My Lords, I acknowledge that the Minister has extensive connections to the chalk downlands of southern England, together with his neighbour, the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. We are fortunate to have two such experienced and knowledgeable guardians of our treasured chalk streams in this House. I can only say that as a third-generation migrant to Hampshire from Somerset, I have been at ease with the welcoming South Downs since childhood, through my own eyes, those of my children and now those of my grandchildren.
My concerns over our chalk streams, and the importance of their protection and restoration, have been greeted with intense interest and support from all sides and at all levels. I place on record my thanks to the many organisations and individuals whose work is helping in the assessment of the state of our chalk streams, the restoration work in progress and the commitments still needed. They include: Stuart Singleton-White and Martin Salter at the Angling Trust; Christine Colvin at Rivers Trust UK; Jacob Wallace of Water UK; Stuart Roberts of the NFU; the Troubled Waters report; the Wildlife and Countryside Link; the Itchen Valley Association; Hampshire county councillor Jackie Porter; and Winchester City councillor Margo Power, among others.
Chalk streams are unique to England and, to a limited extent, to France and Denmark. They represent unique biosystems, supporting broad biodiversity with a delicately balanced food chain. Many are in a sorry state through decades of pollution, overabstraction and reckless discharging. They, like the fish now gasping in shallow puddles, are literally dying as the streams dry up. No more moorhens busy paddling through the water; no more water voles scurrying along the banks; no more kingfishers skimming over river surface in flashes of colour, to the delight of passing children and the chagrin of water bailiffs.
As we debated the Commons response to the Lords amendments to the Environment Bill, noble Lords interjected in disgust at the news that a drone had recorded an open pipe pumping raw sewage into Langstone Harbour in Hampshire. The Environment Agency’s own statistics reveal that water companies dumped raw sewage into our waterways and seas more than 400,000 times last year alone. I ask the Minister to acknowledge in his reply the realistic cost estimates from the Rivers Trust of a phased exercise in reducing discharge of raw sewage into CSOs, and to discard the fanciful figures conjured up for Government MPs by their spin doctors. They resorted to the age-old claim of the privatised water industry that because of the age of our Victorian era water and sewerage systems, it would be extremely challenging and could cost £150 billion to eliminate sewage discharges from storm overflows.
As the Rivers Trust points out, not all of our sewerage network is a relic from the Victorian era. There are different approaches to the issues. For example, the costs of retaining storm overflows discharging to inland waterways, but limiting their operations, vary widely depending on how frequently they operate. Modelling nationally applied policies and scenarios showed that reducing spillages to 40 a year on average would cost around £5 billion, with an annual benefit of £2 billion, and an impact on household bills of only £9 per year. A refinement, mixing the requirement for spill control depending on river type, and reducing the number of spills to, say, 10 in sensitive catchments, could cost some £18 billion. The impact on annual household bills would be around £30 per year.
In other words, a focused implementation of CSO reduction on chalk streams is cost effective, despite previous claims that it is not. This shows that, while you can spin the politics, it pays not to try to spin the science.
Shifting the focus to the finances of the privatised water companies, new analysis revealed that, in the past 11 years, as raw sewage dumping increased, those companies have paid shareholders £16.9 billion in dividends, or £1.4 billion a year on average. How much has been invested in upgrading the sewerage systems and sewage treatment? There are no figures available.
Let me briefly reference a chalk stream issue causing concern to the good people of Chesham and Amersham. The Little Missenden Parish Council has been in touch, concerned about the planned HS2 tunnel under their River Misbourne, which will go through structureless chalk, rather than the competent chalk envisaged in the HS2 Act, greatly increasing the chance of settlement and damage to the chalk stream beds. I confess I am not familiar with the River Misbourne, but chalk is a porous rock, providing an excellent aquifer and containing up to 40% water in its interstices, which can make it structurally unstable. Bore holes will no doubt be required to confirm its structural integrity.
I turn now specifically to the chalk stream restoration strategy, drawn up by a cross-sector group under the leadership of the Angling Trust. The report sets out a series of recommendations interlinking water quality, water quantity and habitat restoration. This is seen as a clear, comprehensive vision and plan for the future of our chalk streams. However, it will be worthless unless immediate and urgent action is taken by the Government, the Environment Agency, Ofwat and the water companies. There is no more room for excuses and delays.
The key recommendation of the strategy is for an overarching level of protection and priority status for chalk streams and their catchments. This would give them a distinct identity and help to drive investment in water resources infrastructure, water treatment and catchment-scale restoration in chalk stream areas. Other recommendations from the Angling Trust include: a consensus agreement that sustainable abstraction is that which ensures flows are reduced by no more than 10% of their natural flow; time-bound goals set to meet the targets on all chalk streams where feasible and beneficial; where public water supply is heavily reliant on ground water abstraction, provision of higher protection through designation as water-stressed areas; driving down nutrient loading of chalk streams to appropriate levels; prioritisation of investment in all sewage treatment works, to which can be added installation of phosphorous strippers, replacement of defunct septic tank drainage and connections to treatment works; and targets for reducing pollution and restoring process.
In its current work, 21st Century Rivers: Ten Actions for Change, Water UK sets out a series of recommendations to enable the water sector and others to deliver a holistic, sustainable improvement in the health of England’s rivers. Not limited to chalk streams, the report nevertheless sets out its own 10 recommendations, strengthening the arguments for dramatically improving the health of our rivers.
It calls for a new, long-term strategy for rivers to include input from the Government, regulators, water companies, catchment partnerships, agriculture, highways and other sectors to help guide and prioritise investment and policy change. It sets out the importance of all sectors working together to achieve the fundamental changes required. The creation of a national plan to eliminate harm from storm overflows, prioritising nature-based solutions and action to massively increase public awareness of the water catchments are among other proposals made.
One of the key species that defines chalk streams is the Atlantic salmon. The River Clyde, running through the heart of Glasgow and currently COP 26—much in the news—was once a dead river, but now teems again with shoals of Atlantic salmon. If they can return to the Clyde, they can return to the River Itchen and the Test. If it can be done on the Clyde, it can be done for chalk streams. All it needs is the will.
Finally, my Lords, I return to the CaBA chalk stream restoration group strategy report. In conclusion, it emphasises that,
“Over and over … it has been made clear that when it comes to the investment decisions which determine the health of our chalk streams—in reducing abstraction, or pollution or paying for habitat work—a powerful statutory driver makes all the difference … to bring our chalk streams back to ecological health, not just in a few privileged places, but right across the map.”
It will perhaps allow future generations to share the delights of the chalk streams that we enjoy.
My Lords, I put my name down for this debate primarily because of a little shot of nostalgia coming past; the first major Bill I did in this House was the privatisation of water all those many years ago. Many people will say, “You should have learned your lesson by now.” That is when I heard things about phosphorus run-off, ground water pollution, and the fact we had a crumbling Victorian infrastructure for our sewerage system and how it was all going to be saved and stopped by privatisation. There is a ring of that coming through. I could go on and follow my noble friend in the details he has put forward, but I would get some of them wrong and he has covered it better than I would.
I would like the Minister, if he can, to engage in another aspect of waterways, chalk streams and fresh water in general: the fact that they are part of our recreational infrastructure or at least have that potential. We have nodded at that potential over the last year or so, particularly during the passage of the Agriculture Act, when we studied the use of land, access to land, farmers using it and the maintenance of it. We carried on with that in the Environment Bill, however it is a “granny and egg” situation if I start talking about that to the Minister.
If we are going to make sure we get the best out of the steps the Government are taking, we have to have some form of coherent plan as to how we make sure we get the best out of our natural environment. If we are talking about encouraging that thing which is of great health benefit to us, the activity that most of us can carry on doing almost to our dying day—going for a walk—rivers and the environment around them are a great encourager of that.
I could make reference to where I live in the village of Lambourn in the Lambourn valley where my noble friend in a previous incarnation had a considerable interest, it being part of his constituency. I would make anecdotes about the River Lambourn, the ultimate chalk spring-fed river that was sometimes there and sometimes not—a playground for children, horses and dogs, in my opinion.
All of these things encourage people to go out and enjoy the countryside. If you have a sterile environment and the river becomes just a muddy puddle, nobody is going to want to use it. People are not going to walk beside it, they cannot fish in it, and let us not even talk about canoeists and rowers. I do not think chalk streams are the best environment for them, generally speaking. Also, let us face it, if you talk about canoeists and anglers together, one has visions of people turning up with seconds at dawn on Hampstead Heath with loaded pistols; they do not generally play well together. But they should; they should be co-ordinated. The Government should bring these people together to work together to monitor the water we have. We have just come through an experience where people have discovered open water swimming. You cannot do that in a river that is dangerous and does not have life in it. You can turn it into some sort of slightly unpleasant swimming pool, but it will not have the same effect.
The countryside and the rivers in it are a great way of encouraging people to take on the sort of outdoor activity that is of great benefit to so much of the rest of government—not the Minister’s department directly, but the Department of Health and the Department for Education. Do the Government have a coherent plan, or at least some structure, by which they will get these bits of government to talk to each other and work together to get the best out of this? Getting people to talk together in government is always a challenge, because you can punch a hole through a Chinese wall and find another one has been built three yards down the road.
Do the Government have some idea of how they are going to co-ordinate the actions they have taken in bits of legislation recently to make rivers, as part of the countryside, accessible and pleasant? People, generally speaking, do not take exercise in unpleasant environments. Let us face it, very few people go for a casual walk around an industrial estate. If we can get the environment right, with some way of monitoring it to make it somewhere you would go that is engaging, we will encourage this. It helps tourism, the hospitality industry and everything else. Can the Government give us some idea of what their thinking is? Without it, we will have small initiatives going off left, right and centre, not interacting, not getting the benefits and lacking the necessary support and structure.
I hope the Minister will give us at least some idea that some of this is happening, and of who will be leading this. Is the Department of Health giving some suggestions about activity, or is Defra doing something to lead into it? Is the Department for Education coming through, or even the poor little sports section of DCMS, which is now effectively the department for the media? Will they co-ordinate and how will they go through? It will take that sort of pressure and constant observation to get the best out of any strategy, and that is something to which we should all be paying some attention.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Chidgey on the timing of this debate after the sewage and water vote last week, and coinciding with the COP 26 conference. The issue of chalk streams is a very valuable subject to raise, particularly this week. My noble friend gave a very comprehensive review of the issues and my colleague and noble friend Lord Addington commented on the importance of the recreational uses and plans for these areas.
It is one of the pleasures and privileges of my life that I live in the heart of the Hampshire chalk stream country, right beside the River Meon. I am actually rather disappointed that nobody else in the House lives as close as I do to a chalk stream. The River Meon is the third of the three great Hampshire chalk streams: the Test, the Itchen and the Meon. It is the fastest-flowing of the three and is remarkable for the fact that the fish have to work harder, and are smaller, slimmer and fitter as a result, than their brethren in the Test and the Itchen.
I am a warden of the St Clair’s Meadow wildlife trust on the flood plain of the Meon, right opposite my house. It is a community-owned project of over 40 acres, financed by community donations and a Biffa Award from landfill tax revenues, and it is run by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Before I say a bit more about the trust, I will take your Lordships back over 100 years—I think the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, will certainly appreciate this—to a man who probably did more than anybody else to promote chalk streams.
Not far from my home on the Meon, the great Liberal Foreign Secretary—also the longest-serving Foreign Secretary, from 1905 to 1916—Viscount Grey had a fishing lodge on the banks of the River Itchen. He used to catch the train from Waterloo station to Winchester and walk along the riverbank to his lodge most weekends in the summer. He wrote two books, one a very famous one on fishing and one on the charms of birds. He was an ornithologist. He was subsequently criticised for spending too much time fishing in the summer of 1914. I think this is slightly unfair. It is said that he should have been working to avoid a world war. Remarkably, the first time he actually went abroad was earlier that year in 1914, but who can blame him when he had a bolthole as idyllic as he had by the River Itchen?
The lodge no longer exists—it was burned down after the war—but I have often walked along that river footpath where the foundations still lie, and I cannot blame him for spending so much time there. It is an idyllic place, so much better than the formalities of Chevening or even Chequers, and an ideal place to relax and reflect on the cares of the world.
But I digress. Let me take your Lordships back to the Meon to reflect on how remarkable these chalk streams still are and how we should be trying to retain the idyllic environment, which would perhaps have been more evident 100 years ago at the time of Viscount Grey, without the current threats. The Meon rises in the Downs, five miles to the north of where I live. It is spring-fed, and it enters the sea in the Solent, just south of the medieval abbey of Titchfield, owned in Tudor times by Shakespeare’s sponsor, the Earl of Southampton. Every morning when I am in Hampshire, I walk along the banks of the Meon with my dog. It always makes me sad on a Monday to face the fact that I have to come up to London.
Let me share with your Lordships some of the pleasures of a chalk stream. At the start of my walk up the Downs, looking above the river, you see the skylarks springing out of the cornfields in the summer and in the hedges in the winter. The same crops have been grown in those fields since medieval times, as the Bishop of Winchester’s records show. He used to own the land. As you walk down to the river, you listen to the plop of the water voles as they scurry off the banks. You look for the trout in the river—the clear waters and the gravel beds over the chalk—and hope to see the fish rise for the surface flies. You are more likely to see them in the evening than the morning. In the sky you see the ruthlessness of nature: the circling of the herons, if they are not by the riverbank looking for the trout.
Very rarely, you might be lucky to witness the bright blue of a kingfisher coming out of the banks. In the midday sun, there is a profusion of butterflies. You will note the overnight digging of badgers searching for worms on the soft banks, and if you are really lucky you might hear, but will not see, the otters slipping into the waters. You might disturb a deer or two. You will notice now that the banks have been fenced off to allow for their restoration and to encourage wildlife, while black-horned cattle graze purposefully on the flood-plain meadows that have been there since medieval times. These cattle have been specially chosen to encourage back other wildlife and birds such as lapwings.
In the winter, the river breaks its banks on to the meadows, but in the summer the water levels sometimes fall too low. That is the first sign you have of the threats to this idyllic scene. The abstraction by the local water companies, particularly in summer, is a major problem. Sometimes in the smaller tributaries—some of which flow through my garden—you see the ruthlessness of nature as the water sinks and the stranded fish in the diminishing pools are devoured and devastated by the predatory herons.
Until recently, grazing cattle and sheep destroyed the banks of the rivers, but this has been arrested by the fencing and restrictions to allow vegetation to grow back on the banks. Intensive farming and fertilisers have damaged the draining patterns and powered nitrogen into the river, encouraging weed growth and undermining nature’s balance. We have been lucky, with the help of the Wildlife Trust, to push back some of these damaging tendencies. It is now an important pressure group against the extraction by water companies and for managing the land and agricultural practices so that they are adapted to restore the wildlife balance.
So what should we be championing as we go forward? First, we need to raise knowledge about and admiration for these remarkable chalk streams. They are jewels that are really worth preserving. They need the recognition and protection of an environmental equivalent of world heritage sites—they are world environmental sites. We need more recognition in local schools and pride in our local communities in these remarkable amenities. Often, although they live locally, people do not realise the wealth and potential that these chalk streams provide.
The environmental work of the European Union helped banish a number of pesticides and brought some control over fertilisers. But we still need to do more work on excessive nitrogen and more to counteract some of the damage from too-intensive farming. We want greater control of water abstraction. I find it frustrating that nobody in areas where water is abstracted knows what these agreements are. If local people knew the scale of these abstractions, they would be amazed and infuriated. We need publicity about what is being abstracted and when.
Where I live, there are huge water resources—artesian basins under the downlands—yet, even though we have very cheap water rates, we are still abstracting from the rivers in summer months, when the water levels are already lower.
We need more community schemes, not the Government just implementing measures. We need communities building from the bottom up to take control and respond, so that they themselves can see and benefit from the restoration work that they do.
Viscount Grey may have done much to promote interest in chalk streams 100 years ago. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, in the 1960s was the first sign to me of the destruction we were exacting on the delicate natural balance of areas such as chalk streams, which I am now delighted to play my part in trying to protect. We owe it to future generations to acclaim them and restore them to their former glory.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for securing this opportunity for your Lordships to debate this critical environment issue. As we have heard, England has 85% of the world’s chalk streams. We also know that these precious and unique freshwater ecosystems are at risk. We have heard from noble Lords about their importance to wildlife and flora. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, drew attention to the recreational aspects as well.
As our climate emergency takes hold, our chalk streams are on the front line. COP 26 has now started. Fine words from the Prime Minister are all very well, but if we cannot save what we have, what we hold in trust for the world and future generations, we cannot lecture others on what they should be doing to protect their environment. The fate of England’s chalk streams is the litmus test of how this country treats its environment.
There are many reasons why our chalk streams are at risk: agricultural pollution; pollution from storm overflows, as we heard earlier; a decline in native species, particularly invertebrates; the introduction of non-native invasive species; development and population growth; and the simple fact that we use and waste too much water. On average, in Britain, we use more water per head per day than most other countries in Europe.
However, most pressing of all are low flows and chronic over-abstraction. The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, mentioned his concerns on this issue. In recent years, we just have not had enough rain to support the level of abstraction still taking place, despite the constant warnings in recent years about the damage this is causing. There has been insufficient recharge of groundwater supplies to maintain an acceptable flow in our rivers over the summer periods. The swings we are seeing—from drought in the summer to extreme rainfalls in the winter and back again—are likely to continue as climate change makes its impacts felt.
As other noble Lords have said, there must be reform of the abstraction licensing system, which is currently allowing too much water to be taken out of our chalk streams. We need a more robust infrastructure, which can deal with the strain of an unpredictable climate and a rising population, plus greater investment in additional storage capacity and government support for demand-management measures, such as water metering.
We debated the sad condition of many of our rivers, including chalk streams, during the Environment Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, the Minister responding, said that he shared the determination of the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, to protect our chalk streams, and:
“Restoring our internationally recognised and important chalk streams is already a government priority.”—[Official Report, 12/7/21; col. 1591.]
He also mentioned that one of the draft recommendations of the chalk stream restoration group is that they be given an overarching protection and priority status. There is already a large amount of evidence in various reports that have been mentioned—from the Angling Trust, Water UK and the Rivers Trust—demonstrating what must be done.
The Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy, a report with a catchment-based approach, was published last month. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, when ending his introduction, read the most important part of it, where it calls for its “one big wish”—the enhanced status for all chalk streams. This statutory driver makes all the difference. It allows the regulators, the industry and NGOs to do what they must to bring our chalk streams back to ecological health, not just in a few privileged places but everywhere.
The Government must give chalk streams the proper status, reflecting that they are not just locally precious—although clearly they are—but globally unique, by providing a statutory driver for the investment needed to restore their ecological status. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, is a redoubtable champion fighting to save these precious, important ecosystems. I am sure that following today’s debate he will continue campaigning to give them greater protection, and he will have our support in his aims, but he also needs urgent government support. I know that the Minister shares many of our concerns so let us get on with it and start implementing the recommendations from these reports.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on securing this debate, and welcome the opportunity to respond on the catchment-based approach Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy.
The noble Lord and I share the privilege of having represented, in another place, an area with chalk streams, and this never quite leaves you. I had four chalk streams in the constituency which I represented. Before taking on this role in Government, I was on the board of River Action UK, a campaign to improve the quality of our rivers and tackle the pollution and all the other pressures that I have listened to being discussed. In a previous incarnation in Defra, I was involved in setting up the catchment-based approach, which is fundamental to the restoration of chalk streams, because it brings it down to a level which people can understand. There used to be river basin management plans, which were vast, unwieldy documents. The catchment-based approach involves all the stakeholders, all the people of interest. It is the right way forward and has fed through to this report.
When I was at Defra I set up a campaign, Love Your River, which speaks to the points which the noble Lord, Lord Addington, was making. It is about connecting people to their river. There are wonderful charities which educate children out of the classroom. I am privileged to be a trustee of one, the John Simonds Trust, which gets children not just down to the river but in it, looking at the amazing life in a chalk stream.
I refer your Lordships to my interests in the register. I have a short stretch of a chalk stream which rises in the Berkshire Downs and runs past my house. My wife refers to it as my mid-life crisis because I spend a lot of time there trying to improve it. The passion that has been felt in this House tonight is mirrored by thousands of people around this country, who recognise that in England, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, we are privileged to have 85% of the world’s chalk streams. We owe it to them and to future generations to get it right.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, spoke of Viscount Grey. I think I am right in saying that he once took Teddy Roosevelt on a walk along the Itchen. You can still go on it; I think it is called the Roosevelt Walk. Being a great naturalist, he described the diversity of species that they saw on that walk. It compares, in a depressing way, with what you would find on that walk today.
Chalk streams are rich and diverse habitats of wildlife. I am on the record as saying that they are our rainforests and the measure by which our protection of the environment will be judged. It is shameful that, in too many circumstances, we have not got them in the pristine state they should be in. They are home to some of the rarest species, such as the winterbourne stonefly. They also protect some of the most endangered chalk stream species, such as the salmon of Wessex, which I am advised are genetically distinct. If we lose them, we lose them for ever.
If you represent an area with chalk streams in it and they flood, as happened in my case, you learn much about the extraordinary geology and dynamic hydrology of chalk stream aquifers. You learn how it is about not just the water that flows down them but the whole chalk aquifer and what has an impact on it, such as farming activities, the activities of water companies and the run-off from roads. This is complex. It is important that we think completely holistically, and vital that we protect chalk streams from the growing threats of climate change, unsustainable abstraction and water quality challenges, as well as the impact of an expanding population.
Although much good work has been done over recent years to try to improve the plight of chalk streams, more action is needed to meet the scale of the challenges they face. At the chalk streams conference last year, Defra talked with like-minded stakeholders at length about how to tackle these challenges. It was with this in mind that my honourable friend the Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow, called for the creation of the chalk stream restoration group. I am delighted to confirm that this group delivered a holistic and ambitious strategy, which was launched last month and has been well received—indeed, it has been much talked about this evening. I thank its author, Charles Rangeley-Wilson, who is an inspirational campaigner and writer on rivers, particularly chalk streams. He shared his significant expertise with the chalk stream restoration group and worked with many stakeholders, some of whom have been mentioned this evening, to set out the strategy.
The Government welcome the strategy and have committed to working closely both inside and outside of government to explore its recommendations fully. We are encouraged to see to see many pragmatic recommendations for government policy and action on the ground to improve water quality, make chalk water resources sustainable and ultimately protect and restore chalk habitats. These recommendations will be shared between Defra, our regulators, CaBA members and water companies as we jointly work to understand their implications and how we might deliver them.
The strategy identified a number of recommendations for government. Work has been going on in the background to make a start on some of those. Defra has taken the lead on launching the flagship restoration programme, which is a set of water company-nominated catchment restoration projects that will act as exemplars of best-practice approaches. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, referred to the Lambourn, a river with so many overlaying designations that it is like alphabet soup. It is shameful that, in the village of Lambourn itself, there is often no River Lambourn. We must think about and understand the entire catchment area, right up to the source at the top of the Downs, and get all parties playing their part to make sure that the river flows with clean water, sustaining the natural environment.
These projects—this flagship restoration programme —will demonstrate how a catchment, when it takes the right approach, can be improved within a 10-year period to achieve good ecological status. Defra has also listened to the need for more areas to be classified as water stressed. To that end, we have extended the number of areas determined as such, which will help enable wider water metering. The noble Baroness spoke of the importance of using less water, and there is no better way in which to do that than to have a metered system to record how much each household uses.
The Water Industry National Environment Programme plays an important role in the future of our chalk streams. To ensure that the WINEP continues to deliver at pace, our WINEP task force began work last year to improve the programme and make it more outcomes-focused. In this way, we will ensure that our long-term approach delivers real and lasting improvements to the environment and for future generations. Our draft strategic policy statement directs Ofwat to drive water companies to be more ambitious in their environmental planning and delivery to contribute towards the priorities set out in the 25-year environment plan. We expect water companies to support environmental protection and enhancement of priority habitats such as chalk streams. If I had time tonight, I would hold the House spellbound with my understanding of the abstraction incentive mechanism, which is a means by which water companies can be incentivised not to take water from catchments when water flows too slowly—but it is rather technical.
Our draft strategic policy statement also makes it clear that water companies must reduce the use of storm overflows as a priority. This is the first time that any Government have set out this expectation for water companies to prioritise reducing their reliance on storm overflows to discharge sewage, and we expect investment to be approved for water companies to be able to do so. The Government have also announced that they will put the direction set out in the SPS on a statutory footing, with a new duty on water companies to progressively reduce impacts of sewage discharges. This builds on the measures already in the Environment Bill to improve our water quality and tackle sewage pollution, including requiring water companies to report in near real time on storm overflow operation and monitor their impact up and downstream.
We plan to publish a nature recovery Green Paper before the end of the year—and that may answer the desire for a cross-government approach, as has been mentioned tonight. The consultation will explore how we can improve our wildlife laws to deliver our ambitions for nature recovery, which includes the protection of important habitats such as chalk streams. Defra will lead the exploration of eight of the strategy’s 33 recommendations for action. During the scoping phase, which takes us to spring 2022, Defra teams will give detailed consideration to each recommendation, working collaboratively with partnering organisations; of the 33 recommendations, 10 are already in progress. Defra, along with other chalk stream restoration group members, has committed to report back on progress at a meeting of the working group in the spring.
I shall just refer to some of the points that have been raised in tonight’s debate. The noble Lord is right to be sceptical of some of the economic assumptions around the impact of bills. I remember when we started talking about the Thames tideway tunnel that the original impact was going to be £85 on every Thames Water payer’s bill; I think it is now down to £18, which is still a lot of money for many people, but it is different from what we were talking about. As a Minister I should be sceptical, and I am sure that other Members of this House will be sceptical as well and hold the Government to account for some of the economic assumptions under which we work. I do not say that we always get this right, but we want to.
Some of the other aspects of environmental policy that are coming through, such as the woodland buffer along our rivers—this incentive for farmers and land owners to have a 20-metre buffer either side of rivers, which is turned over to rewilded natural landscape or to tree planting—will have an enormous effect on their ecology. We need to look wider than that.
I entirely accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on recreational use. I was involved in drawing up the natural environment White Paper, which was the first time when there was a conversation across government to draw in health and well-being and education and all the other aspects in terms of river management. Now health and well-being is so much more about diverting people away from the health service than it is about looking after people when they are sick, and rivers can have a massively important part in that.
My noble friend Lord Agnew is taking forward a commission on greater access, and this will involve rivers as well. I am conscious of time, so if I have not answered any of the points that have been made, I would be very happy to get back to noble Lords in person. While we acknowledge how substantial some of these pieces of work will be for Defra, its regulators, water companies and environmental NGOs, the Government remain committed to protecting chalk streams and we will continue to take a lead to do so.