words and pictures by charles rangeley-wilson

Our current analysis suggests that we can’t write plain English

One of the main aims of the recent WWF chalk-streams conference (my presentation is published in a previous blog entry) was to encourage people to comment on the Environment Agency’s latest River Basin Management Plans.

If you love rivers, this is important (if dry) stuff. These plans will define what the government will do over the next few years to improve our rivers. The public needs to say what it thinks in order to hold the government and its agencies to task.

In the afternoon we broke up into sub-groups and tried to make sense of the catchment summaries. I was given the Environment Agency’s summary for north-west Norfolk, where I live. I could make neither head nor tail of it to be honest. But it was hard to concentrate, we were trying to read and discuss at the same time. Sure, there was the standard windy drift of vague statements that mean very little: stuff like “our current analysis suggests that 60% of water bodies should have a long-term objective of achieving good status, as shown in table 5”. Note ‘current’, ‘suggests’ and ‘should’: all non-committal words. But, anyway I assumed this was just the standard throat-clearing before the main event.

When I got home I tried again. Nope. The whole document consisted of the same over-arching vagaries, summaries and conditional statements and I was left wondering what exactly I was supposed to comment on. I could not find a stick of information about an actual river anywhere.

But the Environment Agency Representative at the meeting had said more details were available online, so I’ve had another go. I’ve followed all the links the WWF helpfully sent through, and all I have managed to find out about the River Nar is that once again they propose to classify the upper, semi-natural chalk-stream as a Heavily Modified Waterbody, and the man-made lower river as Not Heavily-Modified. Given that’s still in there I am not hopeful about what else I might find, even if I could find it.

You see, I’ve been cycling through the links for a couple of hours now. I bump into places I’ve been before. I tap links which lead to other links. I’ve downloaded files. But nowhere can I actually find a summary in plain English of the condition of the River Nar and what will be done about improving it. Nowhere.

So how exactly is this consultation draft supposed to solicit comment from the general public?

The function of over-complicating what should be simple is obfuscation. If, as George Orwell argued in his essay Politics and the English Language, (which should be compulsive reading for anyone in officialdom whose job is to communicate with the public) “you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself”.

In this case “stupid” would be unkind, whereas “empty” might be about right. “Political language” said Orwell “is designed to … give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. Quite.

At the heart of this is something vital: the rivers we care about. We are entitled to know about the condition they are in and what the Environment Agency is doing or proposes to about improving them. I can’t help but suspect that if someone in the Environment Agency was bold and honest enough to turn all this wind and pretence into plain English the truth would too awkward: our rivers are in worse condition than we thought and the Environment Agency is able to do little more about that than monitor the situation. All the rest of the activity is a crisis response that amounts to a collective existential despair in the face of their powerlessness, whose various causes are massive funding cuts and job losses and a crippling bureaucracy that infects everything they do.

Funded briefly by a pot of government money which an enlightened Environment Minister (no longer in post) was wise enough to exclude public bodies from bidding for, the private and charitable trust sector has just shown what it can do in terms of actual restoration work: look here. Stuff the Environment Agency – even its most staunch defenders would admit this – could never have dreamt of delivering with the same money in the same time-frame.

In the process fruitful collaboration has broken out here and there between the Rivers Trusts (delivering the work) and the Environment Agency (or Natural England or the Drainage Boards) consenting and facilitating. Surely this indicates some way forward for a Government legally bound to deliver improvements but without the means to do so?

And yet the government continues to make no commitment whatsoever to a continuation of the fund that gave them the best value for money they’ve seen in decades.

As things stands the years 2011 to 2014 will see a brief rise on the ecological improvement curve whereafter we will return to a steady decline masked by guff and wind, of which this “consultation draft” is the first gust.

Reasons

One small example of the impenetrable nature of this consultation is the graph that caught my eye in our meeting which none of us, not even the representative from the Environment Agency, could decipher. It is not atypical.

This graph is supposed to tell us about the reasons why the waterbodies of north-west Norfolk are not achieving “Good Ecological Status”. I defy anyone to extract useful information from it. Are we to understand that Central Government is responsible for modifications in six unspecified ways? Or are there three reasons why it’s okay for mines and quarries to pollute rivers? What are the different ‘reasons’ when there are more than one attributed to a “source sector”? Does the person who made this graph know the difference between reason and cause? etc.

Surely the point of a graph is to clarify, illustrate and reveal? Unfortunately another function – and the one employed here – is to break up wearisome drifts of unedited text with pretty blocks of colour and imply to the reader that deep analysis of various factors is very much in hand.

Its clarifying role is so secondary to its obfuscating role that no-one has thought to question how bad it is before publication.

5 Responses to “Our current analysis suggests that we can’t write plain English”

  1. marklloydat

    Reblogged this on The Inside Angle and commented:
    This is the clearest and most incisive critique of what is wrong with the way our rivers are ‘managed’ I have seen. We need a revolution in water management in this country or we will all just have to sit and watch while our fisheries decline slowly and steadily. The Angling Trust will be working closely with WWF, RSPB and the Rivers Trust to try and bring about radical change.
    Thank you Charles for this excellent piece.

  2. John Glenwright

    Unfortunately the EA as with all government departments is dominated by the highlighter and the graph. This shouldn’t detract from some excellent work being done in some areas by many EA staff. In the North East a River I grew up alongside and considered dead- The River Team,Gateshead is gradually but measurably being brought back to life-restocked with chub,roach and dace mid river-even mention of trout in the upper reaches!. There local EA staff played a pivotal role in this.In summary I agree castigate those who insist on meaningless charts and targets but please words of encouragement when good work is done.

  3. Nick Heasman

    An excellent piece, I was also present at the meeting and was left confused, feeling played but ever more committed to the long lost mantra of “thinking globally, acting locally”
    When I asked what our primary reason was to spend our time bogged down in the workshops of woe, I was told it was to encourage the public to make comment and express their love, care for rivers to influence government purse and policy. As you clearly state this can’t be achieved through this document.

    This got me to thinking that what was require was a national campaign, dare I say it, but with celebrity endorsement. Jamie Oliver and school dinners, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and sustainable fishing achieved an awareness beyond the usual suspects and assisting in public understanding of the issue, politically they became powerful issues.

    Water and rivers are completely vital to our health, being mostly water, humans should of grasped this! Who from the headlines, Saturday night TV and so forth will step up to champion the primary element to our very being? Water, water everywhere receiving bad press for being in the “wrong” place, bad water lapping at the ankle of wellie clad politicians and isn’t it expensive water when it’s for free. There is so much to do let alone start mentioning that the public pays for its rivers to be polluted, pays for it to be attempted to be cleaned up and we all pay for a degraded environment!!

    The right words from the right people, clear and concise…definitely in plain English and not delivered by the usual suspects but let’s take the fight to every household in the UK, right to the sofa, the mess room, school gate, the corridors of power and engage in a campaign which takes the game away from dry documents hidden away from the public eye or their heart.

    Time to play a different game, one we cannot lose

  4. Simon Dixon

    Reblogged this on The River Management Blog and commented:
    An excellent post from Charles Rangeley-Wilson on the difficulties of understanding the current consultation documents about river management in the UK

  5. Stuart Merrylees

    I really enjoyed reading this post a couple of days after a meeting of the River Darent CIG in Kent, where we all struggled to read the draft Catchment Management Report and debate the questions the EA had asked us to answer.

    We all appreciated the document is intended to be an overview, but much of it reads as a generic set of standard sentences and it would be greatly improved by more specific facts. It will be very frustrating for the general public who will find it unreadable. When we inquired who will be evaluating the information in these pages in order to award funding, we were told, it was just a “consultation” document” and it will not be used for any decision-making.

    The problem of invasive species was mentioned several times, but there was no list of what they are, which is very frustrating for the reader. The oft-recurring sentence “mitigation, control and eradication” is far too general and doesn’t help the reader to quantify the problem. and does not generate confidence.

    There were a number of references to nitrates and pesticides, solvents and private and public sewerage but there does not seem to be any mention of how these problem arose or how they will be tackled.

    A number of us are very upset that the WFD does not talk about flows (especially the lack of flow) or include flow levels in their assessment of “good status”. We have never found anyone who can explain the term “environmentally acceptable flows”. Cost/benefit ratios are another point of obfuscation. The idea of a “Price for Ecological Services” is a good enough concept, but no one from the EA could give even some simple examples of how benefits were calculated.

    The EA is staffed by really good people who seem to be progressively in the grips of a bureaucratic paralysis, imposed by parts of the WFD.

    I hope we can progress and spread this lively debate on behalf of our unique chalk streams.

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