Former councillor Hugh McCarthy, who was the driving force behind plans to reopen the River Wye through High Wycombe, explains why it would be good for the town - and could make up for past mistakes. He writes:

Wycombe is a historic town, its origins go back hundreds of years, its Roman origins and vital location half way between London and Oxford made it a vital trading link.

Like several Chiltern valley towns it was blessed with a high quality Chiltern chalk river which provided a vital resource for its inhabitants, a common characteristic with many settlements in the Chilterns.

Certainly over the years this precious natural resource was used commercially and powered many mills along its length, but as modern infrastructure developed it was increasing abused and neglected as a potable water source, a common fate for many rivers worldwide to the point where it was no longer considered an asset. Mike Dewey’s wonderful photographs graphically demonstrate this decline.

The 1960s were a time of great social change, there was the post war ethos of “out with the old, and in with the new”, effectively leading to the destruction of much heritage, that today we would treasure and preserve, like for example the Wheatsheaf in the High Street, now thankfully undergoing restoration.

Our once proud river was by then neglected and abused so planners took the easy way out and hid it away in conduits under the town, where effectively it was forgotten and condemned to flow in a leaky tunnels, polluted by roadside run off and effectively lifeless.

I moved to High Wycombe in 1962, the river was still there, but the destruction of a large part of the town was just getting underway, my work in environmental consultancy made me aware that this was not good and to sacrifice such a historic, albeit neglected natural resource, for commercial gain could not be right.

Like many I had to get on with living, but when I retired my conscience was rekindled and I became a District Councillor.

I was able to develop my interest and in 2003 with the full support of the then leader of the council, Lesley Clarke, and the gifted and visionary urban designer, Penelope Tollitt we hatched a masterplan for the town.

However the new Eden shopping centre was by then a commitment and despite many public and some councillor support for opening the river, commercial needs overrode that aspiration and the town evolved to a shopping destination, rather than a place to visit and enjoy.

As deputy leader of the council in 2014, and with the wide support of councillors and a visionary leader we were able to again look in depth at the technical and economic benefit of re-opening the river, which by then had been extensively restored elsewhere, and was now valued as a precious natural resource, and a potential economic and environmental asset to the town.

I had the privilege of leading a formal Task and Finish group investigation into the river restoration. That 20 month, intensive, very professional and widespread investigation concluded that there were no technical barriers to raising the river to street level up to the Archway roundabout, and that the economic and environmental benefits justified the additional cost of raising the river in conjunction with the final phase of the alternative route masterplan.

The 1960s flyover was an effective barrier to the town, I coined the term “Wycombe’s Berlin Wall” which haunted me for years but the reality is that the flyover divided the town, it’s now nearing the end of its life and is in serious decay, but it forms the roof of the old Octagon shopping centre!

The Town Masterplan recognised the need for an alternative route round the town and much of that route was gradually developed, including critically the section from Westbourne Street to the Sainsbury’s junction, and the river was raised in a covered corridor to allow its future opening in that section.

Sadly at that time the Government decided to merge all the old Buckinghamshire district councils into a single Aylesbury based unitary authority.

That meant that although the Wycombe councillors were generally very supportive, and the Cabinet whilst in agreement, it was unable to commit to the cost of completing the masterplan and river.

It did however put down a strong marker, and to his great credit the leader of the new unitary council, Martin Tett, also registered his support and agreement in principle.

Then Covid-19 struck and everything effectively stopped.

However, that offered the opportunity for the Wycombe Society to take up the cudgels and raise the profile of the project, together with the desperate need to regenerate the town which was badly affected commercially by the Covid driven drift from town shopping etc.

That work continues and readers will be well ware of the strong support for the river restoration, added substantially by this paper’s continued support and especially the overwhelming public support evident from the BFP survey.

So where are we now? Much work has been done by the liaison group, building on the proven technical work of the old council, and a visionary presentation to the new Buckinghamshire Council will take place in due course, the council has already recognised the need for urgent regeneration of the town and the way in which it is to be sustained and evolve post-pandemic.

There is a recognised need to make the town more attractive to the vast amount of spending power that surrounds the town and to capitalise on the growing leisure market with the increased potential for town living and conversion of underused commercial property to residential.

Hopefully, with a sensible, visionary and pragmatic approach the new council will embrace the potential and capitalise on the considerable environmental gain that the new council has committed too, it would dramatically reverse the visual and environmental harm of the past years development.

High Wycombe could once again be the beacon of prosperity that it once was, capitalising on the generosity of nature and its unique Chiltern setting.

It would be a lasting legacy to the historic town that nestles in the unique Chiltern Hills, and redress some of the past mistakes.