Farewell Spotlight: Michael Heath

Connecting our communities to the Thames is something that I value. I also valued looking after the staff as a personnel manager. It was great to look after them knowing that they were looking after our wider family and all the people that engage with Thames21.”

In this month’s Employee Spotlight, we would like to acknowledge and honour Michael Heath’s many years of dedicated service to Thames21. After more than a decade of working hard to provide support to our staff and protect our rivers, Michael is saying farewell to his Personnel Manager role and the Thames21 family. Michael joined Thames21 in 2011 as River Cray Project Officer. Here, Communications Manager Liz Gyekye sat down with him to reflect on his time at Thames21.

You have been a valuable member of the team since 2011. We are sad to see you go. What have been your highlights working for Thames21?

I came to Thames21 on a two-year contract in 2011. I started my role as the River Cray Project Officer at this time. It was very challenging to begin with because I was doing stuff that I hadn’t done before. However, over time, I was known as the River Cray river keeper.

There have been many highlights from my time at Thames21. Getting young groups of people and schoolchildren out and about on the river has been one highlight. Seeing people, especially young people, going into the river and thinking ‘I will not look at the river in the same way again’ is fantastic. Not only did I introduce these groups to the work of Thames21, but I showed them issues such as river improvement and pollution. They see the challenges the river faces such as the plastic pollution going into it and know that they can take action to tackle it.

In fact, in the early days of my role, we had a really successful week taking out Goldman Sachs interns on the River Cray. Not many people may know this, but it was quite a money spinner for the organisation. They learnt so much about this amazing river.

I remember seeing one girl with a litter picker picking up some rubbish and saying: “look at this piece of plastic rubbish”. Every bit of rubbish tells a story and that story is about how it gets there and how we should stop it getting there. That’s the story that the organisation will continue to take, I think.

Elsewhere, we did a film with a group of young people from St Paul’s Academy working on the Thames in Erith to remove large pieces of plastic that get caught up in the final section of the tidal marshes. We had a starring moment in the ‘Living Thames’ film. I still speak to the teacher who took part in the film.

An important stream of what Thames21 does is engaging with local communities. The Thames Connection project has a special role in the latter. I think giving young people, who are in inner city areas, the opportunity to appreciate and be part of the river is great. In fact, sparking their interest in nature could inspire them to take on environmental studies in the future.

Connecting our communities to the Thames is something that I value.

I also valued looking after the staff as a personnel manager. It was great to look after them knowing that they were looking after our wider family and all the people that engage with Thames21.

What has the journey been like for you?

Thames21 has changed. It’s changed through necessity. It’s survived in one way and it is making progress. There are great opportunities and challenges. In relation to river improvement projects, the catchment-based approach is key to these challenges and opportunities.

Giving people knowledge about their local waterway is a great thing to be part of. Making people understand that what they may think is a ditch is part of an ancient watercourse is fantastic.

The organisation has grown, developed and is pulsating in different ways – good ways. However, I wouldn’t want it to lose sight of its humble origins. This is a great value and we shouldn’t lose sight of it. Nevertheless, we have to be pressing on with new developments and addressing any challenges we face.

In the early 1990s community concern rose about at the accumulations of rubbish and litter in the River Thames. That’s how Thames21 was born – with people not being happy with big item litter pieces they found in the river. Fast forward to today and we are now looking at challenges such as plastic pollution, road run-off and the climate emergency, amongst other things.

People come along to our events and state: “That’s a nonsense of having that rubbish in there. We have to do something about it”.

That nonsense has been addressed with some great results. We have an organisation that is ‘up

there’ with the best of them, is competing as an environmental charity and is a leader in its field on

the issues of water, waterways, water courses and rivers.

I miss being with the organisation as it faces challenges. I hope Thames21 can bring the whole Thames21 culture with it as it faces these new challenges and developments. We want to maintain an army of volunteers and bring new volunteers in. I’ve seen the regular volunteers stay committed to Thames21. This is something that we shouldn’t lose sight of.

Have you always been a river lover? Why did you start working for Thames21?

In 2006, I was coming to the end of my previous career in the Metropolitan Police, which I had worked at for 30 years. I live in the London Borough of Bexley and I live near Foots Cray Meadows. I know a little bit about geography. Every time I went over the bridge I wanted to view the railway and the river. When the opportunity came along in 2011, Thames21 had a river keeper on the River Cray in Bexley. Word got out that the river keeper was moving on. So, when the ad for the job came out, I had an urge to apply for it. They decide to appoint me and I came on board on a two-year contract. I was absolutely delighted when I got this. This was a new challenge for me.

Essentially, I wanted to get involved in Foots Cray Meadows and wanted to give back to the community at a time in my life that I could. I was not expecting to find employment out of it, so I was astonished when I did get the job and I am astonished now that it is all coming to an end. However, I have to look back at what’s happened and it’s been really good. It’s not too sad that things are coming to an end. The organisation is moving on and I am moving on.

It has had its ups and downs, but I ended up developing and supporting a close group of volunteers, many of whom who I still keep in touch with. We brought large groups into the meadows or into the River Cray.

With the cost-of-living crisis, do you think that people will still want to get involved in environmental activities?

Yes, people’s priorities will change. You have to keep the wolf from the door. However, there will still be an overwhelming urge for people to want to get involved and understand their local environment.

By not letting them lose sight of these important issues, people will stay in tune and would want to get involved. What better to give back to the community than to volunteer!

The climate emergency is also a big challenge, so we have to keep putting the environment at the centre of our focus.

We are an established charity and we are leading the way in what we do. Nevertheless, we are now competing with other charities that have come on board in recent years. People love water. It’s beautiful to be beside whatever the weather. Water is a brilliant way of focusing on the environment. Thames21 will have to compete with other organisations that are seeking to be in the same space as us. We should not be afraid of that competition; we should take the competition head on. We were here first in relation to looking after the rivers and engaging people to get involved in it. All in all, people who come to volunteer with us can get out of their comfort zone, they can get involved in river activities and they can make a difference.

Is there anything we are not doing now that you think we should do?

In the past, we have done some volunteering hero evenings. It’s a little less formal from an annual evening-style presentation evening. I did witness my volunteers coming together and mixing with other volunteers in other parts of London. They recognised they were part of the same family and had a lot of stories to share. I think our volunteers will appreciate it if we maintain that type of recognition for them. Bringing people together where it’s possible would be great.

In the past, I would take my key volunteers to other events such as the Big Wet Wipe Count.

One of our long-term volunteers was a retired BT engineer. We took him down to the foreshore at Hammersmith. The first thing he found was an old telephone, which he found quite funny.

Sharing everyone around if is a good point and gives them recognition. It doesn’t have to be complicated. There are some people who have been doing it for a long while who might like to meet up with each other.

We don’t have a membership as such, but our regular volunteers are very proud to be part of the Thames21 family until somebody comes up with a complicated question for the team leader or think we are part of water companies when of course we are completely independent charity. They are as loyal as any long-term staff member, but their loyalty should be recognised and praised. We do value them, but the organisation should not lose sight of them.

You have lived near the River Cray for many years. I understand that you are a founding member of the Friends of Foots Cray Meadows. Are you still involved doing river activities with this group?

I still chair the Friends of Foots Cray Meadows, but it really is time to hand it over to somebody else.

I’ve slipped into the river several times. I am sure that was a great way of entertaining the volunteers, seeing someone of my height slip into the river.

What will you miss about Thames21?

To work for Thames21 for the past 11 years has been quite astounding and I look back on this and I am quite proud about it. To have that opportunity to work with an environmental charity, learn and be with the professional and dedicated people that make up Thames21, work with people that have made up Thames21 and continue to make up Thames21 has been a great thrill for me. This is something I can take away with a great amount of pleasure and pride.

One chapter closes, another opens. Any future plans?

I will be spending time with my family and eyeing retirement. However, I will also be busy. I would like to discipline myself to do more sketching and be with my art groups a bit more. One of my art teachers said to me that “I have noticed that a lot of your drawings have been based on the river, I wonder why that is?”

In the short term, I am looking forward to having a rest. I hope that I have looked after the people of Thames21 over the last six years and been able to give them some support and guidance. The organisation has done the right thing by bolstering its HR function. I very much wish Adam all the very best. I am confident that he will provide what is needed – a bigger and better support function for our staff (our most important resource). They look after our volunteers. It’s our staff that are leading the attack with the river improvement side of things and getting the money in. We have an important fundraising team that will keep the organisation going strong in the future, help it to get funded and help with new developments.

Is there something you would like to get across that I haven’t touched on?

We did go through some tough times during the Covid lockdown period. One thing that helped us get through was an early legacy left by a volunteer called Chris Stafford. When I look at the list of current staff not many people will know Chris Stafford. Chris Stafford was a first-class example of a first-class volunteer. He volunteered a lot with Thames21 and he was very passionate about his volunteering efforts with us. When I held events, he would cycle from Lewisham to support me with those events. Sadly, he died very young and he left a legacy. His legacy helped Thames21 during a tricky time. If and when we get new vehicles, it would be great if one of those vehicles gets named the ‘Chris Stafford’ van. A lot of people down on the Ravensbourne catchment and in other parts in London that have worked over the years with Thames21 will be pleased to see that.

Thanks for everything Michael. We will miss you and wish you all the best!