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Hertsmere must act now to save Aldenham Reservoir

June 7, 2020 4:21 PM

Paul Richards and Saif Al Sassoon inspect Aldenham Reservoir

Cllr Paul Richards and Hertsmere Lib Dem chair Saif Al-Saadoon at the troubled Aldenham Reservoir

Hertsmere Borough Council must bring the owners of Aldenham Reservoir to the negotiating table to hammer out a rescue package for the stricken beauty spot.

That's the call from the borough's Liberal Democrat councillors, who say the council leadership needs to act now to break the deadlock after years of wrangling over the historic site's future.

The group say Hertsmere should work with Liberty Lake Leisure, the private firm who own the reservoir, to find a commercial solution for the escalating problems at the waterbody, which is more than two hundred years old. This would involve finding a responsible way to allow Liberty to generate revenue from the site to fund vital repairs and maintenance.

Failing that, the reservoir must return to public ownership, with Hertsmere leading the process by seeking a buyer and then acting as honest broker to oversee the deal. Alternatively, the council itself could purchase the site and lease it to the not-for-profit company who run Aldenham Country Park, which adjoins the reservoir.

The Liberal Democrat councillors outlined their action plan this week in an open letter to Councillor Morris Bright, Conservative leader of the council.

It follows mounting concern over the reservoir's future after the owners lowered the water level by one metre, reportedly as a safety measure to relieve pressure on the site's ageing dam. This has shrunk the reservoir's footprint, created large and unsightly beaches around the perimeter, and forced the sailing club to close. More troubling still, the owners now plan to erect a two-metre safety fence around the entire waterfront - restricting views and access - to prevent walkers from getting stuck in the silt slurry around the newly-created shores.

Community campaigners say the owners have over-reacted, and fear the deterioration of the site will eventually be used as justification for closing and draining it completely.

Andrew Melville, Hertsmere Liberal Democrat group leader and councillor for Bushey North, said:

"It's desperately sad to see our beloved reservoir turn into an eyesore - not to mention the real harm it's doing to wildlife. This saga has gone on for far too long and now we have a genuine crisis on our hands.

"This is a very emotive issue for everyone involved. There is no easy fix, but the only way to end the stalemate is for Hertsmere Borough Council to show some creativity and leadership, and take the situation by the scruff of its neck".

The full text of the councillors' letter is below.

If you would like to get in touch with Andrew and Hertsmere Lib Dems with your views or suggestions about the future of Aldenham Reservoir, please e-mail cllr.andrew.melville@hertsmere.gov.uk

Here is the full text of the open letter from Cllr Andrew Melville, group leader of Hertsmere Liberal Democrats, to Cllr Morris Bright - Leader of Hertsmere Borough Council, and Sajida Bijle - Managing Director of Hertsmere Borough Council:

Cllr Andrew Melville
Group Leader
Hertsmere Liberal Democrats

4th June 2020

Dear Morris and Sajida,

Aldenham Reservoir

I'm sure you both share our grave concerns about the rapidly deteriorating situation at Aldenham Reservoir. In recent days and weeks we've heard from countless residents who've been shocked and saddened by what they've witnessed at the site or seen in photographs on social media and the local press.

I need hardly remind you of the reservoir's unique value to Hertsmere as a cherished, historic, and ecologically-important asset, beloved by many generations of visitors. Its location at the geographic heart of Hertsmere, between Bushey and Borehamwood, make its survival and future a genuine cross-borough issue of the most pressing concern.

As the councillors of Hertsmere's Liberal Democrat group, we represent the interests of all residents, throughout the borough. That's why, as group leader, I'm today writing you this open letter to set out the steps we urge you to take in order to safeguard the reservoir's future.

For the sake of clarity, I will recap the background. Many Hertsmere residents may not be aware that the reservoir is privately owned. While the neighbouring Aldenham Country Park and surrounding footpaths are ultimately the property of Hertfordshire County Council, the reservoir itself has long been the property of commercial entities. Serious concerns about its upkeep and long-term viability first arose around a decade ago. These concerns have centred on the condition of the dam, which appears to require significant repairs or even reconstruction.

Liberty Lake Leisure acquired the site in December 2015. Their parent company had previously offered to rebuild the dam in return for permission to construct housing on a nearby site off Watford Road. Hertsmere Borough Council rejected the scheme. After buying the reservoir, Liberty then submitted a different development proposal, to build log cabins on a section of the waterfront. But they withdrew the application after Hertsmere advised that they would, again, withhold planning permission.

Liberty say that, as owners, they have to pay for legal, safety and insurance liabilities. The reservoir is costing them money, but they can't make any money from it because both their planning applications have been rejected. And this has led us to a terrible impasse. Liberty assert that they can't spend the sums required to properly maintain the reservoir - especially the dam - unless they're enabled to generate revenue. However, community campaigners argue that Liberty knew what they were taking on when they bought the site and are now wriggling out of their proper responsibilities.

This deadlock has now reached a tipping point. Earlier this year Liberty announced that a survey of the dam had revealed structural weaknesses. They said this left them with no option but to take the pressure off the dam by reducing the water level of the entire reservoir. Other parties dispute the necessity of this action and Liberty's interpretation of the survey. Either way, the outcome is appalling: the water level has fallen by around one metre since January, reducing the reservoir's footprint and creating vast, barren beaches around its perimeter, as my colleague, Cllr Paul Richards, observed on a visit earlier this week.

The water appears foul in places, and is now so shallow that Aldenham Sailing Club has been forced to suspend all use of boats. Wildlife is surely suffering, too. Our beloved reservoir has become an eyesore.

To make matters worse, Liberty now report incidents of walkers getting stuck in the silt slurry around the reservoir's newly-created shores, where the water has receded. For that reason, they now plan to erect a two-metre-high safety fence around the entire reservoir by the end of this month. This fence will ruin views of the lake, impede pedestrian access, and effectively close off the reservoir as a viable public resource and beauty spot.

Community groups and campaigners now fear the very worst. There's mounting concern that the rapid decline of the reservoir will eventually provide justification for closing it entirely, and then draining off the remaining water, after which developers would one day get permission to re-work the whole site.

Matters have come to a head. And time is short. There are many interested parties with a legitimate stake in the reservoir's future, and on all sides, emotions run very high. There have been years of wrangling, disputes, claims and counter-claims, and sadly, much ill-feeling. We must now bring this agonising stalemate to an end by taking clear and decisive action. What's required is leadership, and that leadership must come from Hertsmere Borough Council (HBC).

There is no easy solution. HBC owns no part of the site and, as we understand it, has no legal authority over Liberty's management of the reservoir. But the difficulties should not deter us from our civic responsibility to protect this precious asset. We must resolve the impasse. If we - as the local authority - don't act to save the reservoir, then who will?

This is why we now set out the series of practical steps outlined below. Hertsmere Liberal Democrats call on Hertsmere Borough Council to act as follows:

  1. To formally recognise, at full council level, that the problems at the reservoir have now escalated to crisis point and its very survival is in real jeopardy. HBC must further recognise that as the relevant local authority it has a duty to break the deadlock and safeguard the reservoir's future.
  1. To work with Liberty to find a commercial solution for the reservoir's problems. The owners will only invest in the site if it can generate revenue, and as a council we have to recognise this reality. To date, HBC has rejected Liberty's development schemes but not - as we understand it - proposed alternatives which the council would accept. So HBC must now open a dialogue with the company, as a matter of urgency. The aim must be to establish a viable development proposition, which would be commercially attractive for Liberty but also satisfy Hertsmere's planning and environmental credentials, be acceptable to local residents, and ring-fence cash for the reservoir's maintenance and repairs.
  2. If no commercial solution can be achieved, find a new owner. Should development prove impossible, the reservoir should transfer to public- or third-sector ownership. HBC must lead and champion this process. HBC should seek an appropriate buyer who has the capital, expertise, and motivation to secure the reservoir's future - for example, a public body, charity, trust, or Community Interest Company (CIC). HBC should then act as an honest broker to expedite the negotiations, achieve a purchase price acceptable to both parties, and ensure that the deal safeguards the reservoir's maintenance and public access.
  3. As an alternative strategy, HBC itself should buy the reservoir and then lease it at cost price to Aldenham Renaissance, the CIC who operate the country park. Aldenham Renaissance have long aspired to bring the reservoir under their umbrella. This could be achieved by HBC supporting them in the raising of funds to cover both the purchase price and repairs, through a properly-run campaign to generate crowdfunding, charitable grants, and corporate sponsorship. By these means, the council tax payer will not foot the bill or retain ongoing financial responsibility for the reservoir's upkeep.

None of this will be easy. But through the strategies we outline here, alongside our collective will and determination, it must be possible to secure a breakthrough and finally put an end to this saga. As Hertsmere's Liberal Democrat councillors, we will offer you our full energies and support in pursuit of this aim.

Recent developments demonstrate what Hertsmere can achieve when it really wants to. The Sky Studios deal guarantees our borough a glittering slice of the twenty-first century; if we summon the same degree of tenacity, we can preserve a cherished slice of the eighteenth. Aldenham Reservoir was completed in 1797 and has survived industrialisation, urbanisation, and two world wars. We cannot let our generation be the one who consigned it to history.


Andrew Melville

Group Leader, Hertsmere Liberal Democrats

Cc: Oliver Dowden MP, Cllr Jeremy Newmark.