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Could making the River Porter a person protect it from developers?

Researchers say giving the river legal status could help restore it and uncover sections of riverbank hidden for centuries.


Members of the Sheaf and Porter Rivers Trust cleaning up the River Porter in May.

Sheaf and Porter Rivers Trust.

Researchers inspired by groundbreaking work by indigenous communities in New Zealand have said granting the River Porter a unique status known as 'legal personhood' could help protect it from developers and restore sections that have been hidden since the Victorian era.

The river, which runs through Endcliffe Park before joining the Don at Lady's Bridge, mostly flows through Sheffield city centre underground in concrete tunnels known as culverts. Campaigners want to see the culverts removed and the river 're-naturalised', returning it to a state similar to how it was before it was built over due to being dangerously polluted in the 19th century.

Calls for the river to be better protected come as Lidl announce plans to convert the former Mothercare shop on Eyre Street – most recently used by Theatre Deli – into a new supermarket.

The Porter runs underneath the site's car park, but plans submitted to the council by Lidl do not include uncovering and restoring the river as other developers have done (Waitrose recently committed to restoring a section of the river on their site).

Members of the Sheaf and Porter Rivers Trust point out that Sheffield City Council's planning policy is to uncover culverted sections of the Porter and Sheaf rivers "where opportunities arise."

"We are very surprised and disappointed that the plans submitted try to conceal the fact that the Porter runs under and through the site, and offer none of the improvements required by national and council planning policy," Simon Ogden of the trust told Now Then.

"Lidl is a hugely profitable international company and should simply do its part as most other recent developments along the Porter are now doing."

The trust have faced an uphill battle in recent years, both in encouraging developers to restore the hidden rivers and in creating joined-up sections of riverbank with public access.

Lidl site plan page 0001

Lidl's plans for the Eyre Street site.

Sheffield City Council.

But researchers say giving the Porter an innovative form of legal status could force developers to protect and enhance the river, as well as remove any culverts that fall within their sites. Known as 'legal personhood', this could see the Porter gain legally-enforceable rights as a living natural entity, such as the right to flow freely and the right not to be polluted or built over.

In similar cases around the world, guardians have then been appointed to speak on behalf of the river and enforce its rights in court – including against developers, public bodies and polluters.

In 2017 the Māori people signed a treaty with the government of New Zealand to grant legal personhood to the whole of the Whanganui River, which flows through their land and has special significance.

The treaty, which brought a 160-year dispute between the two parties to an end, appoints two guardians – one from the Māori community and one from the government – to represent the river's interests.

Alban Krashi, a University of Sheffield researcher who has been investigating legal personhood for the city's rivers on behalf of Opus Independents, believes the Porter should be granted similar status.

"It would establish the river and its ecosystem's right to exist, flourish and thrive, and for the river to flow freely and have a natural water cycle, as well as ensure timely and effective restoration," he told Now Then.

"Implementing this framework would afford a legal voice on behalf of the river, force stakeholderssuch as Lidl – to interact with the Porter’s needs and interests, and remove the capacity for it to be owned and exploited by private entities."

Krashi said that granting legal personhood to the Porter would "enable the community or a trust to represent and protect the Porter", as has happened with the Whanganui in New Zealand.

Whanganui river

The Whanganui River in New Zealand.

Ang Wickham on Wikimedia Commons.

"This is not to say that the Porter would be protected at all costs," he continued. "However, it will require stakeholders to engage with the needs of the river and place value on its ecosystem."

A spokesperson for Lidl told Now Then that the supermarket "look forward to receiving a decision from [Sheffield] Council in due course."

More Democracy & Activism

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