Local Elections 2022

Lincolnshire’s rivers may be stuck with annual blankets of azolla and duckweeds for some time yet, as organisations struggle to come up with a solution.

One councillor told a committee discussing the issue in Boston in particular, that the thick masses of material and weed between 100-150mm thick was a “biodiversity catastrophe on the scale of a fertiliser spill”.

Councillors were also concerned to hear that due to funding cuts, the Environment Agency would no longer intervene until there was a category one or two serious incident – with the most urgent of those meaning the death of at least 100 fish — or one eel.

Rivers across the county including in Lincoln and Boston turned green during the long, warm summer, as the currents’ flows reduced and the weeds took hold, however, the cold weather has forced it into retreat recently.

The Boston river, in particular, became choked, while residents complained of the smell, along with dead fish floating on the surface.

Peter Reilly, from the Environment Agency, told councillors that low water flows and light rainfall meant control gates along the river had been unable to open to allow the weed to flow out to sea, trapping the debris or risking the unavoidable loss of large volumes of water.

He said the Canal and Rivers Trust had a statutory duty to maintain the watercourse, and that the EA’s role was mainly around flood risk management perspective and pumping water in at the top end of the watercourse.

Dead fish were found in the River Witham. | Screenshot: BBC Look North

“The agency are not funded to remove this weed for any reason other than flood risk reduction and this weed presents no flood risk,” he said.

He said the EA had to, however, intervene if there was an environmental incident, but only under the most serious two levels.

He said that intervention was unfunded but required.

“That leaves us in the position where we can watch an impending environmental incident develop, we’re unable to do anything about it until fish or eels are killed, and then we are compelled to respond.”

He said the EA was trying to “find a way out of that situation” adding that it “makes no sense to sit on our hands unable to act until there is a fish or eel kill”.

Oxygen-starving weed has got a stranglehold on Boston’s main waterway, the River Witham. In view is the Boston Belle. | Screenshot: BBC Look North/BBC News Hub

He acknowledged that local businesses and organisations were impacted due to the smell and affects tourism.

“We do anticipate it again next June, July time or later in the year – it may not happen if we have a cool, wet year with plenty of flow in the river – but it will happen again,” he warned.

Councillor Tom Ashton said he was sceptical there were “enough weed boats” to tackle the scale of the issue.

“We need to understand what solutions are going to be going forward, because this is a biodiversity catastrophe on the scale of a fertiliser spill,” he said.

“If you think of the death and destruction to wildlife and habitat caused by this incident, if this was a private company, then we quite rightly would be coming down on them like a tonne of bricks.”

Councillor Alison Austin feared for the reputation of Boston, adding “if there’s any way [the town] can be knocked, it will be used”.

She said the situation was even more urgent as the town received drainage from a number of Midland areas on its way out towards the Haven. She worried that the town’s taxpayers would be left footing the bill for clearing it up.

A view of River Witham in Lincoln, which is partly covered with duckweed |
Photo: LDRS/The Lincolnite

Councillor Paula Ashleigh-Morris lives in Langrick and said the weeds were “thick and ridiculous” in her area.

“There was absolutely lime green as far as you could see,” she said.

She said the separation of responsibilities between organisations was “absolutely ridiculous” adding “surely these people can get together”.

“The weed cutting boat looks like a seaside pedalo, and tiddles around,” she added.

She said it was having a negative effect on local businesses.

Earlier this year, Richard Bennett from the Canal and River Trust told BBC Look North the organisation was spending £80,000 this year on big boats, four days a week, in order to try to clear passage through.

The councillors voted to write to the Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, calling for action over the “deep concerns” regarding the situation and the Environment Agency’s inability to respond to lower level incidents.

An independent candidate who caused a major election upset says his victory is grassroots democracy in action.

Steve Holland campaigned strongly against plans for thousands of homes and a relief road in the Freshney ward near Grimsby.

He was able to defeat cabinet member Callum Procter in the safe Conservative seat.

Backed by the Friends of the Freshney Valley group, he is determined to make residents’ voices heard on North East Lincolnshire Council.

“I was getting support from people who were lifelong Labour or Conservative voters, and also people who had never voted before and didn’t know where their polling station was,” Mr Holland said after his surprise victory.

“Everywhere we went, people said they were ready to see an independent candidate. So we knew it was going to be close, but we thought we might not quite make it.

“My main priority will be making clear that the plans for 4,000 homes in the area aren’t wanted and aren’t needed. I want to build a consensus that these shouldn’t go ahead.

The Friends of the Freshney Valley protest protest against housing and road plans outside Grimsby town hall | Photo: Jamie Waller.

“People feel very strongly about it. The Friends of the Freshney Valley Facebook group has 2,000 members – but we didn’t know whether that would translate to winning an election.

“The Facebook group was absolutely buzzing this morning because we had won. That’s grassroots democracy for you – it would never happen for a normal politician.”

The Freshney Valley group has held protests for months outside council meetings in Grimsby town hall.

While the housing plans are still being considered, North East Lincolnshire Council says it won’t apply for any more government funding for the relief road. Housing schemes will also be re-examined as the local plan is updated this year.

Mr Holland is also keen to stop what he says is the “decline and decay of the town centre”.

He has promised to make himself available to all residents and ensure they can contact him.

He says lack of faith in the main parties could also explain why voters were ready to back an independent candidate.

“People have definitely lost trust in politicians at the top, and there’s a lot of cynicism on a national level,” he said.

“We expect our leaders to have integrity. When you win, you can’t afford to lose people’s trust.”

Conservatives have claimed victory in North East Lincolnshire Council elections but Labour say they’ve been ‘put on notice’.

The three major parties have all claimed some form of victory after the results were counted, which left Conservatives as the biggest party.

They say voters have endorsed their ambitious regeneration plans for the area.

However Labour, who picked up Heneage ward, claim Tories have been told the public aren’t happy and want to win voters’ trust back.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats held onto the East Marsh seats and hope to build on their success next year.

Independent Steve Holland caused the biggest shock of the night as he unseated cabinet member Callum Procter, in a campaign centred around protecting the Freshney Valley from development.

The election leaves 30 Conservative councillors, eight Labour, three Liberal Democrats and one Independent.

Philip Jackson, leader of the NEL Conservatives. | Picture: Calvin Robinson.

Council leader Philip Jackson said: “I would like to thank the people of North East Lincolnshire for putting their trust in Conservatives and re-electing them to the vast majority of seats.

“Unfortunately, we did lose one seat to Labour, but given we are 12 years into a Conservative government, there is no evidence of them making a major comeback. These are fairly disastrous results for them.

“We are also disappointed to have lost the Freshney ward due to the local issue of the Grimsby West relief road. We have already made clear that we won’t be rebidding for Levelling Up Funding for it, and will be carrying out a review of housing in our local plan soon.

“We have made good progress over our three years in control of the council, and there is always more to do. We have ambitious plans for regenerating Grimsby town centre and realising the Cleethorpes masterplan. There is still a lot of work to be done with children’s services, and ensuring people have the skills to take advantage of new jobs being created in the renewable energy sector.”

Councillor Matthew Patrick, Labour group leader on North East Lincolnshire Council, at a previous election count | Picture: Calvin Robinson

Labour also cast the results in an optimistic light, with this marking the first time in several years that they have come out ahead on seats.

Party leader Matthew Patrick said: “We are satisfied overall – we held onto all the seats and had a smashing victory in Heneage where there was a hard-fought campaign.

“We have slashed the Tories’ majorities in a lot of seats which we will be targeting in the future.

“Conservatives have been put on notice that the people of North East Lincolnshire aren’t happy.

“The cost of living has certainly been a massive issue as people face huge bills for heating and eating.

“But overall we found that apathy was a big challenge – voters didn’t believe that any of the main political parties had the credibility to lead. We need to regain that trust and remind them that the Labour Party is on their side.”

The Say No to Grimsby West campaign caused an upset in Freshney ward

Liberal Democrats took both open East Marsh seats. Party leader Steve Beasant, who will mark 20 years on the council next year, retained his seat, while Lynsey McLean took the vacant one.

“Some people expected that we would win the East Marsh, but we never take it for granted,” Mr Beasant said.

“I believe in working all year round to repay the community for their support.

“We ran well in three other wards where we stood – Park, Heneage and Wolds – and we have a good chance of winning them next time.

“Residents don’t want to see councillors slagging each other off in the chamber – they care about what results you deliver for them.

“That’s why I was up at 6am in Grant Thorold Park for a community garden, and why East Marsh councillors are always on litter picks. It is thanks to resident’s support that we have been able to do so much for the area.”

He added: “Lynsey Mclean is a really good new councillor. She was a former council social worker, so she will be able to challenge the council on their social care programme.”

However, turnout for the elections was a disappointing 25%, meaning just one in four eligible voters went to polling stations.

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