I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Philip Dunne for securing this debate, and for all the work that he does to champion the cause of English rivers. I do not think that anyone in our country, except possibly the Minister, has done more to preserve, enhance and defend the health of our rivers—not even the Duke of Wellington deserves our thanks in the way that my right hon. Friend does. I am pleased to have helped sponsor the debate.
I echo every point that has been made about the critical state of our rivers and the absolute imperative that we have to act, and to go further. My constituency of Devizes in Wiltshire has a number of rivers that are suffering. In particular, the Hampshire Avon site of scientific interest is suffering increasing phosphate loads every year, which is a complete disaster for the river’s health and biodiversity and for the soil, but it is also a disaster for people whose health is affected and for the wider economy because it stops development.
A brake on inappropriate development in our rural areas is a good thing in many ways, and Wiltshire Council has rightly paused development permissions periodically because it has to mitigate the phosphate pouring into our rivers, but it is harmful to getting the housing we need in our area, so we have to do something. The simple fact is that the offsetting by developers is inadequate, as they cannot possibly offset enough to cope with the phosphate loads going into the rivers.
Many hon. Members have said that investment, particularly in sewage treatment works, is essential. We have to build infrastructure that can cope. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow made the point very delicately that, historically, the overriding focus of the mandate under which Ofwat operates is to bear down on the rates that people pay for their water. That focus on price is ultimately unsustainable. Luke Pollard is correct that this is not the moment to be anticipating or calling for price rises in people’s water bills. However, in the long term, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow is right. I welcome the strategic policy statement that allows for investment in infrastructure that ultimately feeds through into prices. That is the only way to finance this work.
I echo my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker in saying that, when companies are fined for sewage discharges, the money should not just go to the Treasury or to meaningless little reductions in bills. It needs to go into restoring the landscape, because the best sort of sewage treatment, as I have seen in Wiltshire, uses nature-based solutions not big concreate infrastructure. We need green and grey kit.
I have seen a project sponsored by Wessex Water, to its credit, on land owned by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. It is a reed bed that processes foul water, and it is very inoffensive. I would hardly call it infrastructure, because it is a field with a lot of reeds growing in it—it is a swamp. It does not smell, and it looks perfectly nice. A person walking past would hardly notice it, but the water flowing out of the reed bed and into the river on the other side is cleaner than the water flowing down the river itself. It enhances our environment when we have good nature-based infrastructure.
I end with a tribute to some people in Wiltshire who have inspired me to take up the mission of cleaning up our rivers. Anglers such as Tom Putnam, a constituent who got in touch with me, and David Bromhead are concerned about the state of the Hampshire Avon. I thank Charlotte Hitchmough, who leads Action for the River Kennet, which is an outstanding charity—I have been out planting trees and supporting its work. And I thank Gary Mantle of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.
This might seem a little totemic, but we have amazing volunteers on all our rivers, which is great, and we have lots of water companies, businesses, developers, councils and others. What we really need is river-based co-ordination. Rather than great national, regional or catchment-based policies, why do we not appoint some kind of river god or warden for each river? It should be a volunteer who does not work for the Government and does not necessarily have any power but who has the authority to co-ordinate the voluntary efforts along each river. People think in terms of rivers rather than counties or even water company areas. We could authorise individuals—I have some people I would nominate for the Kennet or for the two Avons—who would take that responsibility to champion the cause of the river and intermediate between power and all the other volunteers who work there locally.
I wish to end on a point I have made in speeches about rivers before. I feel a special responsibility to rivers because I represent Morgan’s Hill, a beautiful spot just north of Devizes. A drop of rain that falls on Morgan’s Hill could end up flowing out west along the Bristol Avon and into the Atlantic, south along the Hampshire Avon and into the English channel or east along the Kennet, into the Thames and out into the North sea. Morgan’s Hill is a hydrological dividing point that waters the whole of southern England, and I feel a particular responsibility to the rivers that flow out of this district of Wiltshire.