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.