U-turn over St Albans River Ver improvement plans after allotment holder backlash

Cottonmill Area Guide. Picture: Danny Loo

Cottonmill Area Guide. Picture: Danny Loo - Credit: Archant

Project managers have taken a sharp U-turn on drastic plans to oust plot holders from a long-standing allotment site.

The River Ver running through Cottonmill Lane near Sopwell House. Picture: DANNY LOO

The River Ver running through Cottonmill Lane near Sopwell House. Picture: DANNY LOO - Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO

Hours before a St Albans district council (SADC) meeting of the Community, Environment and Sport Scrutiny Committee about the Revitalising the RiVer project, a revised version of the proposals was released.

The original plan was to relocate the River Ver through what is currently 120 allotments in Cottonmill, forcing many gardeners to start anew cultivating a different plot.

SADC, and its partners Affinity Water, Environment Agency (EA), and Herts county council’s countryside management services, argued this was necessary to bring the river bed closer to the natural valley bottom.

Plot holders will have to move anyway, they say, once Affinity Water reduce water abstraction by 50 per cent in 2025 and groundwater levels rise by 1.3m.

There was backlash from the Cottonmill and Nunnery Allotment Association (CNAA), which argued the stream has never flowed through this section and that the flood risk was a non-issue.

Chairman of the CNAA, Keith Reynolds, said the last problematic flood in living memory was an isolated occurrence in 2011.

Most Read

Updated plans show the River Ver skirting the border of the site, with the old channel infilled.

At the committee on October 31, Keith said: “[The new plan] takes another stab at rerouting the river, now guiding it parallel to Prospect Road, before swinging it left, uphill to rejoin the river, via a sharp bend, to squeeze it under the existing bridge.

“The reasoning is said to be to retain more existing plots. Whilst that’s an honourable reason, the space created for these extra plots is right at the epicenter of where the water is predicted to rise and that initial routing was said to be their predicted path.

“Surely this makes a mockery of the reasoning for the first proposal and for me, confirms that this reach is being treated as a very expensive vanity exercise.”

He stressed that cleaning up the often stagnant, shallow, and dirty River Ver was worthy of investment, but that there must be a more fair and cost effective approach.

Project manager at EA, Liam Dennis, said: “The river through this area is significantly degraded, the bed is smothered, there is very little gradient, it is over wide, over straight, and shadowed.

“At the end of this project our proposals will lead to a significantly improved river.”

He said although the flood risk was hard to predict, an assessment of the 2011 flood proved that water will rush to the area if abstraction is reduced.

“We know how important Cottonmill is to tenants and we have always said we want to keep as many plots on this site as possible. I will go into more details on how we have changed and put forward an improved plan.”

Adding: “It’s not our intention to destroy or get rid of Cottonmill. It’s our intention to make the river better and the allotment plots in St Albans more resilient to flooding.”

SADC councillors backed the main proposals but reiterated the Cottonmill allotment holder’s concerns.

Cllr Brian Gibbard said: “We will need to resolve the allotment issue, we can’t ride roughshod over it and say, ‘That’s what we’re going to do and that’s it’.

“If we can guarantee to the allotment holders the vast majority, or as many as physically possible, can be retained, hopefully the new sites can be offered and people may look at those and take them voluntarily.”

Chair of the committee, Cllr Anthony Rowlands, said there is strong support for the scheme: “I think we all realise that the allotment holders on the Cottonmill allotments have a major investment, in every sense of that word, in those allotments and therefore we do owe them reassurance in a number of ways.”

The River Ver has been changed so much that it is unrecognizable as a chalk stream, which produces crystal clear babbling brooks and support an abundance of wildlife. .

After the meeting, head of community services at SADC, Joe Tavernier, said: “Various revisions to the plans launched in March this year form part of a further draft feasibility report which will be released by the EA when it is finalised in a few weeks’ time.

“These are as a result of further analysis and feedback from detailed public communications and engagement work the teams have been doing since March.”