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Updated: May 7, 2023

By Councillor Patricia Wiltshire

Some look back to the halcyon days of children paddling in clean rivers, but these are flawed memories. The waters of the river Mole have consisted mainly of treated sewage since at least the late 1960s. These days, our population is much higher and the amount of domestic and industrial building on the flood plain has increased greatly. Not only that, since 1970s, farmers have been encouraged to apply huge amounts of fertilisers and pesticides to their fields, and these seep into the river in the groundwater runoff. This results in unnatural levels of phosphate, nitrogenous, and other compounds which, in turn, lead to elevated levels of microbial and algal growth.

Local people, including all the elected councillors in MVDC, are deeply distressed at the filthy state of the river Mole and, at last, Government Agencies have started to take notice. Most of our local rivers are unclean and unsafe, and except for controlling the building on the flood plains, all the local Councils can do is complain and lobby Central Government and local MPs for remedies. It will require a gargantuan effort and vast financial resources by the main governmental agencies to remedy the state of most of the rivers in the UK.

Only DEFRA and the Government can have any control on the impact of farming, but river water in a catchment like that of the Mole can never be truly safe for paddling, dabbling, or swimming. Besides the treated and raw sewage, the river will always contain faecal material from fish, birds, other wild animals, domestic dogs, and people themselves.

Although sewage and groundwater runoff from farms are major sources of disease-producing organisms. It must be remembered that common soil bacteria can also cause disease, and these are always present in river water.

Of many of the disease-producing fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and viruses that find their way into our rivers, some of the commoner infective agents include: Shigella, Escherischia coli, Cryptosporidium, Leptospira, Adenovirus, Norovirus, Giardia, Vibrio cholerae, Salmonella, and Naegleria fowleri, as well as very many other species and strains. The authorities take the presence of E. coli as being indicative of other gut organisms and its presence is one of the common tests for water quality. It is a mere indicator of a much nastier load infective agents.

We now have swimming pools, and these are a much safer option for leisure. Better still, a clean beach and the sea is the best place for leisure. The chemical and biological status of clean seawater is very different from that of rivers so they should not be confused with each other.

How on earth does our river get polluted with raw sewage? It is because of a lack of adequate facilities for coping with storm water. Local Councils, MPs, and residents should be lobbying Government to force the water companies to invest in proper infrastructure. But remember, even if the overspill from the sewage plants by storm water were remedied, the river Mole would still consist mostly of treated sewage.

Is the motion meaningful?

At the council meeting on 21st February 2023, the Liberal Democrat Cabinet Member for Climate Change proposed a motion stating that she wishes to open dialogue with the National Trust to allow: the landowners upstream, local councillors, The Friends of the River Mole, The AONB Board, The Dorking Angling Society, The Environment Agency, Thames Water, Surrey County Council, West Humble Residents’ Associations, Mickleham Parish Council, any new development at the Aviva Site, and other stakeholders not mentioned, to apply for the Stepping Stones to be designated as a bathing area.

She wishes the National Trust to include this action in their current masterplan. She has implied that there has been full discussion with all these individuals and bodies (even with those not known) such that a mutually agreed request to the National Trust has already been formulated. No details were given as to her dealings with any of those bodies but, certainly, most councillors were not consulted nor even informed of the motion before the meeting agenda was distributed. It seems that because cleaning up the river is a ‘good idea’, it would be assumed that everyone would agree with this proposal.

In reality, she has wasted her time because although it is usually the local authority that applies, anyone can be the applicant and only the local authority or landowner’s permission are required.

Everyone, including the National Trust, is likely want the river to be cleaned up but it is unlikely to have the resources to contribute to it any more than the Council. Indeed, the Mole Valley Liberal Democrat administration has apportioned no funds whatsoever to support the river clean-up.

The Cabinet Member either failed to carry out adequate research on the requirements and protocols underlying this request, or she has failed to inform anyone on its implications. Full details can be found on the following link:

The main agencies involved are DEFRA and the Environment Agency and these will consult with all relevant authorities and stakeholders. Please follow the link above if you wish to understand the process.

The landowners and stakeholders play no part in the designation, and this would have to come from Government agencies. The evidence needed to support any application for bathing designation is outlined in the given link, and it would be the applicant’s responsibility to provide it. Such evidence would need to be stringently detailed, and it would be prohibitively expensive in resources and time. The Council would never be able to afford being an applicant.

The current Liberal Democrat administration has no resources to offer, so the motion put forward by their Cabinet Member was pointless and redundant. It is of concern, therefore, that all the Liberal Democrats voted for it without knowing the truth of the situation and even after being given scientific information by the Ashtead Independents during the Council meeting.

It is even more worrying that it is being claimed by the Liberal Democrats, and certain other candidates, that they ‘voted for cleaning up the Mole’. No they did not; they were voting in an exercise of Brownie Point collection in the face of an impending election.

Councillor Patricia Wiltshire


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