A personal reflection of the Irwell Catchment Partnership by Katherine Causer, Irwell Catchment Coordinator at the Environment Agency

Irwell Catchment Partnership – How it began

It’s over ten years since the Irwell Catchment was chosen as one of Defra’s National Pilot Catchments to trial a ‘citizen centred’ approach to delivering the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Developing an ‘integrated catchment approach’ to engagement and environmental improvement.

As the newly appointed Irwell Catchment Coordinator for the Environment Agency (EA), the Pilots presented the ideal opportunity for me to make new and exciting links to local communities, businesses and a wide range of organisations that previously had little or no input into decisions involving the water environment.

The EA has a responsibility for the protection and enhancement of the water environment in England and so the Catchment Pilot initiative provided a way get more people involved with this vital work making environment a better place for people and wildlife.

The Catchment Pilot provided a vehicle for planning how to improve the rivers, streams, lakes, and canals in the Irwell watershed, and deliver wider societal benefits in collaboration with stakeholders from the public, private and community sectors.

The success of the Catchment Pilots led to the formation of Catchment Partnerships in every WFD Catchment in England and the development of the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA).

Irwell Catchment Partnership – How it’s going

The Partnership now has a membership of 28 different organisations from many sectors including a number of charitable and community trusts, angling clubs, the regional utility provider, Defra family (Environment Agency, Forestry England and Natural England), Local Authorities, representatives from the agricultural sector, the Flood Forum and Universities.

Groundwork Greater Manchester have been the successful host of the Irwell Catchment Partnership since 2012. It was decided after the Pilot stage of the Catchment Based Approach that the Host role should be autonomous of the ‘Defra family’ in order to act independently, and with the integrity required to be a trusted broker. The host role requires a wide range of skills because the work is so varied, but fundamental to the role is relationship building, bringing the right people into the partnership at the right time so that they can contribute and collaborate in a way that is meaningful for them and the partnership. Gathering the evidence base, collaborative planning and seeking funding are essential to the development and delivery of the Catchment Plan. These all require effective and timely communication. The Host’s skills really provide the ‘glue’ that binds the partnership together.

My role as Catchment Coordinator has continued and I support the Host and Partnership in delivering improvements on the ground, providing environmental data, and guidance from the point of view of our role as the Regulator.

It has taken time to build relationships between the partners, understand the state of the Irwell environment, comprehend how we can improve it and how it might be impacted by future challenges such as climate change, development, and population growth, but through hard work and perseverance we’ve made much progress.

Irwell Catchment Partnership – What’s been achieved

Well, there’s been a lot! Here are just a few things that summarise our activities: –

  • I have seen people’s knowledge, understanding and confidence around the natural environment grow considerably, including my own. The impact of this has been that we are more joined up in our thinking, see the bigger picture and are willing to collaborate to achieve more for the environment.
  • The Catchment Partnership has taken on board new approaches to managing the environment through the Catchment Based Approach, and incorporated concepts such as Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services to ensure we are current and relevant for the 21st
  • The information the Catchment Partnership has collated has been visualised in the Irwell StoryMap, an evidence-based platform that can be accessed via the internet
  • The evidence is used to direct the Catchment Partnership in the delivery of projects to improve the natural environment and provide benefits for the public and wildlife.
  • Research carried out in collaboration with local universities has provided the Catchment Partnership with valuable evidence about local problems such as road run-off and diffuse pollution. The efficacy of actions to try and reduce it, such as the Howard Street and the Bury New Road SuDs enabled street trees projects, are being evaluated and will help us to improve interventions, and act as exemplars for further investment.
  • Practical skills and capabilities have grown through volunteering initiatives and projects that have incorporated education and training, such as Resilient River Valleys and Love Your River Irk, and more local people are involved in environmental projects because of Catchment Partner activities.
  • The Partnership has supported projects that are helping to shape the future direction of environmental policy (both at a Local and Central Government level) such as through Urban Pioneer and the Environmental Land Management (ELM) Test and Trails initiative.
  • We have also commissioned studies that have helped us to better understand the state of the environment and used this information to drive action on the ground. Bringing the River Irk to Life (BRIL) is an example of this. The BRIL Action Plan, funded through the Life IP project Natural Course, identified over 60 potential interventions that could be carried out help improve the Irk. Some of these actions have been incorporated in the multi-million-pound development, Victoria North, in Manchester and will help to enhance the lower reaches of the river.
  • Through the delivery of ‘on the ground’ projects we have enhanced many kilometres of river. Projects have included the removal of weirs, and construction of fish passes to open-up rivers to fish migration, and the removal of hard bank engineering to reconnect the river to the floodplain and improve wetland habitats.


It’s hard to put a monetary value on the impact that the Catchment Partnership has had on the people and environment of the Irwell over the last ten years. It runs into millions of pounds of investment in tangible ‘on the ground’ expenditure but there have been many other benefits that are hard to monetise.

As I reflect on the challenges and successes of the past 10 years, I am proud to have played a small part in the Irwell Catchment Partnership and what we have achieved. There is still lots which needs to be done, and the mountain we still must climb in our quest to create a healthy water environment in the Irwell Catchment is high but I look forward to working with the fantastic people who have made this job so worthwhile, and I wonder what the next ten years will bring.