Degraded Chalk Stream Environments

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Monday 22nd July 2019

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:28 p.m.

I like the cut of the hon. Gentleman’s jib, as they say. I am going to get on to HS2—I tried to get on to HS2 earlier, but I was admonished—because it is important.

I want to make a couple of points, particularly about my own constituency. In the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, we have nine chalk streams. The River Chess and the River Misbourne sit within my own constituency, and I am afraid the problems are identical for both. When we talk about the term “over-abstraction”, I think that is to use the phrase quite mildly. To put this crisis into context for the Chilterns specifically, the average person there uses about 173 litres of water a day, which is 32 litres above the national average. In the Chilterns, we are also facing unprecedented levels of infrastructure development.

Being at the end of the Metropolitan line, we are obviously a popular place for people to live out of London, and we now have the arc of innovation joining Oxford to Cambridge. We will face housing pressure down from the north of the county and across the middle, which will bring hundreds of thousands of houses and more pressure on our precious environment. London and Slough are also expanding, so we have more and more demand coming up from the south of the county for housing and therefore water. The Chilterns AONB is being squeezed in the middle, yet it is the lungs of London. It is the nearest easily accessible area where people can enjoy the pleasures of walking in the hills and by the chalk streams, watching the red kites soar above, yet we will lose all that unless we try to protect it.

The Chess and the Misbourne are unique in finding themselves in the unfortunate position of being in the HS2 route and therefore part of what was a £55.7 billion taxpayer crisis—what I gather is now more likely to be an £85 billion crisis, according to the chairman’s internal review, if the rumours are correct. I believe the figure will be even higher. This is not just about the financial cost of HS2, but about the damage done to our chalk streams, which will cause a loss of environment and habitat that is irreplaceable.

For years my constituents have sent me pictures of the Chess and the Misbourne when the flows are low. They come back, but one day they will not. The River Chess in particular is one of the most important areas of wildlife. I have mentioned the brown trout and the water voles, but we also have stream water-crowfoot there. We get fishermen, photographers and the wildlife enthusiasts coming out. The Chess is also an important educational asset as a chalk stream, and we get universities gathering data and people coming to study there. It used to be very active, with amazing water mills, but that would not be possible today. The Chess was a productive river; we could not find that today. Those water mills are now private houses. The weather and the climate becoming drier, interspersed with some very wet periods, has done the chalk streams no good at all. The river also faces other threats, including from invasive species such as the mink and Japanese knotweed, and that is on top of the extraction for public water supply and the pollution that results from the concentration as the flows become lower.

I very much hope that this debate, which was called by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, will stimulate a greater interest in these chalk streams and a greater will on the part of the Government to protect them. We are pleased to see that Thames Water and Affinity Water are planning to work together on a new reservoir project near Oxford, which now features strongly in both their new water resource management plans and in Thames Water’s revised business plan for 2020 to 2025. The south-east region of the UK is one of the driest and most populated corners of the country and has the highest demand for water. If we do not increase our reservoir capacity, it will become the desert of the United Kingdom.

This excellent report, which we have all had the opportunity to read, contained a number of recommendations and actions. I will not read them out, but I recommend that the Minister reads them carefully and studies what could be an important way forward in giving vital protections to this part of our environment. It is unique, and the status of these chalk streams is important not just to the environment in the United Kingdom, but to the world. Once we have lost them, we will never ever get them back. If there is a climate change crisis, there is certainly an even bigger crisis in the state of our chalk streams.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:33 p.m.

I refer hon. Members to my entry in the register.

I have the honour and privilege to represent a large part of the Berkshire downs, which feed the chalk streams of the Kennet, the Dun, the Lambourn and the Pang. These are very special riverine ecosystems. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), whom I congratulate on calling this debate, chalk streams are hugely important not just for the area where the river flows, but for the entire catchment. They are extraordinary features of our natural world. Areas such as the Berkshire downs, and others that hon. Members have spoken about so eloquently, are the water towers of communities such as London, where we sit tonight, and they are under threat as never before.

In a brief moment of relevance in my parliamentary career, I held responsibilities not dissimilar to those held by my hon. Friend the Minister. We had had a number of years of drought, and that year we faced the Olympics and the Queen’s jubilee. The fifth largest economy in the world was literally at risk of having people in the south and south-east of England filling their water from standpipes in the street—an extraordinary moment. We were on the point of having Cobra meetings. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said to me in the Lobby, “Just make it rain.” That gave me powers of the divine, because you will remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, that, as the Queen and Prince Philip stood by the Thames, the heavens opened.

I do not take any responsibility for that, but the problem was not that it rained—that was very welcome—but that it rained for three years. All the work we had been doing in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on drought management, fantastic work across a whole range of different trade bodies, other organisations and agencies of Government, was subsumed by having to deal with too much water. We have terribly short memories in this place and in Government. I hope that what is happening now is starting to cause real concern, because if we have another dry winter my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues will be contemplating a real emergency.

Mention has been made this evening of the great naturalist and broadcaster, Jeremy Paxman. In his foreword to the river fly census, produced by Salmon & Trout Conservation, he mentions what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) referred to: insect armageddon, the really quite staggering reduction of insect life in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne made the point clearly that we have to understand where those insects come from and what they depend on. Jeremy Paxman says in his foreword:

“No-one much cares about it, because creepy crawlies find it harder to make allies than do soft and cuddlies. Ludicrously, even pests like grey squirrels have more friends.”

We in this House have to be a friend to the insects. Some 80% of species on our planet are invertebrates and the foundations of food webs.

The river fly census shows some alarming facts. Species loss in any environment indicates ecosystem distress. Across 12 chalk streams in England there has been a 75% decline in caddisfly species, a 54% decline in stonefly species, a 44% decline in dragonfly and damselfly species, and a 40% decline in mayfly species. A river in my constituency, the Lambourn, a most beautiful and precious river with overlaying European designations—a site of special scientific interest, an area of outstanding natural beauty and every conceivable designation one can think of—is effectively in crisis.

My contribution tonight is really this: the management of our rivers, particularly the fragile ecosystems that are chalk streams, needs to be perfect. There is no margin for error in how we manage chalk streams. I am therefore concerned when I read that a salad washing company in the upper Itchen, Bakkavor Salad Washing, has found itself in difficulties with the Environment Agency over its own sewage works. I gather that it has now addressed them, following discharges that were reported to the Environment Agency. The EA’s investigation, however, also exposed a potential pesticide threat. The EA has not been able to rule out damage caused by traces of pesticide present on the salad leaves used by Bakkavor, which were subsequently being washed into the upper Itchen. I understand that the EA is monitoring the situation, but that cannot be allowed to happen. In an ecosystem as precious as this, which is suffering from really low flows, there is no justification whatever for a company to be polluting an environment as rare as this.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford - Hansard

I have heard stories from fishermen about salad washing. They tell me that the salad is not even grown in the UK, but has been brought to the UK for washing in our rivers and then packaging. If that is true, that is even more shocking, but maybe it is a fisherman’s tale.

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:39 p.m.

I have heard similar stories, and I do not know the circumstances of this. I wrote to the company before this debate asking for it to give its side of the argument, but I did not hear back. I am not necessarily criticising the company, as I approached it only at the end of last week.

My point is this: in our management of these rare systems, we need not just to be getting the sort of thing I was just discussing right, but to be looking at agriculture. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire was so correct in what he said about that. Min-till—minimum tillage—agricultural systems are vital, not least because of the worms that are allowed to prosper in the soil, which affects the permeability of that soil crust so that water goes through to the aquifer, rather than running off and taking with it a lot of the topsoil. We have a wonderful, rare and special opportunity that we can now deliver through the Agriculture Bill and the environment Bill. We are talking about changes that can make sure we are incentivising farmers and working with them right across a catchment to deliver extraordinary benefits.

Sir Oliver Heald Portrait Sir Oliver Heald - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:40 p.m.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would wish to comment on the state of the River Kennet, which is a precious chalk stream close to him. Where does he think the Kennet is going—is it improving? Some attempts were made to improve its condition. Secondly, when he was preparing the water White Paper, I think he was hoping that it would be possible for water companies to move water more easily from one area to another. Has he any take on how that has been going?

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:43 p.m.

One of the most enjoyable things I did in government was writing the water White Paper, and I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to page 35—I think that was the one. It showed a scene of good farming on one side of a river and bad farming on another, so that figuratively laid out before us was what we needed to see more of and what we had to stop happening. I bored my civil servants with that and I bore most of my family, with my wife referring to the River Pang as my mid-life crisis, but the River Kennet is in such trouble. A few years ago, someone spilled about an egg cup-worth of Chlorpyrifos into the system somewhere and it effectively killed several miles of life. That shows us just how extraordinarily vulnerable these ecosystems are.

We can debate great matters of state in this place, and we often do, but rivers are about people’s sense of place. As has been said, we can hold our heads high internationally if we are getting it right on rivers and we cannot if we are getting it wrong. What is shaming is that, while 85% of the chalk streams in the world are in the UK, we are getting it wrong. Wonderful things are done by organisations such as Action for the River Kennet and many of the other organisations that hon. Members in all parts of the House have talked about, but I believe the recommendations at the end of the river fly census are really worth reading.

In the context of the water framework directive, which we are transposing, correctly and with more ambition than exists in that directive as it stands, we should have a special designation for chalk streams. We should also look at the impact of phosphorus spikes and recognise that after we leave the European Union the world is our oyster and we do not have to be stuck by the same rules that govern rivers in southern France and northern Spain. This is our ecosystem, and we have to get it right.

Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:43 p.m.

rose—

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:43 p.m.

I will give way for a final time, then I will conclude.

Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan - Hansard

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We are currently reviewing the position on national parks and the designations that we make around the country. I have asked for the Chilterns AONB to have a stronger designation in order to give it protection. Does he agree that we should see whether the chalk streams in our country could get a higher designation for protection? Does he agree that this would be a golden opportunity to lift that level of protection, particularly for this rare habitat and environment?

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:44 p.m.

My right hon. Friend is right. We look forward with interest to what the Glover review will deliver, because it is an opportunity to look at our most precious landscapes and to see whether we are protecting them in the right way. We have an enormous number of designatory tools at our disposal, but they do not seem to stop the problems happening or result in our Environment Agency and other organisations cracking down on wrongdoing as much as they should. This is an opportunity to stand up for what we believe in on the natural environment and say, “Here is something really special, and we are going to get it right.”

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:45 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman, I and many others in the Chamber agree on and appreciate the wonderful work of the National Farmers Union and the Northern Irish Ulster Farmers Union on habitat, climate change, their commitment to carbon zero and many things. Should we not have on record in this debate the good work of the NFU and farmers who are committed to changes to make things better and preserve the environment for the future, which he and I believe in?

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:44 p.m.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Perhaps I can conclude by entirely endorsing what the farming unions of these islands have agreed, and Minette Batters’ very brave and clear statement about moving to net zero considerably before the rest of the country and making sure that agriculture fulfils its responsibilities. Part of that is about looking at catchments and saying, “How can we lock up more carbon?” The clear, easy way of doing that is to have a more broken-up mosaic of land use, which includes grass as part of the rotations. With encouragement for minimum tillage, not only can we start to see more carbon being locked up, but our rivers will be protected from many of the things that are causing problems at the moment.

Dr Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dr Thérèse Coffey) - Parliament Live - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:49 p.m.

I genuinely apologise to the House for not being here at the start of this important debate, because I know how passionate right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken about this issue are. One of the joys of being the Minister responsible for the Environment Agency is seeing that the environment matters to so many people in different ways and seeing the important role of the Environment Agency. I hope, by the end of the debate, that I will have been able to persuade hon. Members and those still watching—there were four people in the Public Gallery at the start of it—on this matter, including Feargal Sharkey who is a great advocate of what we need to do to support chalk streams. The Environment Agency also has other roles and I was stopped on the way here to talk about Grenfell and some of the situations in which we are involved there. I apologise to the Chamber for that.

I have had three years in this very special role as Minister for the environment. I am very fortunate that, by and large, neither an official drought nor an official flood has been declared. I am conscious of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on what happened recently in Wainfleet; I visited his constituency to discuss floods. The issues that have been raised about drought worry many of our farmers around the country, who are also considering the impacts of abstraction reform. I am very conscious that my constituency of Suffolk Coastal is one of the driest in the country. That said, at the Latitude festival, which was held this weekend in my constituency, they had a hailstorm, in the middle of July. Who would have thought that in Suffolk, when we are all having a heatwave? It just shows how important it is that we look after the habitat that is special to our country and to our world, while the impacts of climate change do what they do.

I will come to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) shortly, but I want first to refer also to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), who was in the Chamber for much of the debate, because he has one of the most special chalk streams in his constituency—the River Test, which many people have mentioned and in fact fished in, including my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). The Test is regarded as one of the most special chalk streams in the country, as right hon. and hon. Members will recognise. I used to live in Whitchurch, which is 2 miles from the source of the river, so I am well aware how special it is.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne on securing today’s debate. It is well known in the House that he is an active champion of chalk streams and that he recognises their importance for nature and for good fishing. I will never forget the day after the 2017 election, when I was not sure if I would be reappointed to this role, when I joined him in Hampshire on the River Itchen. He had a good day’s fishing and I had a good day being shown around by the WWF and being told about the importance of chalk streams. Having lived in Hampshire, I was aware of this, but it brought to my attention some of the particular challenges that the Environment Agency regularly faces from water companies wanting to abstract more water further upstream, which has a damaging impact on the environment and the flow, as others have mentioned, as well as on the quality of fishing. That is when I met the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), who was also very passionate on this topic, which is why he contributed to the debate on 12 December 2018 on the Thames Water reservoir in Abingdon and why he strongly supported that measure.

On this matter, I have been given a very strong message by my civil servants, who are in the Box and provide excellent advice, and I am conscious that the water resource management process has not yet been finalised, but I can genuinely say, even though the Secretary of State has not yet agreed the plans, that I believe that Thames Water and Affinity Water, both of which are promoting the reservoir in their preferred plans, will receive a very warm welcome when they are put forward, so that, as many others have mentioned, we can finally get on with the Abingdon reservoir, which will do a lot of good for the people of south-east England. I am conscious that when speaking in the House I have some leeway with parliamentary privilege and that my comments will not prejudice any quasi-judicial decision that the Secretary of State might take in the future.

I return to the main topic of the debate. While chalk streams contribute to our health and wellbeing, they are principally unique habitats supporting a diverse range of invertebrate and fish species and have long been held in high regard for the quality of the fisheries they support. Only 200 chalk rivers are known globally, and it is amazing to think that 85% of them are found in the UK in the southern and eastern parts of England. It is well recognised, however, that our water resources are under pressure and that this pressure is growing as the climate changes and the demand for water increases from a growing population and greater housing need. As my hon. Friend outlined, our chalk streams are facing an unprecedented challenge, having been heavily affected by human activity, including abstraction, pollution and historic modification.