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This paper describes the establishment of a strategic programme of physical restoration on a series of English rivers with special protection status. Over a period of 10 years, decision-making processes have been developed to encourage long-term and ambitious thinking in tackling the damaging modifications that have affected these rivers. The programme is based on natural ecosystem function generated by natural riverine processes. The decision-making process aims to tackle practical constraints to more natural river function and to generate strategic plans around which available resources can be harnessed in a coordinated and logical fashion, in partnership with local stakeholders and landowners. The programme has been successful in developing strategic plans for most specially protected rivers in England, and practical implementation of measures is well underway and increasing each year. The process has been valuable in providing a basis for bids to a range of domestic and European funds, and for drawing local stakeholders together within a common delivery framework. Over time, more local stakeholder resources are becoming available as the benefits of restored natural ecosystem function are becoming more apparent. The physical modifications affecting these rivers reflect the impacts on the wider river network in England and in other developed countries. The lessons learnt from this programme over the past 10 years will be of use to those working on river restoration elsewhere in England, the UK, Europe and further afield. Whilst the current global economic outlook for funding is bleak, the processes established in England allow available resources to be harnessed and used in the most efficient way possible. This will be important for river restoration initiatives wherever they are attempted and for whatever purpose.