Charles Walker calls for new reservoirs to relieve rivers under stress from over abstraction

Speaking in a debate on second reading of the Water Bill, Charles Walker repeats his call to construct more reservoirs in the east and south-east of England to preserve our rivers which are under great stress from over abstraction and raises his concerns about unrestricted trading in abstraction licences.

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Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): What a surprise to be called so early in the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am delighted to have the chance to speak.

As I was preparing in the Tea Room, my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) said, “I suspect you’ll go into the debate and just shout a lot.” He was very accurate in his analysis: I am going to shout a lot. There is nothing like a good shout to get things off your chest. I will try not to shout too loudly, but I want to shout about water because it is very important to me.

I congratulate the new Minister on his elevation to the Front Bench. I also lament the passing of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). He was a wonderful Minister, and it is a great shame that he is not still one, because he will be much missed and knew a great deal about water.

I want to pay one final tribute during my 10 minutes. It is to the former Member of Parliament for Reading West, Mr Martin Salter, who has been a great champion of fishing and of the conservation of rivers for many years. I am sure that wherever he is today, he is watching this debate fondly.

I listened to the Secretary of State, and I am afraid that my heart did not leap with joy. I fear that, in reality, we will not build the reservoirs that we need. In 10 or 15 years, we will be in this place once again talking about the continued decimation of our waterways and, in particular, but not exclusively, of our chalk streams. A few years ago, Thames Water had the great idea of building a reservoir in Oxfordshire near Abingdon. It was a spade-ready project in 2010, with everything ready to go, but it has not yet taken off because of planning issues and people who are not too keen on its construction.

I must be a really rubbish politician because when it comes to water, I have only one speech, which most hon. Members will have heard at least three times in this place.

Since 1973-74, we have not built a reservoir of any note in east and south-east England. We have added to the population by quite a few millions and we have built many hundreds of thousands if not millions of new homes, but we have somehow decided that we do not need reservoirs. I have looked at the Bill, and I do not see any concrete plans for new reservoirs. I have talked to many water companies and, apart from Thames Water, they seem to have a marked reluctance to build new reservoirs, but without them, we are going to continue to abstract.

I am afraid that the trading of abstraction licences leaves me cold. Initially, licences were not awarded on any scientific basis; water companies were told: “Here are a few thousand. Now go off and enjoy yourselves.” The truth is that if all the abstraction licences on the River Lea were used, it would not exist. That is not a far-fetched scenario because there are quite a few rivers in my constituency and elsewhere in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire that do not exist any more. They have been sucked dry and are now empty river beds. When it rains in the winter, clean water might flow through them, but it does not flow for long.

The Environment Agency has a new trick. That is to reclassify a river that dries up for the first time in 30 or 40 years as a winterbourne. I understand that one of those winterbournes might be the Upper Kennet around Manton and Marlborough. I know that the Upper Kennet is not a winterbourne because over my lifetime, I have caught well over 400 trout and 400 grayling in that stream. I understand that there is a move in the EA to reclassify it as a winterbourne. That is total and utter nonsense.

Let me return to abstraction licences. I fear that if there is unrestricted trading in abstraction licences, we will see more and more water sucked out of already stressed environments. That thought gives me sleepless nights because, as I have said, one could walk across many streams in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire in one’s bedroom slippers and not get wet. I think of rivers such as the Mimram, the Chess, the Beane and many others that are too numerous to name in this debate. Some of those rivers flow some of the time, some of them flow none of the time and some of them flow all of the time, but the one thing that they have in common is that they are under great stress.

It would be easy to lash the water companies, as I am sort of lashing those on the Government Front Bench. It is a very gentle lashing—indeed, it is almost a licking. I have taken the trouble to meet my water company. I met the chief executive of Affinity Water, who seems to be a switched-on individual. I have invited him to go fishing on the River Chess, so that we are on someone else’s water. He has accepted that invitation and we hope to go in May. Hopefully we will have a wet winter, so that beautiful river will have something near a proper flow, and he will walk down the river and see what a wonderful environment it is. However, such environments are becoming all too rare.

As I say, Mr Deputy Speaker—what a magical change in the Chair—there are parts of the Bill that I am sure I will welcome when I have found them. I am yet to find them, but I will welcome them when I do. What has distressed me most about aspects of this debate is that there has been a lack of willingness to focus on the fact that water, because of the way in which we manage it, is a rare resource in this country. Quite a lot of it falls out of the sky but, as the Secretary of State said, we wave 95% of it goodbye in the winter months, as it rushes down into the North sea and the English channel. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury said, we have to get much better at capturing and storing that water.

Although I am hugely attracted to the idea of farmers building small reservoirs, it simply is not the answer. The idea that a farmer will build a reservoir of sufficient capacity to sell water to major water companies is, I am afraid, as near to nonsense as one can get without it becoming nonsense. What we need to do—again, it is the broken record—is to build some reservoirs. There needs to be a consensus about building reservoirs.

Of course, there are parts of the country where water is abundant. People say airily, “Let’s transport it from the north of England to the south of England or from Wales to other parts of the country.” I am sure that the Welsh do not like the idea of having their water pinched any more than the people of Northumberland do.

Jonathan Evans They could sell it.

Mr Walker: They could sell the water, but the truth is that it is extremely expensive to cart water around the country. I do not know whether anybody has noticed, but water tends to weigh quite a lot. Yes, gravity can be used, but there needs to be gravity for that to work. We could ship water around the United Kingdom, but that is not the answer. It is talked about by people who want to deflect attention from the real issue, which—again, I am afraid—is building reservoirs.

Before I get too boring, I would like to say that I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). That is a big mouthful, but I got my mouth around it—sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker, but there are a lot of mouth analogies. I would like to hear the view of the Opposition on conservation. Of course it is important that we try to keep people’s water bills as low as is possible. However, the Walker household, which is metered, gets a fairly good deal. We can have loads of baths, use the facilities and have showers every day and it costs us about £2 to have pharmaceutical-grade water pumped into our house. Of course price is important, but so is conservation because we live in a lovely country and we need to keep it beautiful.

I am about to overrun my allotted time, so I will conclude by saying one more thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury said that he led a delegation of water companies to Brazil. Having drained my rivers, they are going to drain the Amazon. I hope that they are not as successful with the Amazon. However, the point that was made by my hon. Friend and that will be made again by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley, who is a courageous campaigner on all matters water, is that this country has 85% of the world’s chalk streams. Funnily enough, they are not making them any more. If there is another ice age, we might get a few more, but they are not making any more right now.

We have been disastrous at protecting our natural environment. Indeed, a press release from the Salmon and Trout Association just flashed before my eyes, saying that we are not even going to reach the target of getting 32% of our rivers up to an acceptable level and that it is going to be pushed further into the future. That is ridiculous nonsense. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury said, we should want to reach that target ourselves as a sovereign nation and should not need the European Union to require it of us. This country is so good at lecturing parts of the developing world about their environmental responsibilities—particularly Brazil and Indonesia about the rain forests. They should take no lessons from us. Until we manage our own environment more effectively, there is very little that we can teach Brazil.

With that final flourish, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall sit down. I have been very naughty and taken 12 minutes. I see the Whip looking at me aggressively, so I am sitting down.

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Charles' other interventions in the same debate

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): My right hon. Friend says that we are going to improve the nation’s ability to capture and store water, thereby reducing abstraction. Will he be telling us later in his speech where the new reservoirs are to be built?

Mr Paterson: I will be moving on to that. I cannot tell my hon. Friend exactly where the new reservoirs will be because that will be down to the individual companies, according to local circumstances, but I can categorically assure him that I hope that the measures in the Bill will release a floodtide of new investment, potentially in new reservoirs, use of aquifers and transfer of water between water companies, to maximise use of the water that lands on this country. I remind him that 95% of that water ends up in the sea. We need to manage the water better before it gets there.

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Mr Charles Walker: On that point, will my right hon. Friend clarify something for me? What is a new source of water?

Mr Paterson: A new source of water is one that is not currently being used, so that could mean opening up old boreholes, or farmers building new reservoirs, or water companies building new reservoirs—we have not built a new reservoir in this country for over 30 years. There are all sorts of new sources of water. Around 95% of the water that lands on this country ends up in the sea. We want to manage it better before it gets there.

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Mr Walker: Over the past 30 years, these so-called experts, particularly the water companies, have destroyed many of the chalk streams in my part of the country and in Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset—the list is almost endless. I therefore do not have a lot of confidence in these so-called experts. They are very good at looking after their own interests but not the interests of the environment.

Mr Paterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his statement. I assure him that I take on board the damage that has been done by over-abstraction. However, this is extremely complicated and it is going to take time; we could make a real mess of things if we blunder into it. I am absolutely confident that through the upstream reforms that I mentioned, by holding more water back in various forms, which might be the reservoirs my hon. Friend wants, putting down aquifers, or SUDS—sustainable drainage systems—schemes, we will have water available for these rivers when they run dry. I totally sympathise with his worries about the chalk streams. It is very much our intention that this Bill will provide more water to keep these rivers flowing.

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Mr Charles Walker: I agree with my hon. Friend that water abstraction is complex and that it does obvious damage—that obvious damage is dried up river beds.

George Hollingbery: Who could possibly disagree? That is clearly one consequence that we need to reform shortly. I will come to that in a moment.

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Mr Charles Walker: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Is it not the case that if homeowners cannot get insurance their homes become, in essence, worthless, because nobody will give them a mortgage on them?

Sheryll Murray: Many of my constituents who live in the areas affected by flooding have a particular problem getting insurance. I speak as someone who, many years ago, worked in the insurance industry and dealt with domestic insurance. One constituent was told that she could get insurance after 10 flood-free years, and was flooded after nine-and-a-half years. My constituents cannot afford to pay repair costs every time it floods. Will the Minister consider ways to mitigate the causes of flooding and to help people to get the insurance they desperately need? Some of my constituents have been caught in a flooding trap: they cannot get insurance to be able to recover from floods and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said, they cannot sell their home at a reasonable rate because the flooding has caused a type of blight.

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Mr Walker: I thank my hon. Friend for her tireless campaigning on this subject. She has worked with Members across the House to bring this important matter to the attention of the Government and she deserves to be thanked for it.

Sheryll Murray: I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments.

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