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Julia Stansfield and Carine Van Schie of the Manchester Triathlon Club take to the waters of Salford Quays. Photo by Len Grant

Future flows and the clean up of our waterways

“If with a stick you stir well, the poor old River Irwell, very sick of the amusement you will very soon become: for foetid bubbles rise and burst, but that really is not the worst, for little birds can hop about, cry-footed in the scum.”

These words rang out through the backstreets of Manchester at the turn of the 20th Century. They told the full, sorry story of water; the Northwest’s vast natural resource, which was used and abused as the workhorse of the Industrial Revolution.

Back in 1901, when the popular street poem was probably first coined, the merchants of Liverpool and Manchester were falling over themselves to put the resource to work; commercially speaking, both cities walked on water. Manchester had thrown up its famous Ship Canal less than ten years earlier to bypass the ocean-going trade that had made Liverpool the finest port in Britain’s Empire. The rivers Mersey, Medlock and Irk fed the cotton and silk mills and the canal network shipped the Duke of Bridgewater’s coal for sale at Manchester’s Castlefield. Water helped to make England’s Northwest the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

There are plenty of documented descriptions of the environmental price that was paid in the process. An old Scouse joke once said that you wouldn’t drown if you fell into the Mersey Estuary: you’d die of poisoning instead. As recently as 1972, Jeremy Bugler devoted a chapter in his book ‘Polluting Britain’ (Pelican) to “the country’s most polluted estuary and river system.” He called it “Mourn for the Mersey.” The catalogue of filth he depicted didn’t include the 221 million gallons of sewage and 193 million gallons of trade effluent that the Mersey and two of its tributaries brought down to the estuary every day.

All that was before the Mersey Basin Campaign (MBC). Launched 17 years ago, it remains at the vanguard of cleaning up the mess with a multi-billion pound, 25-year programme for 2,000 kilometres of rivers, canals and streams funded by Government, Europe, United Utilities, the Environment Agency, local authorities and industry. The wise old heads in urban regeneration, who have seen myriads of fleeting public/private sector partnerships stagnated by political agendas in the post-industrial era, reserve particular respect for the way MBC seems to have bonded its partners over time.

There was one clue to the riches that water might once again offer as the Campaign got down to business in the 1980s - the retail and residential development centred on the redbrick warehouses of Liverpool’s Albert Dock, which was quietly on the way to becoming one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain. Beyond that, no one had lost much sleep over water management since the demise of the old Lancashire Rivers Board in the 1950s - a body that was well meaning at best, managing neither to stop nor significantly control the development of artificial silk and viscose industries with their noxious effluents.

Within three years, though, MBC was effecting change, most notably at Castlefield in central Manchester where the network of rivers and canals became the focus for some bold proposals to regenerate 187 hectares of land and disused, derelict buildings into today’s hotels, bars, office space and waterside residential accommodation. Then, in 1999, came what MBC chairman Joe Dwek - the formidably successful Northwest industrialist and ex-regional CBI chairman - describes as the “symbolicbreakthrough”.

At the World River Symposium in Brisbane, Australia, the MBC received the £45,000 prize for the best river clean-up campaign in the world. On riverbanks where people were once advised not to throw lighted cigarettes into the water for fear of igniting rising gases, anglers were scrambling to buy fishing rights; a kingfisher survey had been launched and seals and octopuses were swimming.

Dwek had taken over a partnership that was bursting to effect change through teamwork, but he injected a new, corporate rigour to the organisation. “A great deal of thinking had been done by the mid 1990s but it had gone stale,” said Mr Dwek, who took on the job for three years but has just accepted an invitation to stay on for a fourth, taking him through to January 2004. “It needed some cost/benefit exercises and a look at value for money. The thing about ecology is it’s fluid and flexible. It’s not like an industrial product - you have to be adaptable. I’m not sure Mersey Basin had adapted to change.”

Adaptation was needed: the changes going on around his MBC and around the region’s waterways were seismic, not least in property development. By the 1990s, business people were noticing the appeal of Castlefield and the Albert Dock and developing a penchant for combining water with sophisticated city centre accommodation amid the architectural authenticity of brick warehouses.

The trickle became a flood, and such is the demand for loft-living in today’s Manchester that developers are actually building new warehouses in which to install flat- hunters. Urban Splash, the pioneering development firm founded by Tom Bloxham, discovered the Bridgewater Canal to be every bit as profitable as the Duke of Bridgewater had 225 years earlier, and Manchester’s first £2 million apartment can now be found on its banks. Significantly, the first £1 million apartment at Liverpool’s Beetham Plaza has views across the Mersey.

But neither quite compares with the development of the apparently unprepossessing waters of Salford Quays. In the 1980s they sat stagnant and devastated by the anoxic sediments, foul odours and mats of surface sediment that were the results of excessive gas production. Today, fewer than 20 years later, the Quays are an object lesson in the symbiosis of an improved environment and commercial investment.

The MBC’s initial efforts centred on the litter and the smell. Then in 1999 the Healthy Waterways Trust, part of MBC, stocked the Quays with 12,000 coarse fish and introduced gabions filled with brushwood to help with spawning habitat; the Quays now has the fastest growing fish population in the UK.

The improvements have gradually unlocked colossal commercial potential. Business units that now employ 12,000 people and homes for 300 families were established in a development that was completed in April 2002 alongside the landmark Lowry Centre. Daniel Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum North was opened in July 2002 and almost unthinkably, the Quay’s once choked, murky waters were fine enough to take the Manchester Commonwealth Games swimmers in the same month, as part of the event’s triathlon competition.

To preserve the quality of the environment five purpose-built, semi-submerged oxygenation units - thought to be the largest ever made - are now pumping 30 tonnes of oxygen a day into the Quays. The system is part of the Water Quarter project for the Quays - the biggest harbour improvement of its kind in the world and a source of great excitement to Joe Dwek.

“Of all we have achieved, this is the pinnacle for me,” said Dwek. “The oxygenation is superb. It’s right up there alongside a vivid canal boat journey to the Eastern Docks in the Estuary, which I will alway remember. I saw hundreds of birds, including peregrine falcons, out in the [Mersey] estuary, and even a fox lying on his back in the sun.”

Mark Champion of Lancashire Wildlife Trust

Dwek is keen to outline some of the MBC’s lesser-known accomplishments, too. At Wigan Flashes it helps the Lancashire Wildlife Trust to conserve a home for half of the UK’s 13 resident pairs of bitterns: the habitats have been created where depressions caused by subsidence from the mining industry have formed a mosaic of wetlands. In Manchester’s Northern Quarter the underground River Tib will soon form part of a new ‘green lung’ in the city centre. The Mersey Waterfront Regional Park - the regeneration of coastland sites around Merseyside - will follow soon.

There are also plans for a new canal, the first of its kind to be built in 200 years, which will take narrow boats cruising past Liverpool’s famous Pier Head along a new half-mile stretch of water that will capitalise on one of the finest waterfronts in Europe. More prosaic aspects of sustainable water management may not grab the headlines but they are no less important. For instance, a £500m improvement programme through United Utilities has meant the closure of 28 outlets that used to discharge Liverpool’s raw sewage into the Mersey and the removal of the city’s sewage to one of the world’s biggest treatment plants, at Bootle.

Another huge challenge facing United Utilities is preservation of water supplies: in the year 2000/01, 463 million litres of water per day was lost to leaks alone. Matching supply and demand is another tough water management issue, amid dramatic evidence of climate change. The summer conditions of 1995, in which Cumbria’s Haweswater reservoir became 89% empty and there were water shortages, may become commonplace by 2050.

Water is a global issue and will be one of the focal points for the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in August 2002. Research by the California-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, among others, indicates that the amount of water available per person is falling, while demand is growing - fuelled by rising living standards and population growth. According to the United Nations, 1.1 billion people worldwide have no access to clean water supplies and 2.4 billion lack decent sanitation.

Closer to home, in the Northwest, come the challenges associated with dereliction. The region has the highest amount of derelict land of any English region (around 6%) and with dereliction can come contamination and polluted ground water. With no one to pick up the environmental and inevitable financial cost, local authorities face an expensive dilemma.

The environmental and commercial prize for success is writ large in Manchester’s latest marketing campaign. “This is not Venice...” state the campaign’s posters, beneath images of sparkling water. “...3 canals, 4 rivers, 5 miles of waterfront leisure - this is Manchester.”
Environmentally, it is an uncomfortable comparison - Venice has no sewage works so the effluent from the millions of tourists that visit goes straight into the canals and the shallow lagoon, causing a thick soup of algae and the smell of rotting vegetation. But the Northwest has spent 15 years putting right those kinds of mistakes.

Don’t expect it to repeat them in a hurry.


Main image: Julia Stansfield and Carine Van Schie of the Manchester Triathlon Club take to the waters of Salford Quays. Inline image of Mark Champion of The Lancashire Wildlife Trust inspecting the Bitterns habitat at Wigan flashes. Photos by Len Grant

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