FURTHER TO my recent coverage of the Environment Agency’s desire to sell off several of the lock-keeper’s cottages in our area, I’m delighted to report that there is potentially some good news. As reported last week, the Agency has announced a six-month moratorium on the idea while they conduct ‘further studies’ – but a powerful voice in the shape of actor and river enthusiast David Suchet, has now come out firmly against the plan – and says he has received assurances from the EA that they will do nothing hasty.
David Suchet – better known to millions of TV fans as Hercule Poirot – is chairman of the River Thames Alliance (RTA), a group comprised of representatives from local authorities, conservation organisations, other regulatory bodies (including the EA) and businesses who work towards improving the Thames and making the most of a precious asset.
Mr Suchet addressed the annual meeting of the RTA in Henley on last Thursday and said: “I have been opposed to the proposals to sell or rent River Thames lock houses. I have now spoken to Robert Runcie, the Thames Regional Director for the Environment Agency, and came away very optimistic.
“Everything is on hold for six months and during that time I have been assured that nothing will happen to anybody, there will be no movement, nobody will be losing their homes.
“I know this is an emotive issue but I am part of the group of people that will make sure the outcome is best for the River Thames,” he added.
Good – so far – and with the help of high profile people like David, perhaps the Agency will be convinced that it should forget the whole idea. However, we need to remain vigilant whilst this ‘further review’ takes place.
Many of you have written to me to make your views known and – in light of the present moratorium – it seemed a good opportunity to publish some of your views to maintain the pressure on the EA.
Michael Clow, 60, a retired theatre manager from Ashford, spent a lot of his time beside the river – his invalid mum loved to take in the sights and sounds of the boats and wildlife.
“I used to take my mother down to the Thames a lot – anywhere from Penton Hook lock down to Chertsey – and we got quite friendly with the lock keepers,” he recalls.
“They were always so helpful – they’re part of our heritage and it’s outrageous to talk about evicting them from their homes.”
Michael has memories himself of the help offered to him in his younger days by the lock-keeper at Sunbury.
“I went across on the old chain ferry to the Sunbury lock island with a friend, an actor, who was in a play in the West End. We lost track of time and suddenly realised that the chain ferry had packed up for the day and my friend was really worried because he couldn’t get back to his car which was parked in Lower Sunbury.
“The lock keeper came to the rescue and got one of his boys to row us back across the river. That’s the kind of people they are.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Paul Gregory from Hanworth, a dedicated skiff enthusiast, who pointed out that to remove the lock keepers from their homes would have significant health and safety implications.
“If someone gets hurt at an unattended lock, they will be looking for someone to sue – and the Environment Agency has a corporate responsibility to ensure that their facilities are safe for all. A decision to sell off these homes to save money could end up costing them far more than they save,” he said.
“The trouble is that some of the people who take these decisions don’t consider the implications fully. They have sloping Teflon shoulders, some of these guys, when it comes to taking responsibility.”
Ted Matthews is another who thinks the whole plan is fundamentally flawed.
“I was appalled when I first heard of this proposal and wondered who will control the weir gates out of hours?
Finally, thanks to P Kalber who lives in Laleham Reach, Chertsey and who was moved to write a heart-felt letter to the column.
She says: “This is just another stupid idea from the Environment Agency – I just call them the ‘mental agency.’
“There have been two drownings in the last three years near Penton Hook lock – and it could have been more but for the lock keeper being on site.
“I have myself seen a child pulled out of the lock by the keeper – they have the gear and the knowledge to save lives.
“I would not mind quite so much if they intended to plough the money raised by this sort of thing back into flood defences but I can see no evidence of this.”