The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Benyon) (Con)
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on securing this debate, and welcome the opportunity to respond on the catchment-based approach Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy.
The noble Lord and I share the privilege of having represented, in another place, an area with chalk streams, and this never quite leaves you. I had four chalk streams in the constituency which I represented. Before taking on this role in Government, I was on the board of River Action UK, a campaign to improve the quality of our rivers and tackle the pollution and all the other pressures that I have listened to being discussed. In a previous incarnation in Defra, I was involved in setting up the catchment-based approach, which is fundamental to the restoration of chalk streams, because it brings it down to a level which people can understand. There used to be river basin management plans, which were vast, unwieldy documents. The catchment-based approach involves all the stakeholders, all the people of interest. It is the right way forward and has fed through to this report.
When I was at Defra I set up a campaign, Love Your River, which speaks to the points which the noble Lord, Lord Addington, was making. It is about connecting people to their river. There are wonderful charities which educate children out of the classroom. I am privileged to be a trustee of one, the John Simonds Trust, which gets children not just down to the river but in it, looking at the amazing life in a chalk stream.
I refer your Lordships to my interests in the register. I have a short stretch of a chalk stream which rises in the Berkshire Downs and runs past my house. My wife refers to it as my mid-life crisis because I spend a lot of time there trying to improve it. The passion that has been felt in this House tonight is mirrored by thousands of people around this country, who recognise that in England, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, we are privileged to have 85% of the world’s chalk streams. We owe it to them and to future generations to get it right.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, spoke of Viscount Grey. I think I am right in saying that he once took Teddy Roosevelt on a walk along the Itchen. You can still go on it; I think it is called the Roosevelt Walk. Being a great naturalist, he described the diversity of species that they saw on that walk. It compares, in a depressing way, with what you would find on that walk today.
Chalk streams are rich and diverse habitats of wildlife. I am on the record as saying that they are our rainforests and the measure by which our protection of the environment will be judged. It is shameful that, in too many circumstances, we have not got them in the pristine state they should be in. They are home to some of the rarest species, such as the winterbourne stonefly. They also protect some of the most endangered chalk stream species, such as the salmon of Wessex, which I am advised are genetically distinct. If we lose them, we lose them for ever.
If you represent an area with chalk streams in it and they flood, as happened in my case, you learn much about the extraordinary geology and dynamic hydrology of chalk stream aquifers. You learn how it is about not just the water that flows down them but the whole chalk aquifer and what has an impact on it, such as farming activities, the activities of water companies and the run-off from roads. This is complex. It is important that we think completely holistically, and vital that we protect chalk streams from the growing threats of climate change, unsustainable abstraction and water quality challenges, as well as the impact of an expanding population.
Although much good work has been done over recent years to try to improve the plight of chalk streams, more action is needed to meet the scale of the challenges they face. At the chalk streams conference last year, Defra talked with like-minded stakeholders at length about how to tackle these challenges. It was with this in mind that my honourable friend the Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow, called for the creation of the chalk stream restoration group. I am delighted to confirm that this group delivered a holistic and ambitious strategy, which was launched last month and has been well received—indeed, it has been much talked about this evening. I thank its author, Charles Rangeley-Wilson, who is an inspirational campaigner and writer on rivers, particularly chalk streams. He shared his significant expertise with the chalk stream restoration group and worked with many stakeholders, some of whom have been mentioned this evening, to set out the strategy.
The Government welcome the strategy and have committed to working closely both inside and outside of government to explore its recommendations fully. We are encouraged to see to see many pragmatic recommendations for government policy and action on the ground to improve water quality, make chalk water resources sustainable and ultimately protect and restore chalk habitats. These recommendations will be shared between Defra, our regulators, CaBA members and water companies as we jointly work to understand their implications and how we might deliver them.
The strategy identified a number of recommendations for government. Work has been going on in the background to make a start on some of those. Defra has taken the lead on launching the flagship restoration programme, which is a set of water company-nominated catchment restoration projects that will act as exemplars of best-practice approaches. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, referred to the Lambourn, a river with so many overlaying designations that it is like alphabet soup. It is shameful that, in the village of Lambourn itself, there is often no River Lambourn. We must think about and understand the entire catchment area, right up to the source at the top of the Downs, and get all parties playing their part to make sure that the river flows with clean water, sustaining the natural environment.
These projects—this flagship restoration programme —will demonstrate how a catchment, when it takes the right approach, can be improved within a 10-year period to achieve good ecological status. Defra has also listened to the need for more areas to be classified as water stressed. To that end, we have extended the number of areas determined as such, which will help enable wider water metering. The noble Baroness spoke of the importance of using less water, and there is no better way in which to do that than to have a metered system to record how much each household uses.
The Water Industry National Environment Programme plays an important role in the future of our chalk streams. To ensure that the WINEP continues to deliver at pace, our WINEP task force began work last year to improve the programme and make it more outcomes-focused. In this way, we will ensure that our long-term approach delivers real and lasting improvements to the environment and for future generations. Our draft strategic policy statement directs Ofwat to drive water companies to be more ambitious in their environmental planning and delivery to contribute towards the priorities set out in the 25-year environment plan. We expect water companies to support environmental protection and enhancement of priority habitats such as chalk streams. If I had time tonight, I would hold the House spellbound with my understanding of the abstraction incentive mechanism, which is a means by which water companies can be incentivised not to take water from catchments when water flows too slowly—but it is rather technical.
Our draft strategic policy statement also makes it clear that water companies must reduce the use of storm overflows as a priority. This is the first time that any Government have set out this expectation for water companies to prioritise reducing their reliance on storm overflows to discharge sewage, and we expect investment to be approved for water companies to be able to do so. The Government have also announced that they will put the direction set out in the SPS on a statutory footing, with a new duty on water companies to progressively reduce impacts of sewage discharges. This builds on the measures already in the Environment Bill to improve our water quality and tackle sewage pollution, including requiring water companies to report in near real time on storm overflow operation and monitor their impact up and downstream.
We plan to publish a nature recovery Green Paper before the end of the year—and that may answer the desire for a cross-government approach, as has been mentioned tonight. The consultation will explore how we can improve our wildlife laws to deliver our ambitions for nature recovery, which includes the protection of important habitats such as chalk streams. Defra will lead the exploration of eight of the strategy’s 33 recommendations for action. During the scoping phase, which takes us to spring 2022, Defra teams will give detailed consideration to each recommendation, working collaboratively with partnering organisations; of the 33 recommendations, 10 are already in progress. Defra, along with other chalk stream restoration group members, has committed to report back on progress at a meeting of the working group in the spring.
I shall just refer to some of the points that have been raised in tonight’s debate. The noble Lord is right to be sceptical of some of the economic assumptions around the impact of bills. I remember when we started talking about the Thames tideway tunnel that the original impact was going to be £85 on every Thames Water payer’s bill; I think it is now down to £18, which is still a lot of money for many people, but it is different from what we were talking about. As a Minister I should be sceptical, and I am sure that other Members of this House will be sceptical as well and hold the Government to account for some of the economic assumptions under which we work. I do not say that we always get this right, but we want to.
Some of the other aspects of environmental policy that are coming through, such as the woodland buffer along our rivers—this incentive for farmers and land owners to have a 20-metre buffer either side of rivers, which is turned over to rewilded natural landscape or to tree planting—will have an enormous effect on their ecology. We need to look wider than that.
I entirely accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on recreational use. I was involved in drawing up the natural environment White Paper, which was the first time when there was a conversation across government to draw in health and well-being and education and all the other aspects in terms of river management. Now health and well-being is so much more about diverting people away from the health service than it is about looking after people when they are sick, and rivers can have a massively important part in that.
My noble friend Lord Agnew is taking forward a commission on greater access, and this will involve rivers as well. I am conscious of time, so if I have not answered any of the points that have been made, I would be very happy to get back to noble Lords in person. While we acknowledge how substantial some of these pieces of work will be for Defra, its regulators, water companies and environmental NGOs, the Government remain committed to protecting chalk streams and we will continue to take a lead to do so.