diamond geezer

 Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Flood risk

Ladywell FieldsSomewhere else I went at the weekend was Ladywell Fields. Local community groups were holding a Fun Day in the park, to celebrate the completion of a major environmental project. The River Ravensbourne, which runs along the eastern edge, has been allowed to break out into the fields through a man-made meandering channel. Here's what the featureless flat grassland used to look like (2006), here's the new stream under construction (2007) and here's the finished result (2008). Before, after. It's a doubly clever idea, both making the park a more attractive place to visit and also providing extra drainage capacity following heavy rain. On Saturday the new waterway was the centre of attention, with several small children scrambling along the gently sloping banks and paddling in the sparkling water. Really, it's a most attractive piece of landscaping.

But one aspect of the project made me sigh, deeply. A dozen or so wooden posts have been bashed into the banks, in pairs, at regular intervals along the new stream. These fulfil no decorative function, nor are they linked together by chains or rails to form a protective barrier. They don't support noticeboards with maps or background information, neither are they present to delineate a waterside path. No, these posts exist solely to display three yellow warning symbols. They're risk management beacons, liberally scattered by the authorities to warn approaching visitors of perceived potential dangers. And they state the utterly bleeding obvious, and the blatantly untrue. Repeatedly. Here are those three pointless warning triangles in a bit more detail.

Area liable to floodingCaution - Area liable to flooding
Well, yes, obviously. It's a river, isn't it, and that's what rivers do. Every now and then, after particularly heavy rain, they fill up and overspill into the surrounding flood plain. Do visitors to a river really need to be reminded of this? I mean, you don't see this notice plastered every 20 metres down the Thames, or attached to every lamppost in downtown Tewkesbury. This warning message might just possibly be useful during an especially violent storm should a tidal wave be about to sweep across lower Lewisham. Or it might just possibly prevent the occasional lost drunkard from stumbling into deep floodwaters after dark. But quite frankly I doubt it. Why is this warning here?

Strong currentsWarning - Strong currents
Er, I don't think so. Look at that little river, it's not exactly torrential is it? There's barely a current, let alone a strong one. I know it's not rained much recently, but this shallow channel is almost never going to fill up with gallons of gushing water. It's just a wiggly sideshoot of a major river, not a streamlined sluice susceptible to raging riptides. Nobody's going swimming here - it's going to be a nice paddle across the pebbles or nothing. Hell, even the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain is more dangerous than this, and there are no ubiquitous yellow triangles encircling that. Why is this warning here?

Soft mudCaution - Soft mud
Hmmm, where? There's not a square inch of soft mud anywhere to be seen along this river at the moment. Obviously the weather has a part to play here, but soft mud is by no means a permanent feature of this corner of Ladywell Fields. And what's so wrong with soft mud anyway? It might discolour your favourite trainers, but it's not exactly killer quicksand. If the authorities are really concerned about soft mud, why don't they slap thousands of warning notices all over the UK's forests and woodland, just in case? Honestly, this is little more than disproportionate anxiety about the almost insignificant. Why is this warning here?

Perhaps I shouldn't have been overly surprised by these excessive levels of risk management pedantry. There's a clue in the name of the body responsible for the improvement works in Ladywell Fields, which has the cumbersome acronym QUERCUS. You won't be surprised to hear that the Q stands for Quality, and the S stands for Stakeholders. This isn't Lewisham, it's an Urban Environment. And anyone who travels along the Ravensbourne valley, obviously, they'd be a River Corridor User. An organisation called QUERCUS could only be a European-funded partnership, couldn't it, intent on developing symbiotic communities and realising key objectives. All the right ideas, but delivered with a repressive bureaucratic flourish. I'm surprised they didn't go the whole hog and install lifebelts, tannoy announcements and emergency 999 hotlines. Be grateful that our nation's streams and rivers weren't installed by committee.

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