This may well be the last Adjournment debate on a Friday in this millennium. It therefore gives me particular pleasure to raise a matter of considerable importance to my constituents in Maldon. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) has ever been to Maldon, but I recall that he is a close friend of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) who lives in the district. He may well have heard about the town from his right hon. Friend, but I should be happy to show him around.
Maldon is one of the two oldest towns in Essex. It was originally a Roman settlement, later taken over by the Saxons. Students of English literature will know it from the epic poem written about the battle of Maldon just over 1,000 years ago. The poem records an occasion on which a raiding party of Danes sailed up the Blackwater to be met by an English force led by Brythnoth, earldorman of Essex. In the ensuing battle, Brythnoth was killed and the English were defeated, but the Danes sustained such heavy losses that they had no choice but to retreat.
In describing Maldon, the town's official guide says:
The town of Maldon, set on its hill, surveying the whole of the District, was traditionally a thriving port with waterways the 'motorways' of their day. The Blackwater and Crouch were navigated by sailing barges whereas the Chelmer, when adapted as a canal, was used for horse-drawn barges. Many of the most strikingly beautiful sailing barges remain today and can be seen working to and from the Hythe quay although their 'payloads' nowadays are tourists and educational groups.
The port is now seldom used for commercial traffic, except by Greens flour mills, which imports grain. However, Hythe quay is a major attraction for visitors who come to see the magnificent Thames barges which are for many the abiding image of Maldon. Several small businesses still depend on the estuary for their livelihood.
The reason for my brief commercial is that I wish to explain why the port is still at the very heart of the town and why its loss would be a major disaster. Maldon is also famous for its mud—each year, the Maldon mud race attracts many visitors. In recent years, however, the volume of mud has steadily increased. The port is slowly silting up. Various factors are probably responsible for that, including rising sea levels and climate change. But the water that once poured over Beeleigh weir into the estuary has been reduced to a trickle so that the flushing of the estuary no longer occurs. That has happened because huge amounts of water are being abstracted from the river by Essex and Suffolk Water to serve the local population.
In 1968, a detailed survey of the river was carried out by Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners. The then water company extracted about 20 per cent. of the natural flow, and the survey concluded that that had a major influence on the estuary's siltation. In summer, the proportion abstracted is now effectively 100 per cent., with only occasional storm flows discharging over the weir.
The original licence granted to the company for extraction took no account of the siltation effect as the proportion then permitted was thought not to cause difficulties. Increases in the amount abstracted which have occurred since then have required only amendments to the original licence, so that the problem has never been properly addressed. I do not suggest that Essex and Suffolk Water should not be allowed to abstract from the river. Nor do I suggest that they should not be permitted to take still more. I fully recognise that need exists. Essex is the driest county in England. During the past 50 years, its population has doubled, as has the water consumption of each individual. Already, Essex and Suffolk Water is planning to supply another 60,000 houses by 2015. If the Crow report's recommendations were to be accepted, Essex would be required to take another 178,000 houses. The Minister knows that I and my fellow Essex Members fiercely oppose those recommendations, and I know that this is a matter of concern to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
This is not the occasion for a detailed debate about future housing provision in Essex. Suffice it to say that just one of our many objections is that almost no thought appears to have been given to how to meet the huge increase in demand for water that will result if the proposals go ahead. Undoubtedly, we will need to find more water resources to meet demand.
More than 50 per cent. of Essex's water comes from outside the county, much of it from the Ely Ouse transfer scheme, which may not continue for much longer. Essex and Suffolk Water intends to increase its reservoir capacity and has a good record in reducing leakage, encouraging water conservation and promoting the take-up of water meters. However, I accept that it still has a problem in that it faces at least a temporary shortfall in available supply.
To close the gap between potential demand and supply, the company has proposed a scheme for recycling the treated effluent that is currently discharged into the Blackwater. Instead of being lost to the sea, the waste water will receive further treatment at Langford and then be introduced into the River Chelmer at Rushes lock. I am assured that, at that stage, the quality of the water will already be higher than that of the water in the river. It is for that reason that the water company needs to apply for a discharge licence. However, the intention is to have the water remain in the river for only a short time to take advantage of the natural purification process. The company then proposes to abstract a similar amount of water further down that will undergo more treatment at Hanningfield or Langford before going back into the drinking water supply.
To support its proposal, Essex and Suffolk Water commissioned a report from HR Wallingford. In its summary, it states:
With the proposed reduction of 30 million litres a day of wastewater into the river the proportion of the time when the natural flows would be insufficient to erode the slack water deposits would be increased. In Maldon the increase would be from just under 10 per cent. of the time to just over 40 per cent…In the long term, periods of high flows will be sufficient to re-erode accumulated deposits in the low water channel, and depths will be maintained to the same levels as now. However, in the shorter term there may be greater losses in depth in the channel than presently occur.
In fact, my constituents believe that the position will be worse than that. First, Essex and Suffolk Water now wishes to abstract not 30 million litres but 40 million litres a day. Secondly, the storm water flows over the weir are becoming increasingly rare as a result of climate change.
The HR Wallingford report at least acknowledges that the proposal would increase siltation in the estuary. However, late in the day, Essex and Suffolk Water produced a new report that it had commissioned from Professor Pethick, the chair of coastal science at the university of Newcastle. He concludes that the siltation that is taking place is not caused by abstraction at all and adds that the proposal to increase the amount of water taken from the river could lead to less siltation. I understand that he is also the consultant to the Environment Agency on such matters. I am slightly surprised that he can serve two masters.
Professor Pethick's conclusions are strongly disputed not only by my constituents but by Professor Patrick Holmes of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Imperial college, London. I will not go into his analysis, which is based on calculation of the shear stress imposed on sediment by water flowing over it, but he points out that Professor Pethick's conclusion that the general accretion in the region is a result of sea level rise seems to be at odds with the statement on page 3 of his report, which states:
these accretion rates are an order of magnitude higher than those predicted as a response to sea level rise.
Professor Holmes concludes:
the percentage of time for which deposits will not be re-eroded at Maldon will increase by a factor of four under the condition proposed.
Further consideration indicates that this is likely to be an under-estimate, based on expected consolidation of the deposits in periods of very low or zero freshwater flows.
In order that Essex and Suffolk Water's proposal can go ahead, the company needs licences from the Environment Agency, both to discharge into and then to abstract water from the River Chelmer. I have had regular contact with the agency, which told me that the effect of the proposal on siltation levels in the port of Maldon was a relevant factor which would be taken into account. That was also confirmed by the Minister, in his letter to me of 20 September.
On 9 November, I received a letter from the area manager of the Environment Agency, stating that the agency was minded to grant permission for both authorisations. However, the letter also proposed that a siltation steering group be formed, chaired by the agency and comprising local government officers, port users, English Nature and the water company. It was intended that the group would advise on mitigation measures and would recommend to the agency that, should the scheme have an adverse impact on the estuary, it would have the power to ask that the authorisations be revoked.
However, the Environment Agency's letter stated that the remit of the group would be limited to siltation caused by the recycling scheme, and should not include siltation caused by "natural" processes. That is nothing like sufficient. Who is to agree the amount of extra siltation caused by the scheme? It appears to be the siltation group, but how will the group be expected to meet the cost of obtaining expert opinion? In any case, according to Professor Pethick, the scheme will cause no extra siltation—in fact, it will lead to a reduction.
Furthermore, the port and estuary are already silting up and the scheme will do nothing to stop that. At the most, it might mean that the silting up will take a little longer than it otherwise would. The port of Maldon is being slowly choked by mud. Unless action is taken, it will soon be lost for ever. Those licence applications represent an opportunity to take that action, and to deal with the effects not just of this recycling scheme but of the total amount of abstraction being carried out by Essex and Suffolk Water.
Will the Minister therefore insist on stronger conditions than those currently proposed by the agency? Specifically, I would like the company to carry out a one-off dredging exercise to remove much of the mud that is currently there, and to deepen the channel. Once that is done, the company should have the responsibility of maintaining the profile of the river bed at that new level, by dredging whenever it becomes necessary. That is the only way to save the port of Maldon.
In conclusion, I express my thanks to those of my constituents who have worked tirelessly to highlight the danger to the very survival of the port. I have received many letters, but I especially acknowledge the efforts of the Maldon District Marine Association, the Maldon Riverside Association, Mr. Brian Kennel of Downs Road boatyard in Maldon and Mr. Frank Thackray.
However, it is not only in Maldon that the loss of the port would be regarded as a tragedy. The Sailing Barge Association, based in London, wrote to me that
there is no other barge port like Maldon…Should the river become unnavigable for Thames barges, then Maldon, the river and the barges will be the poorer for it. The town will lose a key part of its heritage and indeed a central component of its tourist image, the barges their most essential charter base.
In its letter to the Environment Agency, the Association of Bargemen, based in Kent, states that
the scouring action of the water flowing down the river when the tide has left is absolutely essential to the survival of the port of Maldon. Without it the river will rapidly silt up making it impossible for vessels to navigate in the upper reaches. The result will be disastrous for the port. The barges and boats will have to find another home. The boatyards will close down. All the specialist skills in building and repairing traditional vessels will move away…If you allow this scheme to go through it will be the end of all that history and we will be responsible for the ruination of yet another part of Britain's heritage.
The licence applications are currently sitting on the Secretary of State's desk. If he grants them, without the conditions that I have set out, he will be responsible for the loss of the port of Maldon and all of that heritage.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) on his good fortune in obtaining the debate—if not on the timing, as on a Friday I am usually in my constituency, 300 miles away.
I am familiar with the ancient and beautiful port of Maldon, as I was born and bred in Great Baddow, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is not far away. In my youth, I walked along the River Chelmer from Baddow to Maldon. My parents still live in Baddow, and when I visit them we often have a walk along the waterfront at Maldon. I have also seen the mud race; although it is not my idea of fun, I recognise that it has a certain attraction for some people. I have also been privileged to visit the home of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), which is also in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, on the water's edge.
Although applications for a discharge consent and for the variation of an abstraction licence by Essex and Suffolk Water obviously lie behind the debate, there is little that I can say directly about those applications, for reasons that the hon. Gentleman will understand and which he has mentioned—that they are currently before the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for a decision by the Secretary of State on whether to call in the applications for his own determination. That decision will be taken on the basis of all the information and evidence available to the Secretary of State, and it will be considered against the established criteria that apply in such cases.
The Environment Agency has already publicly stated that, in its opinion, the consent and the licence should be granted with appropriate conditions, but until the Secretary of State has taken his decision the applications must remain in abeyance. Although I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman when the Secretary of State will take his decision, I can assure him that it will be taken only after careful consideration of the issues. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's speech is drawn to the attention of the Secretary of State.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as I said, Essex is far from self-sufficient in meeting its water demand, and 50 per cent. of the water currently used is imported from outside the county. That is the background against which the debate takes place. Twenty per cent. of water used in Essex comes through a bulk transfer from Thames Water and 30 per cent. from the Ely Ouse transfer in Norfolk. At present, treated waste water is discharged to the estuary at Maldon. That represents a potential resource that is currently lost to the sea.
The proposed scheme, to discharge 40 megalitres a day of treated recycled waste water into the River Chelmer and to re-abstract an equal amount from further down the river, is designed to help meet the increasing demand for water in Essex. The scheme is intended to be used only when the natural flow of the river cannot meet customer demand for water during periods of historically low flow—that is, from May to December. It is not intended to be used all year round. At other times, the background flows in the Chelmer and Blackwater are expected to be sufficient to meet demand.
As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the application is the culmination of over seven years' research. During that period, the staff of Essex and Suffolk Water have collated a large database of ecological data associated with all aspects of the scheme. The company has also employed leading experts in river dynamics and coastal erosion to investigate the siltation issues that have been raised by several local waterside businesses associated with the Blackwater estuary, although I note the other experts' reports that the hon. Gentleman quoted.
We have heard a great deal about the threat to the future of the port of Maldon, and most of the blame for that seems to be levelled at the existing siltation in the port, based on the view that that will worsen if the permissions are granted. I am aware that siltation is a problem, and that it has been threatening the port for many years. However, it is not clear that responsibility for siltation down the years can be pinned down to any one cause. The hon. Gentleman's speech showed that he well understands that. There are several causes, to which I shall return in a moment.
What we can say about the Essex and Suffolk Water applications, given the constraints that I have outlined, is that the Environment Agency proposes conditions and criteria that will have to be applied to protect the uses of the River Chelmer and Blackwater estuary. For example, the agency has added a cessation clause that can be invoked if, in its opinion, additional abstraction causes adverse environmental impact that cannot be mitigated. The intention is clear that there should be no additional siltation arising from those permissions.
Regardless of whether siltation is the main threat to the port's viability, parts of the port have already fallen into disuse, and Baltic wharf—or Sadd's wharf as it is also known—is an example of that. Increasingly, as activities normally associated with a healthy, thriving port diminish, there is bound to be speculation about its future. I have sympathy with those whose livelihoods are linked to marine industry, such as boat building and other trades, when those livelihoods are threatened for one reason or another by proposed change.
I am aware that there is a planning application by the Baltic wharf for the use of the site for the construction of offices and light industrial buildings. That application is now the subject of an appeal to the Secretary of State which will be heard at an inquiry in late February 2000. The proposed redevelopment of Baltic wharf could bring economic benefits to the town, but it is a high-profile site and I am aware of the concern that, if it is not retained for port uses, there may be an adverse knock-on effect on existing waterside businesses and a detrimental impact on the character of the port area. They are likely to be among the issues that may be discussed at that inquiry, and it will be for the inspector to take them into consideration in his determination.
In 1989, Maldon's future as a port was the subject of a detailed examination and discussion through the publication of the Maldon riverside study. The study concluded that the port had a future, particularly in the movement of loose cargoes, such as grain, ballast and coal, and that that use of the area should be retained. That conclusion is reflected in the first review of the Maldon local plan, which was adopted three years ago and which states that the grant of permission for other uses, such as housing or offices, would inevitably lead to the demise of the port. The port is also described in the plan as an important part of the town's heritage and character.
In response to arguments that Maldon port has no long-term future because of the limit on the size of vessels using the channel, the local plan states that demand exists for use of Baltic or Sadd's wharf despite those restrictions. The plan accepts that new port uses would involve the import of low-value, high-bulk goods—for example, coal, soya, aggregates, bricks and manure—that could be of an environmentally sensitive nature, but contends that the district council, in its capacity as the local environmental health authority, could control the level of noise, dust and smell associated with bulk cargoes.
Currently, however, there appears to be limited commercial interest in the facility as it is used only by the local flour mill. The income at the port, which I understand is very small, is derived solely from that freight and is used to fund maintenance and buoyage. The moorings at the port are controlled by Maldon district council, which receives the mooring fees.
As to requirements about keeping the port open, that is a matter for the harbour authority. A statutory harbour authority has duties and powers conferred by Parliament, including a duty to keep the harbour open. It cannot simply abdicate or abrogate those duties. If for any reason a port closure is inescapable, there is only one way of rescinding the harbour authority's duties, and that is by an Act of Parliament.
I return to the subject of silt. Several general observations can be made about silt deposits; they necessarily reflect local history, and the hon. Gentleman referred to that. The deforestation of Essex since the middle ages has led to increased erosion of the catchment area. The change from pastoral to arable farming has increased erosion of the catchment area since the second world war. Since the mid-1970s, the sea level locally has risen nearly 6 in, resulting in increased erosion of salt marsh, of which 30 per cent. has been lost since 1973. That results in more material from the lower estuary being washed towards Maldon on the flood tide.
At low tide there is no dilution by seawater of the treated waste water. However, the upper estuary is then empty apart from the flow in the central channel, so it is in the central channel only that the treated waste water can have any effect on silt. It is for that reason that Essex and Suffolk Water has agreed to chain dredge the central channel to ensure that there will be no impact if the scheme goes ahead. That may answer one of the points made by the hon. Gentleman.
In summary, then, there is understandable concern about the port's future because of the additional siltation that those applications by Essex and Suffolk Water, if granted, may cause. There is concern too about the effect on Maldon as a whole if the port is lost, because the town's tourist potential is centred on that facility. On the other hand, as I said at the outset, Essex is not self-sufficient in meeting its water demand—50 per cent. of the water currently used comes from outside the county.
Responding well to the challenge that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister gave the water companies when we took office in May 1997, Essex and Suffolk Water is making considerable efforts to promote efficient use of water and to manage demand. Nevertheless the company needs additional resources, particularly in view of predicted higher-than-average housing growth in Essex, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is very controversial.
In addition, as I stated earlier, we are aware that the Environment Agency is minded to impose conditions that would apply should an adverse impact be identified as a result of the additional abstraction. As I said a moment ago, the water company has agreed to chain dredge the central channel to ensure that there would be no impact if the scheme went ahead.
The Secretary of State will take into account all those issues and the hon. Gentleman's speech—which, as I said, I shall draw to my right hon. Friend's attention—before deciding whether to call in the applications, and he will do that as soon as possible.