Degraded Chalk Stream Environments

Part of Petition - Shelton Road Planning Application – in the House of Commons at 8:33 pm on 22nd July 2019.

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Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Conservative, Newbury 8:33 pm, 22nd July 2019

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 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 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.