Lessons learned

The following is not intended to be an exhaustive list of lessons learned over three years, but to capture key points.

Fish populations fluctuate significantly for reasons that are not fully understood

Salmon populations fluctuate significantly over time; not surprisingly since they migrate huge distances and are subject to all manner of impacts, human and other. Other fish populations also fluctuate over time, often also significantly.

Research is very problematic. Not only are there big natural variations from year to year, there are long term effects of climate change, invasive species, pollution, changes of use, etc. Fish populations can be impacted by everything from ambient temperature changes and pollution (in river and also in oceans and seas for long-distance migratory species) to farm run-off, to disease, to river bank subsidence to fishing. With the amount and quality of data that can realistically be collected, it is extremely difficult to unravel cause and effect. This situation is unlikely to change.

Example – Land Factor’s specialist on fishing properties, Hugo Remnant, November 2012:

–          “Returning fish numbers are down. The size of the run has been lower than in recent years, with 21,446 salmon and sea trout through the Riding Mill fish counter to the end of October. This compares with 36,000 fish in 2011 and 45,000 fish in 2010. But, as one of my colleagues commented, in a wet year when the river runs high for long periods of time, how reliable is the fish counter in picking up all the fish running upstream?”
–          “the salmon remains an enigma, and management of these iconic fish, and how to catch them is as mysterious as ever!”

To read the full article go to http://www.landfactor.co.uk/news.html and scroll down to see the full article titled Fish’n Flood on the Tyne

The current and likely continuing absence of statistically credible data is problematic in the ‘angling versus hydro’ debate.

Suggested solution: Research should be carried out at a national level to provide a public body of data on fish populations over time (annual data, for as many years as are available), by watercourse. Where run-of-river hydro schemes have already been installed, further publicly-funded research should test whether the level of fluctuation in fish populations post hydro installation is broadly comparable to the levels of fluctuations in fish populations pre hydro installation. This will not provide a scientific answer to the question of whether run-of-river hydro schemes impact fish populations, since those same populations are being impacted by multiple factors all the time. Nevertheless, it will provide an important context into which to set further research and will provide an outline indication to the public as to whether the fears and concerns of the angling lobby against hydro are founded in evidence. Most importantly, given the existing availability of data about fish populations over time and the known locations of run-of-river hydro schemes, this work could be done relatively quickly, whilst other longer-term research programmes are conducted.

The angling lobby is more powerful than the hydro lobby

The nature and extent of adverse opinions which will come from the angling lobby to any hydro scheme is hard to overstate and the power of the angling lobby in voicing its opinions is extremely strong.

Although a variety of views are held within this broad community it is clear that most anglers, following the lead of the Angling Trust, do not welcome hydropower schemes.

The claims anglers make are often speculative, with little evidence to support them. They blame the Environment Agency (EA) for not spending the money on research, and they want hydro developers to pay for more research before the EA gives them a licence.

Examples:

–          After the initial feasibility study was received the Hexham River Hydro team wrote to various local angling groups to proactively request their feedback on the two possible design options identified. In response to this request for input from local organisations with local knowledge the Hexham River Hydro team received a letter from a national legal organisation called Fish Legal formally objecting to the scheme. The Hexham River Hydro team had been asking for constructive input to judge the relative merits and demerits of two outline designs. The nature of response was out of proportion to this request.

–          In October 2012 the Hexham River Hydro team received a Press Release from Results Communications, a professional PR firm clearly engaged to promote concerns from the fishing community and landowners about the proposed development.

Land ownership issues can take considerable time to resolve

Clarifying boundaries of land ownership and related rights can take considerable time – and clarifying boundaries can be followed by protracted negotiations with landowners, requiring additional time and resources.

Suggested solution: Volunteers working on community hydro schemes should seek at the earliest possible time to obtain written confirmation from landowners that they will allow the project to proceed and under what conditions, particularly financial. This may be more difficult than it might seem because the landowner will want to see the full design of the scheme, which may not be available until considerable expenditure on design work has been incurred.

The process for developing community hydro schemes in the UK is circuitous

The process for developing community hydropower in the UK is circuitous to the point of being tortuous. Whilst great progress has been made in recent years in key organisations such as the Environment Agency (which nevertheless insists on full landowner approvals before considering an application for a hydro scheme), many difficulties remain.

Examples:

–          Landowners will not provide permission until they can see a detailed plan of the scheme; a detailed plan of the scheme cannot be prepared until funding is secured to pay for specialist consultants to do the work; funders will not provide funding unless outline permission has been given by the landowners.

–          Anglers raise objections about schemes at an early stage on the basis that information provided about the potential impacts of the scheme on fish is not comprehensive; comprehensive information about the potential impacts of the scheme on fish can only be provided once an individual scheme design is relatively advanced; advancing a scheme design needs positive engagement and input from stakeholders; anglers who have already taken an opposing stance do not provide positive engagement and input.

Estimating hydro scheme costs is challenging

Cost estimates for civil engineering works, particularly in river, can be subject to wide variation.

Suggested solution: Volunteers working on community hydro schemes should seek at least two independent quotes.

Expertise and capacity in stakeholder organisations is limited

Successful engagement with stakeholders is a two-way street: it requires skills, capacity, knowledge and engagement from the community hydro development team; and it requires the same from other organisations.

Hexham River Hydro received great engagement and support from some parts of Northumberland County Council, particularly at the most senior level. However, the reality of getting planning and environmental advice from staff proved very difficult, with Council staff failing (in at least one case very significantly) to meet statutory timeframes.

Public sector employees at local authorities are not used to handling applications for hydro schemes. Lack of expertise is exacerbated by lack of capacity due to funding cuts. The situation is further exacerbated by a climate of vocal negative lobbying from anglers, making public sector employees understandably even more nervous about the decisions being required of them and the advice being sought from them.

A considerable burden is placed on volunteers

Developing a community hydro scheme requires a considerable degree of skilled but voluntary labour.

The Hexham River Hydro core team comprised 6-10 volunteers (at different times) with professional skills including: civil engineering; project management; financial management & accountancy; hydropower; communications & PR; and fundraising. Supporting this core team were many additional volunteers drawn from the originating organisations (Transition Tynedale, Hexham Community Partnership, Hexham Town Council) and from many other local organisations and individuals across the region. Over 5,000 volunteer hours were invested between the Autumn of 2010 and early Summer of 2013.

In 2012 additional funding from Hexham Community Partnership enabled the team to employ a project officer at a critical stage in the project’s development. This resulted in strong stewardship in the later stages and enabled the team to test fully the outcomes of the detailed design report, capture learning at a strategic level and guide decisions about next steps.

In a changing world and one currently with restricted public funding, new skill sets and knowledge are needed and these need to be nurtured differently by key organisations and agencies.

Suggested solution: Every scheme is different and so there is no single blueprint to describe the nature and extent of the volunteer labour required. Nevertheless, the skills listed above will always be important and the burden placed on volunteers will always be high. These individuals need to be robust, mutually supporting and supported by members of the wider community in order to withstand the opposition they are likely to face from the angling lobby.

Community engagement

Hexham River Hydro’s consultants were able to bring extensive technical knowledge but there was also proactive draw-down on the expertise and feedback from local residents including local anglers, riparian owners and statutory agencies to influence the design and in order to assess fully the benefits and potential impacts of the scheme.

Volunteers working on community hydro schemes should consult with the local community widely and often, with regular public meetings. Start small and get the whole community to feel the benefits and catch both the overall vision and ‘what’s in it for me’.

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Hexham River Hydro, an energyshare project made possible by British Gas and supported by Carbon Leapfrog, Cooperative Enterprise Hub, Vattenfall and The Naturesave Trust