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opinion

A river runs through it. But what role does it play?

Kate Swade
Despite its historic contribution to the economic development of the area, Bath has largely turned its back on the River Avon. Now Bath & North East Somerset Council wants to change that.

Interesting things are afoot in Bath with a potentially radical plan to change the way a whole area interacts with and sees its river.

The River Avon rises in Gloucestershire and flows into the Severn Estuary. On the way it runs through the whole of Bath & North East Somerset, the World Heritage city of Bath itself, the small town of Keynsham, and a great deal of beautiful countryside.

Rivers can play a defining role in a city; acting as a focus for cultural activities, a base for industry and enterprise, and of course bringing nature into the centre of town. However, despite its historic contribution to the economic development of the area, Bath has largely turned its back on the Avon. Ironically for a spa town built on attracting people to its waters, the river is not an integral part of the city and is often out of sight.

Bath & North East Somerset Council have recognised that there is scope for the Avon to play a much bigger role in the life not just of Bath but of the whole district. In July 2010 it set up the River Avon Corridor Group, a group of local experts who have voluntarily given their time to produce a substantial report outlining the current issues with the river. They recommend a number of interventions and projects that they think could once again make the Avon a crucial part of the economic, social and cultural life of Bath and the surrounding area.

Last week, Shared Assets spoke at a Scrutiny Inquiry Day organised by the Council into the work and recommendations of the River Corridor Group. We joined a number of technical experts, local residents, council officers and elected members to discuss the report and develop recommendations for the Council’s Cabinet to consider.

Two key things came out of the day very clearly: the Council should develop a river strategy, based on the river corridor group’s report, and it should fund the establishment of a new “River Regeneration Trust” to co-ordinate, promote and add value to development along the river corridor.

The new Trust could facilitate community led development or management of some sites along the river and work with private owners to help them maximise the value of potential developments. Its focus on the river could provide a co-ordinated and consistent approach to development on and around the river across the whole district.

The governance of the proposed Trust will be critical to its success, in particular to ensuring that it adds value and increases the sustainability of this crucial natural resource rather than becoming simply another layer of bureaucracy. Will it be more responsive and strategic than the Council operating on its own? Will it develop new opportunities for innovative and sustainable development? What role should the Council play in its governance? These are all important questions and the decisions made now may have repercussions for years to come.

Developing effective, and representative, shared governance of the local river corridor will not be a simple or straightforward process, but it is heartening to see a local authority being open to the potential of new models of management of such an important natural asset.

We will be watching developments along the Avon with interest!

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