Catchment Based Approach’s Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy 2021 - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:56 pm on 3 November 2021.

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Photo of Lord Chidgey Lord Chidgey Liberal Democrat 7:56, 3 November 2021

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.