After decades of clean-ups, we’re still polluting precious rivers

Long lost: The River Wandle really did look like this, once…

CROYDON COMMENTARY: After a week-long heatwave and record temperatures, LEWIS WHITE makes a case for us to cherish local rivers, such as the Wandle, bringing the water companies back into public ownership, and for an end to the concreting over of the front garden spaces of our homes

It is, of course, very good indeed that the River Wandle has changed from an open drain in the 1960s with minimal water life and detergent foam clouds on top, back part of the way towards what it was in the 1860s, when people could fish for Trout at Wandsworth and gather watercress from an unpolluted stream at Carshalton.

Carshalton even got its name from its association with the water course – Carshalton means “Cress-well-town” (well=spring) in Anglo-Saxon.

So it’s great that the trout are back, co-existing with the shopping trolleys.

The Wandle is cursed with being an urban river, whose fresh springs in Carshalton and South Croydon (close to the site of the Swan and Sugarloaf) seldom run now, due to water abstraction from the chalk which has taken the water table down below the surface except in really wet years.

Cool cascades: careful management of water supplies help to keep Grove Park, near Carshalton Ponds, flowing

But sadly the river has become a magnet for some people who care nothing for the environment, chucking all sorts of rubbish in the river. And the Wandle can still be victim of some industrial-sourced pollution on occasions, too.

And yet, for much of its length, its immediate surroundings are amazingly green. Sometimes, it can be rural or parkland, such as at Beddington Park, while in others it is abundantly foliaged – almost sub-tropical.

What is so very sad is that since the 1970s, when I and others were enthused about the prospect of a linear Wandle Park, from Croydon all the way to the Thames, lining a really pure river, the problem of pollution has become a real issue, as far up the catchment as Caterham, in particular the run-off from the roads, especially during storms, when oily water comes off the roads.

We really need a massive system of special sewers to take road run-off, and then a huge amount of space to filter it all and remove silt and micro-particles. The Beddington area might still have enough land left to do this, if it were done in a high-tech way.

New life: The River Wandle, with its source in South Croydon, was only uncovered in Wandle Park 10 years ago

Nature has enormous powers of regeneration and purification, but it needs lots of clean water to do that. In our tarmacked and concreted Croydon and south London, there just is too much hard surface — so water runs off, creating flash flooding, running into the road gullies and into the culverted Bournes from Purley and Coulsdon, and taking most of this dirty water down to Beddington, where the sewage treatment works cannot cope with all the extra volume. And so the stormwater goes into the River Wandle.

A proportion goes into soakaways in the roads in well-drained chalky areas, but on clay, it goes into the already overloaded sewers.

The privatisation of the water authorities has diverted billions into the pockets of shareholders and corporate owners, money which could have been spent on more works to clean up our rivers. The water industry was always efficient. There was no genuine need to privatise it.

Whether any political party has the will to take water and sewage treatment back into public ownership seems doubtful. I hope that someone has the guts to do it.

Personally, I would love to see the treated wastewater from Beddington sewage treatment plant diverted to Wandle Park, just as it is to feed Carshalton Ponds since the 1960s.

The Wandle Trail: could this ever be a linear park from Croydon to the Thames?

Then an engineering scheme was implemented which collects water from the Wandle near to where the treated wastewater currently goes back into the river near Goat Green Hackbridge, and is piped along the bed of the river, all the way upstream to Carshalton. This was done before the privatisation of the water industry.

Global warming is going to make every drop of fresh water even more precious, and more valuable financially.

We should be ensuring that every driveway in the country is fitted with a soakway to take all the water into the soil.

It is very wrong that people are still concreting over every scrap of land in what was once their front gardens, and that very few of these are properly equipped with grating drains and soakaways to let the water sink into the soil. Most let rainwater run off and on to the roads, or into the domestic drains and foul sewer. We need to stop the concreting over of the world – starting with our own homes and land.

Life is going to get very serious, with water shortages for our children and maybe water wars for their children.

Government, national and local, needs to address the problems and deal with the squandering of rainfall… literally, deal with them at source.

So far, the action from government is pretty feeble.

  • Coulsdon resident Lewis White is a retired landscape architect with decades of experience working for local authorities in south London

Croydon Commentary is where our readers can offer their personal views about what matters to them in and around the borough. To submit an article for publication, just email us at, or post your comment to an Inside Croydon article that has caught your attention

Become a Patron!

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
This entry was posted in Croydon parks, Environment, Nature Notes, Planning, Wandle Park, Wildlife and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to After decades of clean-ups, we’re still polluting precious rivers

  1. John Woodhouse says:

    Excellent article

  2. Martin Rosen says:

    I totally support the thrust of Lewis White’s thesis, although I am unconvinced that re-nationalisation of the water companies represents any part of a solution – after all they did very little in the hundred years (?) before they were privatised.

    I thought that legislation had been implemented which was designed to reduce the extent of ‘concretisation’ of gardens? I know that Croydon Council requires planning permission to be granted for areas over a certain size … but in the case of the old Croydon Council I guess that they always granted permission in any case! And in Croydon the consequences of Multiple Occupancy are to increase massively the density of street (and front garden) parking. Perhaps the pressure for concretisation will reduce over the next ten years.

    I’d like to see someone of Lewis’s stature forming a pressure group in Croydon dealing specifically with the issue of river pollution ….

Leave a Reply