Degraded Chalk Stream Environments

Part of Petition - Shelton Road Planning Application – in the House of Commons at 8:20 pm on 22nd July 2019.

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Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham 8:20 pm, 22nd July 2019

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.