Charles Walker calls for action to save England’s chalk streams

Charles Walker MP speaking in the House of Commons

Charles Walker leads a Parliamentary debate on the environmental disaster facing England’s chalk streams which have been over-abstracted to provide cheap water for new housing. He calls on the Government to use the forthcoming draft Water Bill to make Ofwat responsible for the environmental consequences of abstraction and for new reservoirs to be built in the South-East.

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Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for allowing me to speak on the Adjournment today, Mr Deputy Speaker. Let me begin by saying to the Minister that I am going to give him one hell of a beating over the next 15 minutes, and I hope he can suck it up and take it like a man.

We are a blessed nation. When God made this great world of ours, He gave India the Himalayas, He gave Brazil the Amazon rain forest, and He gave South Africa the savannah. Then God thought to Himself, “What can I give that great country, England? What can I give England that it can be proud of?”, and He gave us 85% of the world’s chalk streams. The world’s chalk streams are one of the most precious previous ecosystems available, and God decided that we should have custody of 85% of that resource; so we are indeed a blessed nation.

As I grew up with my grandfather in Hampshire and Wiltshire, I spent many happy days trundling down the river banks, fishing rod in hand, with my grandfather carrying the picnic basket containing the tomato soup and my grandmother’s cheese and ham baps. We would sit there on the river bank, looking at the sparkling water, the kingfishers, the damselflies, the mayflies and the water voles, and the two of us, for that moment in time, were kings. But now, I am afraid, the House must hear the bad news. For the last 30 or 40 years, we have watched our precious chalk streams die. We have watched them drain away, abstracted to death.

Just after my grandfather died in January 2012, I visited the River Kennet at Manton, where we had had so many adventures together. I stood in that river with the former Member of Parliament for Reading, West, Martin Salter, and it was dry: dry as a bone. We stood in that river with my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), in whose constituency it falls. It was dry; it had gone. There was no more water, and there was no more wildlife: no voles, no fly life, no fish, nothing. There was just a tiny puddle in the weir pool. I said that there were no fish, but in fact there were about 20 fish left in the weir pool, clinging on for life.

That was in January 2012, when we were facing an environmental disaster. We were only saved by a once-in-a-hundred-years event—the coming of the great rains in the spring of last year, which lasted throughout the summer and continued into the winter. Without those rains, there would have been standpipes across the country, and we would have been in crisis. Cobra would have been meeting. That is how close we were to the water system failing and our losing many more of our rivers, not just the upper Kennet.

As a result of this near-disaster, the all-party group on angling and interested parties from around the country—chalk streams are to be found in the east of England, the west country and as far away as Yorkshire, as well as in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire—held a summit at Stockbridge. The mood was one of extreme anger because this precious natural resource was being allowed to die, and we were standing aside and watching that happen—we were watching our chalk streams drain away.

We in this House lecture Brazil on the Amazon rain forest and Indonesia on its rain forest, yet we are appalling custodians of our own precious resources. We are not in any position to lecture anyone about the environment.

The Environment Agency attended that summit meeting, and its civil servants looked us in the eye and assured us that it had the highest regard for our chalk streams, and that it was committed to conserving them and making sure they remained for future generations to enjoy. I do not want to say this, but I am going to: what total and utter rubbish. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. I said to those at the EA, “You come and visit our streams in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.” If they were to visit them today, they would need a pair of waders, as we have had historically high levels of rainfall, but if they had come last spring, they would not have needed to bring waders, or even gumboots or ankle-boots. In fact they could have brought their bedroom slippers and still not got their feet wet, because these rivers have been abstracted to death, and some of them are not even there any more. Last year, we lost three, and another two were 50% dried up. They will come back, but there will not be any wildlife in them, there will not be any fly life and there will not be any fish.

What really sticks in the craw is that the EA puts out press releases saying, “Our rivers have never been cleaner than they are now.” Some of them might well be clean, but they might also be only 1 inch deep, so that message is deliberately misleading.

Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire are in this situation because we have been building houses for decades; we have been growing the population of the east of England for decades without any thought to how we are going to supply the water. We just keep sucking it out of the ground through abstraction. The last major reservoir that was built in the south-east and east was the Queen Mother reservoir, which was constructed 40 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of houses have been built in the intervening time.

In 1950, there was a debate in this Chamber about the state of the Mimram, running along the Hertfordshire-Buckinghamshire border. There was concern about its future back then, when households were abstracting an average of 60 litres of water a day. That figure now stands at 180 litres of water a day across the region, and, as I have said, there are so many more homes, too.

We are on the cusp of an historic event, as the draft water Bill will soon come before the House. The Bill must be robust. First, it must deal with Ofwat. I am not going to pull my punches: Ofwat is a really shocking organisation. It really is a disgrace, and it has worked against conservation in this country for many years. It has no regard for conservation. It is not interested in what happens in the natural environment. If a water company wants to install metering to try to reduce usage, it will not happen if it is going to cost anybody any money. Ofwat needs to be given some responsibility for the environmental consequences of its actions. We cannot carry on in the same way as at present.

We need to get far better at capturing and storing water. We currently have an abundance of water, but a lot of it is going down the rivers into the sea. As a result, it is replenishing the aquifers, which is a good thing, but the aquifers will be sucked dry again and in two or three years we will right back where we started. That means rivers that barely flow, rivers that do not support any life, rivers that are in essence dead—environmental vandalism on a extraordinary scale. As I said, how dare we lecture the developing world on its responsibilities to its natural environment when we so casually disregard our responsibilities to our natural environment?

I was educated in America, where people are far more aggressive in pursuit of conservation issues. Trout Unlimited in America routinely takes state and federal Governments to court when they are letting down the natural environment. It mounts court cases, fights court cases and wins court cases. I do not advocate direct action in this country. Sometimes I want to man the barricades, break the water pumps, let people know how I feel, burning tyres in the street in Stockbridge, for example, to make the point, but that is not the way forward. It might be tempting, it might be momentarily attractive to become a sort of middle-class Swampy, but that is not the way forward. If this Government, if future Governments cannot get it right, we have to go to law more often. We have to hold Governments to account.

We have an excellent Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). His heart is in the right place. He has it within his powers to do something truly great. If he meets resistance in Ofwat, get rid of that resistance—show ’em the door. If the Environment Agency is not willing to step up to the plate, show those responsible the door. We need a can-do Government and a can-do Minister working in a can-do Department. We are at the business end of the coalition. We are halfway through the Parliament and now is the time to make the difference, to leave that legacy by which we will be judged.

So I urge the Minister in his remaining two and a half years at the Department—who knows, he might be there indefinitely as the Conservatives sweep the board in 2015, but I am almost sure that he has another two and a half years in that Department and I will ask him to do great things while he is there. This is not just about fishing, as much as I love fishing and catching beautiful wild brown trout that have swum our rivers since the ice age; it is about how we treat and regard our environment.

I am appalled when I hear that plans are made to build houses in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire without any thought being given to how we are going to supply those houses with water. In my part of the world 70% of our water is abstracted and there are tens of thousands more houses to be built, so more and more abstraction. We have a roll-call of shame—the River Beane, the Ver, the Bulbourne, the Chess, the Misbourne, the Gade, the Wye, the Lea, the Colne, the Mimram—some of them on their knees, some no longer on their knees but in the dust, because there is no hope for them if things continue as they are now.

On many of the rivers that do not flow there are still abstraction licences that are not even being utilised. On the River Lea, which is at about 10% of its historical flow, 15% of what it was 300 or 400 years ago, there are abstraction licences that are not being exercised, but if the water companies see fit, they have the right to exercise them. We are on the cusp not just of things going along in an unsustainable way, but truly collapsing off the cliff.

I feel passionately about the matter. Normally I am a good-natured, mild-mannered Member of Parliament and I have tried to be good-natured today, but this Government must get a grip. We have kicked the issue into the long grass for far too long. Successive Governments have not tackled it. If we do not do so, we should say to Brazil, Indonesia and parts of Africa, “Get on with what you want to do with your own environment. We are totally useless at looking after our precious natural resources. Who are we to lecture you?” If I ever come to the House at a time when no action has been taken to address the problem of our own natural resources, if I ever come to the House and hear colleagues and Ministers pontificating about what Brazil should be doing in respect of the Amazon rain forest, I will either walk out in disgust or make a scene, which will be very unattractive for all concerned.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity, and Minister, I look forward to your response. You have the potential to be a great man. You are a great man in creation at the moment. I really do hope that the Department will march to your tune, that you will crack the whip and that Ofwat and the EA will get a grip, step up to the plate and sort out this terrible, terrible unfolding catastrophe.

2.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): The House does not need to be told that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) is passionate about this issue, and it is a passion that I share. I compliment him on his eloquence and look forward to addressing some of his points, but, more importantly, to being judged by my Department’s actions as we seek to resolve these issues.

My hon. Friend will know that I have form on this issue. I cut my political teeth trying to address over-abstraction in a chalk stream, the River Pang, which I am lucky enough to have flowing through my farm. I was a councillor at the time and I was asked to set up an environmental body that brought together local authorities, parishes, the local community, Thames Water, and the then National Rivers Authority, to see what could be done to improve the habitat around the river, to achieve better flows and to protect the environment. It was a passion that I had then over 20 years ago, and it is one that I now bring to this job as I seek to do precisely what he wants, which is to see rivers such as the River Pang and the ones he described in his part of the world restored to health.

One of the trends in conservation now is something that some people thought would never happen, and that is when green non-governmental organisations work with business to achieve a result that both desire. One of the best partnerships that I have come across in my job is the one between WWF and HSBC. Their Rivers on the Edge campaign seeks to restore chalk streams and is doing great work, and I feel both held to account by it but also passionately involved in making sure that it works.

My hon. Friend rightly says that our water resources are under pressure from development and a growing population, changes in lifestyle and changes in the climate, but there have been a number of changes in recent years that may just put us more in the right direction. One of them is the clear driver towards sustainable development. To me, that means developers having to prove as part of the planning process that what they are doing will at the very least have a minimal impact on the environment. In terms of water usage, that includes the demand end of the water supply in the home right through to the impact on the environment. That is key in terms of our catchment approach to river management.

At one level, I come before the House and say that we want to restore the health of these rivers because we have to comply with the water framework directive. But what a paucity of ambition that would be if it were the sum total of what we seek to do. We want to restore the health of these rivers because we want to restore them. These are, as my hon. Friend describes, part of our culture, part of our heritage. He described them as a divine gift, but whatever hon. Members believe, they are something that this country has and if we believe in good stewardship of our natural resources he is absolutely right: we must turn around these failing rivers and make them flow again and be vibrant environmental features for future generations.

There is a problem in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. Public water supplies come predominantly from the chalk groundwater—the same groundwater that flows through our chalk streams. Many of our chalk streams are in a poor state, and restoring flows is essential to increasing the diversity of plant invertebrate and fish species found in those rivers.

My hon. Friend had some hard words for the Environment Agency. I am not complacent; I am not saying that how Government approach the issue has always been right. However, we do need to balance that argument with what is happening.

Mr Charles Walker: I shall give the Minister a specific example. As we speak, the River Mimram is being downgraded from “over-abstracted” to “over-licensed”. It is clearly over-abstracted. May I ask the Minister to look into that redesignation and come back to the House or write to me in response?

Richard Benyon: I certainly will. I have had my ear bent about the Mimram in the past, and I will make sure that I respond to that specific point.

The Environment Agency is working closely with local groups and environmental bodies to carry out habitat restoration to improve chalk streams. All rivers have targeted plans, actions and resources to remedy the poor conditions, so that local people can tell whether or not we are achieving what we set out to do.

Just over a year ago, we published our water White Paper, which set out a vision for a resilient and sustainable water industry and for future reform of the abstraction regime. We know that the current system is not flexible enough to cope with the challenges of climate change and the increased demand from a growing population, which my hon. Friend so eloquently described. The condition of our chalk rivers acutely highlights that.

The new system needs to be sustainable, resilient and ensure that water remains available to support growth, supply households and protect the environment. Reforming the regime is complex in both economic and environmental terms. Tackling over-abstraction and the damage that it causes is a priority, but we need to recognise that the water is being abstracted for uses that are critical to the operation of businesses and for households.

Mr Walker: Of course water is required by industry and households; that is why we need to build more reservoirs. We had the chance to build a major reservoir at Abingdon, but that project seems to have fallen by the wayside. We must start building major reservoirs in the east and south-east; it is the only environmentally responsible thing to do.

Richard Benyon: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently went to the Abberton reservoir in East Anglia. It has just been enlarged by a vast percentage of its original size by Northumbrian Water, which owns the water company in that area. There is extra capacity there, but I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

Over generations, we have decided that the cheapest way to provide water for homes and businesses is to suck it out of the ground. That is how we have kept bills low for households and businesses. Successive Governments have wished, perfectly reasonably, to keep water bills low. We continue to have that ambition, but we also have environmental ambitions. It is a question of whether we have the balance right, and I am prepared to concede that we do not. I urge my hon. Friend to read our White Paper to see how we set out the importance of a resilient water industry and sector. That will become clear as we develop the issue not only in the water Bill, but in other measures that do not need legislation.

Reforming the abstraction regime is complex, in both economic and environmental terms. Tackling over-abstraction and the damage that it causes is a priority. However, any change that we make will affect people’s livelihoods, so it is important that we take time to get the reform right and work with abstractors to understand and minimise the potential impacts. That is why we aim to legislate for that early in the next Parliament, rather than including specific abstraction measures in the water Bill that we hope will go through Parliament in the next Session. The key point is that we can start to address, without legislation, my hon. Friend’s concerns in many areas.

We are working closely with our stakeholders to understand the potential impacts of reform, from our national advisory group to the people on the ground who actually use the water. Through the year, we will be starting a number of dialogues with different groups, using social and digital media, in the run-up to our formal consultation at the end of the year, so that everyone who shares our passion for these rivers can be involved in this process.

Right now, we are tackling over-abstraction. Abstraction reform is only part of the story. We are able to take action to tackle the kind of abstraction that is damaging our rivers, and we want to make better use of the tools we already have. The Environment Agency has reviewed thousands of licences and changed many of the most damaging. Through the restoring sustainable abstraction process, the agency is working closely with water companies—the largest abstractors in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire—to improve flows in these rivers. Their work on restoring sustainable abstraction, together with catchment-scale investigations to identify these and other issues, such as diffuse pollution, will give us early notice of the issues we need to tackle in the next river basin management plans, starting in 2015, when there may well be a requirement for new upstream water storage, such as reservoirs.

Mr Walker: Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald) on all the work they have done in support of local chalk streams, and my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), who is chairman of the all-party angling group, on his efforts?

Richard Benyon: This House is full of people with a real passion for these environments. As MP for a constituency that contains a number of chalk streams, I know about the leadership that has been given over many years by the hon. Members my hon. Friend mentions, and by others who are no longer in this House. He referred to Martin Salter, a former colleague on the Labour Benches, whose work with the Angling Trust is very important in raising these matters. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to our colleagues who campaign on this.

We want water companies to begin to prepare new water resources management plans for consultation in spring this year. We want them to include in those plans actions to address sustainable reductions where investigations have shown that these are needed or likely to be needed. Last year we published guiding principles that can be used by the Environment Agency to assess whether abstractors are causing serious damage to water bodies. This will enable the agency to use powers to modify the most damaging abstraction licences without the need to pay compensation. This is a major change and a major step forward.

We are also developing better tools and incentives to help water companies to manage their abstractions sustainably. We are working with Ofwat on something that we are calling our abstraction incentive mechanism, which was developed with WWF and several others, and which will encourage water companies to abstract their water from more sustainable sources. This is about making an environmental evaluation as to whether water abstraction is damaging or less damaging in terms of where it occurs. I commend it as one of the measures that we are taking in the next periodic price review process which will start to address the problems that my hon. Friend describes. We are also working with the Environment Agency and Ofwat to change how water companies are funded for changes to damaging abstraction licences. This offers us a real opportunity for a way forward.

I have had time to touch on only some of the measures that we are taking. There are other, more technical, means that I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend and the all-party group. I am constantly trying to find new and better ways to make sure that over the next few years we reverse the decline in these extraordinary ecosystems. We are not just talking about the channel where the river flows through, beautiful though that is; rich in habitat, when healthy, though it is; and wonderful though it is for people like my hon. Friend and I who enjoy fishing. We are also talking about the whole catchment —the whole environment of the valley that the river flows through. It is absolutely vital that we in the Government, with voluntary bodies, local authorities, and, most importantly, water companies and other abstractors, are working towards a solution in which these extraordinary habitats are restored to how they justly should be, so that people can come from all over the world to see a really special environmental feature.

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