Sewage Disposal in Rivers and Coastal Waters - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Stoneham of Droxford Lord Stoneham of Droxford Liberal Democrat Lords Chief Whip, Deputy Speaker (Lords), Deputy Chairman of Committees 1:00 pm, 7th July 2022

My Lords, I declare my interest as a warden of the St Clair’s Meadow Nature Reserve for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, a land trust beside the River Meon, between Winchester and Portsmouth. Like the Minister, I have the privilege of living beside a chalk stream in the South Downs National Park.

Before I start, I thank two interns who have been working with me this week: Molly Waite from Itchen College in Southampton and Ben Frankland from Peter Symonds College in Winchester and now at Exeter University. I also thank two local campaigners in the Winchester area: Councillor Margot Power and Danny Chambers, who have helped me with some of the research that I have been doing in that area. It is not a day to thank or congratulate Ministers, but I would like to say to the Minister how much I appreciate his interest in rivers and the fact that he has a particular interest in the heritage and wildlife of chalk streams. It is good to have him replying to the debate today and we look forward to his remarks. I did not start by thanking my noble friend Lord Oates for organising this debate, because I had a part in arranging it. I apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, if we got our timing wrong, but I do not think we have. There are a number of working groups in this area at the moment and it is important to have this debate.

One reason I quoted the names of some of the local people who helped me with the remarks I will be making is that, although the water companies are obviously very important, I certainly agree with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, that the local approach to this very important as well and I will say why. I am a social democrat and very different from the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, in my approach: I believe in private enterprise co-operating with Government and agencies to get effective progress in this area.

I start with a number of important principles. First, we need a long-term strategy. Every Government always think they can deliver things in the period of one Parliament. It is always impossible and never delivered. Therefore, we have to have considerable investment as part of a long-term strategy. I believe it has to be a bottom-up strategy, combined with a firm handle from the Government and the regulatory agencies. The statutory framework and a strong watchdog and regulator are clearly very important in this area. When I started living in my part of Hampshire, the Portsmouth water company was locally owned, locally run and all the people on the board were local. It was felt that they had a genuine commitment to the area. I do not disparage the work of Portsmouth Water now, but I feel that local commitment is missing, given what it was. That has been very common throughout the country. I accept that privatisation was important, to a degree, in bringing in new investment resources, but we have lost something. That local connection and commitment are important.

I ask the Minister: are the Government sufficiently concerned? I am very concerned that a lot of our utilities are owned overseas now—a lot of the water companies are. I would like to be reassured that the Government, if they felt it was necessary, would be prepared to use the competition rules to prevent overseas companies taking over some of these water companies. A degree of local ownership, local knowledge and local commitment is very important.

As I was saying, the local angle is important. I believe partnerships—the combining of councils, conservation groups and local pressure groups—in the catchment area of the rivers is very important if we want progress. I also mention the local press here. My local paper, the Hampshire Chronicle, has been running a campaign on river pollution in our chalk streams. That is very important and if it is galvanised by local voluntary groups and local people, it improves information and puts pressure on all the agencies to take the vital action required. I support the catchment area focus, and I will deal with that in a moment because that is very important to keep the pressure on for change and improvements.

Information is absolutely critical. We cannot monitor things and cannot get change unless we see what these companies are doing, what their performance is in individual rivers and how they are trying to improve them. We do not just need information on sewerage bills, we also want it on extraction. I find it very difficult: I would love to know what the extraction figures are for the river that goes past my property. I know roughly where they are taking it from, but I never seem able to get my hands on the figures. It would be very good if each catchment area tried to bring all this information together. It would help public knowledge and it would help public pressure, which is probably one of the reasons that it does not happen. We need the measurement of nitrates and phosphates in our water and the public need to be aware of it. Too many of our treatment works do not have upper limits on the nitrate levels that they are creating. That sort of information is very important.

I will give a couple of examples from the Winchester area where I live. It was interesting to have the information from St Albans, but in my area—the Winchester district—in 2021, there were 250 spillages, totalling 3,500 hours of sewage going into chalk streams. That is effectively a third of a year. It is an improvement on the year before, when there was something like 7,000 hours of sewage leakage, but then the weather was better in 2021.

I have looked at 15 treatment plants in this area. Looking at the detailed figures published for the last two years, most of the problems are at two treatment works: Durley on the Hamble and Wickham on the Meon. Wickham is, fortunately, quite low down on the river. There were 1,708 hours of spillages in Durley and 846 hours in Wickham. The year before it was 1,386 hours. Over half the problem in our area is at those two treatment works. I am very suspicious of people saying that we cannot tackle this because it will cost £300 billion or whatever it is. If I was involved in this business, I would concentrate on where the main problems are. Clearly, the treatment works in Durley and Wickham in my area are the places I would start. I would put that on the agenda, which is why today’s debate is timely. Please put it on the agenda for the government task force looking at this when it reports on 1 September.

Sewage is important but it is not totally overriding. We have already had, in the debate, the issue of extractions and lowering water levels; I think we need much more information on that. We need more measuring of nitrates and phosphates in the water. Currently, there is a campaign in Alresford in my area, on a tributary of the Itchen, where there is a problem with phosphates. It is the centre of the watercress industry and it has been discovered that no limits are being set by the Environment Agency on the treatment plants in Alresford. What is happening in the local rivers just leads to a growth of algae and weeds. The amount of silt in the rivers increases, and you get a clogging up of river flows as well as a restriction of light, which affects the invertebrate wildlife in the rivers. That all contributes to a diminution of the natural life of those river areas.

I believe in the catchment area strategy, because that focusing on individual rivers raises public awareness. We need to do far more of this in schools, local media and local communities. In my own area, I sometimes wonder whether people appreciate the great heritage they have in their midst. I am appalled at the litter that is left on the roads and left by people walking along the river, which can do great damage to the wildlife if it is not picked up. Fortunately, there are people like me who go around doing that, but it is extraordinary that local people are so selfish in leaving that debris, which can only diminish the wildlife in our rivers.

Work needs to be focused locally. There are lots of bodies that want to be involved, whether it is conservation groups, fishing groups, farmers or the local authorities. We need to bring together information on the local catchment areas, which will raise public awareness and hold the bodies responsible to account. We need the commitment of farmers, fishing groups and others, even householders with cesspits in the river valleys. They all need to be co-operating and making sure they are contributing to the improvement of our environment. I would like to see our chalk stream areas declared environmental heritage areas—slightly selfishly, because I live in one—as they are that important.

In the last debate we had on chalk streams, in November, both the Minister and I combined to create the association of Viscount Grey, who was the Foreign Secretary during the First World War and had a cottage on the Itchen, and ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, who joined him on a walk along the River Itchen in about 1911. Those two individuals made a record of the wildlife they saw when they went on that walk. Your Lordships would be shocked if you compared the list with what you find today. They were just looking at the bird life, but if you looked at the invertebrates in the river and saw the lack of flies and insects along the riverbanks, you would be quite shocked. That is why the debate is timely and why we need a strategy for all rivers, but particularly chalk streams, which deals with these problems, and it should have the highest priority.