Characters of the cut

Carrying out risk assessments for anything from a duck race to the Henley Royal Regatta on the Thames is all in a day’s work for waterways technical officer Sophie Smith. Elizabeth Rogers finds out more.

Technical officer Sophie Smith: “I enjoy being out and about.” PHOTO: ENVIRONMENT AGENCY
Technical officer Sophie Smith: “I enjoy being out and about.” PHOTO: ENVIRONMENT AGENCY

WHEN any boat show, canoe race, pageant, endurance event, rally or other such activity takes place on the river it involves a great deal of organisation, both before and during the event, by a great many people.
But there are people in a professional role who have one of the most importantly guiding influences on how well everything will work on the day.
They are the waterways technical officers of the Environment Agency, among whom working from its base in Wallingford is Sophie Smith. They carry out the survey work when applications for the holding of an event are made to EA.
“That is everything from a duck race to the Henley Royal Regatta – and everything in between,” said Sophie.
“Safety is always our main concern; we carry out risk assessments and make sure that an event does not impact on other people and craft who are not involved with it.”
Importantly the conditions that will be applied include ensuring that there is no denial of public access to the whole width of the river, and that craft preceding on the water journeys of their own can do so without being impeded.
This is just one of the many aspects of the role of Sophie and her three colleagues, each of whom has particular responsibility for an individual stretch of the river – in Sophie’s case from Clifton Lock, near Abingdon, to Sonning Lock, near Reading. All four however may work on other stretches when the need arises.
Law and orders
Sophie joined the EA staff five years ago, working initially from its base in Shepperton, nearer to London, where her role was office-based in administration. She moved upstream to Wallingford three years ago, and here her role is half in the office and half out-and-about in the river environment, dealing with all types of matters relating to navigation.
Taking up her appointment in 2011 was the first step in her career, having recently graduated from university, where she had studied English law and the French language.
The French will come in useful with the many continental visitors who holiday on the river and the law degree is of a major importance as so much of Sophie’s work relates to waterways legislation. This includes the Thames Conservancy Act of 1932 and its subsequent updates, the Inland Waterways Order and the Thames Navigation Bylaws.
“A lot of my current role involves giving consent for the many public events, and ensuring that they meet all the regulations,” Sophie explained.
The Environment Agency is one of the consultees on all planning applications to local authorities for developments on sites beside or close to a waterway.
Applications can include those such as for the building of a landing stage, boat house or other facility, usually from a householder with a river frontage who wants to increase the benefits of living in such a delightful spot.
EA has to consider whether the construction could have an effect on the navigation of the river by overhanging the water or in any other way affecting its use by other people. “We have to ensure that nothing causes an infringement to an unacceptable extent, that it does not impact negatively,” 
Sophie continued.
On the other hand, there can be applications that can bring a positive effect. “We want to encourage people to come and use the river, that is always one of our objectives. We will be likely to look positively at any application for new leisure facilities that might encourage more use of the river.”
Film set
Sophie also has a specific responsibility for dealing with requests for filming to take place on or beside the River Thames. These can be as many as three or four a week, such as TV dramas, film productions, and maybe short advertising sequences and the like.
She provides the applicants with advice and guidance and makes arrangements for the permissions and for the location fees, which are reinvested into EA’s navigation services. “The extent of our role is quite broad,” Sophie explained.
Any major closures necessary for work at locks and weirs is planned for the close boating season. “That is when our winter investment programme is carried out,” said Sophie.
“Depending on the nature of the work locks may be closed to traffic during this time, although some may remain open if it is not extensive.”
Recent work that could be carried out without any major restrictions was at Sonning Bridge. This is where protective measures for the stonework of the bridge were the objective, with the attachment of triangular wooden panels known as dolphins.
“That is to prevent damage to the stonework by it being struck accidentally by any boats,” 
she explained.
Other aspects of Sophie’s role include, with the lock keepers, keeping an eye on river conditions and carrying out public safety risk assessments at all EA sites, including its locks and on any of the areas of land which it owns.
“A big part of the job is liaising with customers, answering their questions and queries,” she said. “You never know what you are going to be asked next.”
With other members of the team of technical officers Sophie works on a rota of weekend working to attend these events on EA’s behalf, making sure that all the conditions imposed are being observed – even down to the collecting up of every last duck after the last race.
“I enjoy being out and about, especially if it’s a nice sunny day,” says Sophie. “It is nice to see the work that we have been doing behind the scenes in the office contributing to what is taking place to see that everybody is happy, and enjoying themselves on the river.”

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