Degraded Chalk Stream Environments

Part of Petition - Shelton Road Planning Application – in the House of Commons at 8:03 pm on 22nd July 2019.

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Photo of Jon Cruddas Jon Cruddas Labour, Dagenham and Rainham 8:03 pm, 22nd July 2019

I congratulate Mr Walker on his thorough, wide-ranging and very informative speech. I, too, was exercised to come to this debate having read the report by Martin Salter that he referred to. It is a fantastic piece of work that all Members should have a look at.

The hon. Gentleman is a passionate and long-term defender of our river system. I simply want to make a couple of technical points. To clarify, by contrast to him, I am not and I cannot self-identify as a fisherman. I have stood by a few chalk streams with him occasionally, but that does not make me a fisherman. However, just like him, I am worried about how we preserve the unique biodiversity and international reputation of our threatened chalk streams. My chief concern is the degradation of our river systems due to water abstraction and what this tells us about some wider public policy concerns that we should all share in this House, irrespective of whether we are advocates of fly fishing in chalk streams.

It seems to me that the basic issue is quite simple: how can we protect our natural environment and chalk streams without making alternative sources of water available? The fundamental issue is how we can make more water available. As has been said, we have unique resources in this country. England has 160 of a total of 210 chalk streams in the world, and southern England has several of the greatest chalk streams on the planet. Yet today many of them are in an appalling state. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, no water is moving through them—there is no flow—and year on year the situation is getting worse. It is literally happening in front of our eyes: our unique river system is dying through a lack of water. I recently saw some data that suggested that only 14% of the rivers across England are now considered to reach good ecological standards. That is an environmental catastrophe, as the hon. Gentleman said.

The question is, why is it happening? Without doubt, our climate is changing, but this crisis is not about drier winters, hotter summers and drought: that does not give the whole picture. That is why this seemingly narrow conversation about chalk streams has much greater significance in terms of wider public policy issues and concerns. How do we achieve the provision of new water? The supply, distribution and quality of new homes is a central issue, as are the role of the water companies and patterns of regulation. These are all issues that—dare I say?—flow out of this debate about chalk streams. The demand for water, especially through new house building in the south east, has dramatically increased. For example, it is estimated that in my part of east London—in Barking, Dagenham and parts of Havering—there will be some 50,000 new units in the next 10 to 12 years. That is an awful lot of house building, and the question is, where will the water come from? Nationally, we seem to be moving towards a consensus of at least 300,000 extra units a year, which returns us to the question where the water will come from.

I, too, read the Thames Water briefing that was sent out at the back end of last week. It said—I think the hon. Gentleman mentioned these figures, which caught my eye—that accounting for climate change, population growth and environmental regulations, there will be a daily shortfall of some 350 million litres a day by 2045, and that will, in turn, double in the following 50 years. So this is an environmental catastrophe that is being played out day to day across the country.

A failure to provide new water means that water companies extract water from our rivers, which cannot cope and subsequently die. That appears to be the basic reality. The rivers are further undermined when excess sewage is discharged into them, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Time and again, the water companies have been fined, but they just take the hit. The point that he did not make is on how the water companies free-ride their ecological responsibilities. For example, last week it was brought to my attention in The Guardian that Ofwat has reduced the fines on Southern Water from £37.7 million to just £3 million for thousands of pollution spills, wilful misreporting of data and cover-ups. How will this type of leniency and—dare I say?—criminality be changed in terms of their behaviour, which is degrading our river systems?

Objectively, it seems clear to me that we need new water infrastructure, leakage reductions, smart metering, education and desalination—those all have their place—but the reality is that we do not have enough reservoirs. I think that the hon. Gentleman said that the last one was built in 1975. He can correct me if I am wrong, but I thought it was 42 years since we built a reservoir in this country. If we join the dots, the policy does not add up. How can we satisfy growth in London and the south-east without such new infrastructure? If this is not confronted, the current crisis that our rivers face will intensify and they will never recover.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Thames Water has announced plans to bring forward the Abingdon reservoir, with construction starting in 2025, but I gather that this has been beset by problems. It would be good to hear where we are with that project and any other proposed infrastructure projects, not least because the responsibility lies with several different authorities: the Environment Agency, the National Rivers Authority, the Government and the water companies. I will end on that point, but I repeat that tonight’s short and apparently narrow debate has great significance, not just for those who fish in our unique chalk streams, but for everyone who is interested in how we will meet the demands of a growing population without further degrading our river systems and wider environment. That is something that should be beyond party politics, and something on which we might all agree.