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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:06 pm on 3 November 2021.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 8:06, 3 November 2021

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.