Water companies, regulators, politicians and the public all point fingers, while waterways become parched and lifeless.
The Brent river doesn’t feed the Amazon. Whether it can support a population of ugly little gudgeon fish won’t affect the rate at which the polar ice caps are melting. But what if, somehow, connecting with nature outside our backdoors could help us better understand how to tackle the bigger issues?
Ben Morris started a campaign to save the Brent, and has spent countless hours wading through rubbish and calling up water companies to report spills. His hope is, one day, it’ll be restored as a haven within the city for wildlife and humans alike. If we can save one sick urban river, why not the rest of the world? What will it take for us to start caring?
Occasionally they take a breath. It’s rumoured that in the basement of Gray’s Antique Market in Bond Street there’s a small section of the Tyburne river that bubbles up through the shop’s floor. I called them up to check. Turns out it didn’t survive the latest renovation.
Perhaps that’s what makes the Brent unique. It’s one of the few remaining relics of a vast estuarine wetland that still lies open to the air. A sliver of nature, small and sickened with pollution – but significant enough to have people willing to fight for it.
I meet Ben Morris on a muggy midsummer day in Brent Lodge Park. He’s wearing thick red gloves and carries a bucket containing a water-testing kit. He’s the founder of Clean Up the River Brent (Curb), a campaign group dedicated to making the river a nicer, more habitable place to be.
He’s agreed to take my colleague Imy and I on a river walk. As we descend into the undergrowth, Ben recounts a list of the detritus he’s found in the little brown stream. Chip fat. E-bikes. Covid masks. iPhone chargers. Tracksuit bottoms. Carpet. Car tyres. Wet wipes. An office printer.
Our prize is older. We’ve come here to seek out Victorian sewers. An odd and slightly fragrant way to spend a morning, but essential if you want to understand what’s going wrong with water in Britain.
Raw sewage was dumped into UK rivers and coastal areas for a total of 1.7 million hours last year. Crumbling Victorian infrastructure is a major reason why. Water UK, the industry body for Britain’s privatised water companies, says that it will invest £10 billion on infrastructure by the end of the decade through “a modest increase in customers’ bills”. But current company plans for replacing pipes assume that the average lifetime of an asset is 200 years.
Meanwhile, shareholders in UK water have been getting rich. During its ownership of Thames Water (the company responsible for sewage outfalls on the Brent), Macquarie, an Australian asset manager nicknamed the “Vampire Kangaroo”, increased debt from £3.4 billion to £10.8 billion. Dividends paid out over that period totalled £2.7 billion. Thames Water’s enormous debt pile eventually contributed to the departure of chief executive Sarah Bentley, as well as speculation that the company would need to be taken into administration.
The mismanagement of water companies is only one side of the pollution story. The list of culprits for the parlous state of Britain’s rivers is long. Politicians accuse the regulator, Ofwat, of failing to ensure companies invest in infrastructure. Water company bosses blame the government for failing to legislate properly. The Environment Agency grumbles that years of cuts have hampered its ability to prosecute.
And then there’s us – the general public. “This is nothing to do with a water company,” says Ben as he looks into the swirling eddies of rubbish. “This is more to do with consumerism, disposal of unrecyclables, just urban lifestyles, and the way that a river will collect and gather waste.”
There’s an article Ted Hughes wrote in 1993 in which he discusses a worrying disparity between “the size of the rubbish making population” and “the smallness of the earth”. He argues that the act of buying things is part of an ancient biological drive; an apex predator’s “passion for the kill” and for “taking the trophy home”.
Except we don’t take it home. We dump it in our dwindling water sources.
Climate change will exacerbate the problem. The average Brit happily uses 153 litres of water a day through showers, toilets, dishwashers and garden hoses. In the US, it’s more than 310. In Ethiopia, it’s between 15 and 35.
Rivers and reservoirs provide most of the UK’s supply. But currently 18 per cent of them have more water being taken out than put back in. Most water falls as rain in the west of the country, while the east is gradually drying out. London actually gets fewer inches of rainfall per year than Beirut.
It’s not clear that the government has got the message. Defra has privately asked water companies to see if money can be saved by assuming a “low climate change scenario” in their plans to 2030.
Plans to build 50,000 new homes in Cambridgeshire are also coming up against opposition from local MPs and the Environment Agency which, for the first time in history, is using its powers to block new developments because of water scarcity.
A wake-up call is due. Back in 1858, the stench of the Thames became so awful, politicians were forced to act. “The Great Stink”, as it became known, precipitated the building of 1,000 miles of new sewers under London. Similar urgency is needed now.
The rivers that cover 3 per cent of the UK’s landmass are some of the most diverse in the world.
They’re home to eels and otters, feather mosses and freshwater pearl mussels, white-clawed crayfish, brook lamprey, bullhead, trout and grey mullet.
Some are chalk streams, a geological rarity that’s England’s answer to the Great Barrier Reef. Out of around 200 in the world, England has 160.
There’s the Scottish lochs, the Norfolk Broads, the waters of Windermere and Coniston.
Even in our cities, there’s more nature than you might expect. Look hard enough and you’ll find stubborn colonies of seahorses and seals in the Thames estuary. Great crested grebe bobbing through Walthamstow’s wetlands.
The Brent, too, has its own unique character. Kingfishers and eels, but also, according to Ben, a certain kind of “solace”. It is this value, the kind that can’t be counted on the balance sheets of water companies, that we’ve lost sight of.
By 2050, it’s estimated cities will be home to 70 per cent of humanity. There’s no question: cities have to be the places where we find solutions. That starts with ending our urban amnesia; seeking out, and connecting with, the blue and green spaces that break up our busy lives.
Paris, for example, is planning to host three Olympic swimming events in the Seine next year, and is aiming to open public bathing sites in 2025. €1.4 billion has been invested since 2016 in an effort to decrease pollution in the river by 75 per cent.
Britain, too, needs a plan for its rivers that starts locally.
Rather than encasing them in concrete, and straightening them out, we should let them wind and meander, boosting their ecological potential. We should reconnect with our rich, riparian history and acknowledge that a denatured city is a poorer and more unhealthy place to live.
As we square up to the challenge of climate change, it’s important to draw upon the little wins for inspiration. The Brent could be one of them. If we let it.