Amendment 102

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 18 July 2023.

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Viscount Trenchard:

Moved by Viscount Trenchard

102: Clause 143, page 172, line 9, at end insert—“(e) protection for chalk streams in England so as to reduce the harmful impacts of excessive abstraction and pollution and improve their physical habitat”Member's explanatory statementThe amendment will ensure that the impact on chalk streams of relevant projects is explicitly considered, avoided wherever possible, or mitigated.

Photo of Viscount Trenchard Viscount Trenchard Conservative

My Lords, my Amendment 102 is identical to my Amendment 372ZA, which was debated in Committee on 18 May. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Taylor of Stevenage and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, and my noble friend Lord Caithness, for adding their names in support of this amendment. I declare my interest as the owner of a short stretch of the River Rib in Hertfordshire.

I was heartened by the strong support I received from noble Lords on all sides of the House when I debated this amendment in Committee. I believe the case for special protection for our beautiful chalk streams was well made and widely supported then, and I will not repeat it at length today. I was also grateful for the support of the Minister, my noble friend Lord Benyon, for the aims of my amendment and for his absolutely clear commitment that further conversations would be had with myself and others about chalk stream restoration and how the Government could better make sure that it continues to be a priority.

I was less than wholly happy that the Minister stopped short of committing to bring back the Government’s own amendment to give chalk streams the protection they uniquely need. I am a little concerned at his statement that, given the need to capture the environment as a whole in these provisions, he hoped that I would accept that it would not be appropriate to draw out granular considerations in this definition.

I thank the Minister and his Defra officials for keeping their promise to meet me to discuss further why I believe it necessary to give chalk streams the special protection that inclusion in the Bill would provide. I do not think that many noble Lords disagree with the need to protect our beautiful chalk streams, which are unique to north-east Europe and of which some 85% are located in England. The Minister is a keen fisherman and I hope that, as he has been casting his fly over the last few weeks, he has pondered this question further. I know how supportive he has been of the tireless work done by Charles Rangeley-Wilson and others who developed Catchment Based Approach, a partnership with the Government, local authorities and other interested organisations.

As I mentioned in Committee, CaBA has developed a chalk stream restoration strategy, the primary recommendation of which was “one big wish”. This is supported by all the organisations, companies and agencies involved in the strategy’s development, and by the consultation responses from stakeholders. “One big wish” calls for

“an overarching statutory protection and priority status for chalk streams and their catchments to give them a distinct identity and to drive investment in water-resources infrastructure, water treatment … and catchment-scale restoration”.

I remind your Lordships of the Government’s response to “one big wish”:

“Defra is currently looking for opportunities to deliver on this recommendation. The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill provides an opportunity to consider how stronger protections and priority status for chalk streams can fit into reformed environmental legislation”.

However, as I expect my noble friend Lord Caithness will tell your Lordships, on 23 June, the Minister said in reply to my noble friend that the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is no longer being considered as a means to address this issue. He said that the Government continue to support the work of the chalk stream restoration group and are committed to looking for opportunities to deliver on the Defra-led recommendations in the strategy.

At the launch of the chalk stream strategy implementation plan eight days previously, on 15 June, my honourable friend Rebecca Pow announced that the Government’s response to this one big wish would be the creation of a chalk streams recovery package by the end of the year. She revealed that the exact identity and contents had yet to be determined, but essentially this package represents, as an answer to the one big wish, a collation of existing and potential or planned policies, levers and economic drivers that can be used to effect the restoration of chalk streams. The chalk streams recovery package, however, may not provide the clear designation and protection called for in the one big wish, but it is intended that it should have the same outcome by means of a more disparate range of levers.

I am sure that my noble friend the Minister recognises that the rejection of my amendment on the grounds that much is being done elsewhere would indicate that the Government are not entirely sincere in their commitment to the creation of a chalk streams recovery package within this year. Surely, my noble friend will agree that this amendment would provide exactly the kind of lever that the recovery package needs—in this case, specifically helping the restoration of chalk streams in those places where the Bill is designed to effect economic and especially social and natural recovery. In these circumstances, it is disappointing that my noble friend has not yet come forward with a different way to provide the specific priority status which the Government have recognised is needed. If the Government’s initial thoughts about how to do this are now no longer the chosen way to achieve what must be achieved, why do they not back my amendment or introduce their own similar one? I cannot understand what the downside is.

As your Lordships are aware, an important purpose of the levelling-up Bill is to restore a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in those places where they have been lost. These things are all captured by the relationship between the community and its river. Among many towns that have been identified by CaBA and which would benefit immeasurably from this amendment are Baldock, High Wycombe, Chesham, Rickmansworth, Hertford, Luton, Welwyn, Bishop’s Stortford, Crayford and Dartford, Ashford and Chartham, Dover, Bury St Edmunds, Fakenham, Horncastle, Louth, Driffield, Bridlington, Warminster and Croydon. Some of those towns are among the most socially deprived in the country—for example, Bridlington—and all are towns which, along with their wider environs, could be immeasurably enriched by a restoration of the green spaces and stream corridors of the potentially beautiful chalk streams that flow through them.

This amendment would require chalk streams to be considered specifically in a way that they simply have not been before, when there are major infrastructure projects or developments, and they deserve specific consideration because of their rarity and what has already been lost. We recognise that this amendment affects only a subset of major projects, but it is precisely those kinds of projects where the biggest damage could be done. If my noble friend argues that the broader environmental designation would require chalk streams to be considered anyway, there is no additional burden in accepting the amendment. I very much hope that my noble friend the Minister will have some good news to tell us when he replies to this debate. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 7:00, 18 July 2023

My Lords, we find that we form some unusual alliances in your Lordships’ House, especially in relation to protecting our environment. On this topic, I was very happy to put my name to Amendment 102 in the names of the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. The reason I did that was that I am lucky enough to have spent my life living in the wonderful county of Hertfordshire. For those of you who are not aware, Hertfordshire contains over 20% of the world’s unique and special, natural and precious chalk streams. The noble Viscount has already explained that this country is the custodian of the vast majority of this precious natural resource—more than 85%. To have 20% of that in my county is a real reason for doing all that I can to ensure that they are protected.

From the Rivers Chess and Colne in the west of Hertfordshire and the River Beane, which runs alongside my town, to the Rivers Lea, Stort and Ash in the south and east of the county, along with many others, we are blessed with what should be vital water resources, providing habitats for a huge diversity of species, from damselfly to salmon. Sadly, as we have heard, they are under increasing pressure from overextraction and pollution and, while progress is being made through the catchment-based approach mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, they are still struggling and under pressure. We need to improve their health and focus on that through the chalk stream strategy. There is still much more to be done.

I am most grateful to the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, which does so much work in this area and has been incredibly helpful in providing information for me. Our precious monuments and ancient buildings have huge protection in the planning system through the mechanism of listing, but we do not seem to take these precious natural resources as seriously in this regard. I support the aims of the amendment in attempting to do that by ensuring that any development in the area of chalk streams explicitly considers the impact on them and sets out what mitigations will be needed. If our chalk streams were buildings, they would be UNESCO heritage sites. Let us protect them as though they were.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

One of the problems that I raised during our debate on 18 May in Committee was the problem of surface water run-off from farms and roads, which was causing problems for our rivers. I am extremely grateful to and would like to thank my noble friend the Minister for the letter that he sent me on 23 June, in which he commented a bit more on the points that I raised. The interesting thing about that letter was his comment on the surface run-off from roads. He said that Defra was

“working with the Department for Transport to reduce the impact of the strategic road network and roads managed by local highways authorities on water bodies”.

It just shows what an important cross-government issue this is.

The difficulty that my noble friend has is that he has to work at one remove from the local authorities. The reason I stress the local authorities is that the next day, on 19 May, I was on the River Piddle, a lovely chalk stream, and at 3.30 pm the river was gin clear—it was what a chalk stream should be. We had quite a good thunderstorm and within an hour that river was chocolate brown; it was full of silt and run-off, and the roads were under water. There was run-off from the farmland adjacent to the river—the whole aquatic environment of the river was affected by that thunder- storm; it was a short-term disaster for the river, created by human behaviour. Something similar happened to us humans when we had the smog in the early 1950s. We tackled that problem; it was a manmade problem and we tackled it with the Clean Air Act. It is equally important that we now tackle the problems facing our rivers. It will take a major effort by the Government and across government to do that.

All our rivers are important, but why are the chalk streams just that bit more important? It is worth reiterating that 85% of the world’s chalk streams are in England; they are our equivalent of the rainforests. We have a special responsibility to those rivers, and if we do not give a lead to the rest of the world on such an important issue, we will not be doing nature justice.

There are three key indicators of the ecological health of rivers: water quality, water quantity and the physical habitat. The key to getting all of those right is management. The Government will need every single tool in the toolbox and every policy to be able to take the necessary action to fight off the vested challenges from all quarters that they will need to do to establish chalk streams to the standard that we expect and fulfil the one big wish, so rightly mentioned by my noble friend Lord Trenchard.

The Bill is about regenerative action and levelling up, and it is intended to give places a sense of identity. As my noble friend Lord Trenchard said, many of the rivers flow through towns as well as the countryside. The restoration of the rivers could bring huge opportunities and benefits to those towns and to the countryside for both nature and humans. If we do not take this opportunity, we will be letting nature and ourselves down.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville is unfortunately unable to attend today, as she is not well. I will say a few words on her behalf.

First, I endorse entirely what has already been said about the environmental importance of chalk streams. I think it was David Attenborough who described them as one of the rarest habitats on earth. If David Attenborough says that, we must listen and listen carefully.

Secondly, I want to say something about pollution and about water extraction. The Environment Agency has responsibility for giving permission to water companies for the level of extraction, be it from rivers or aquifers. Indeed, there are aquifers in Yorkshire—not in my part, but in the East Riding—which Yorkshire Water extracts from. What I do know is that aquifers take a long time to refill after periods of extraction. I look to the Minister to respond on water extraction from aquifers. The amount of water taken from aquifers obviously then impacts on the flow in chalk streams, which is essential for their protection.

What I want to say about pollution from sewage overflow discharge is this. About 150 years ago there was a Conservative Prime Minister in this country who had a policy of sewage. That is exactly what this country needs now. A Conservative Government run this country, so perhaps they can adopt Disraeli’s policy of sewage. It would be a bit late, but it would not be before time if they did.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness and others who have spoken. The noble Baroness should read our Plan for Water, which does exactly what she said. I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register.

I turn to Amendment 102, in the name of my noble friend Lord Trenchard. I defer to no one in the verbal arms race that usually takes place in these debates about who can be the greatest supporter of chalk streams. I am passionate about them, and I want to see our chalk streams, which are one of the most valuable ecosystems in these islands, restored to pristine health. I note the passion from across the House on the need to protect these habitats further.

The Government recognise that chalk streams in England are internationally important and unique, and in many cases in poor health. We are committed to restoring England’s chalk streams. We have recently reaffirmed this commitment in our Plan for Water, which I just referred to, which recognises chalk streams as having special natural heritage.

In last year’s implementation plan for the Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy 2021, we committed to review the National Planning Policy Framework to

“consider how to further reflect the value of chalk streams in planning”.

We agreed to develop and publish a chalk stream recovery plan by the end of the year. I am grateful to people such as the aforementioned Charles Rangeley-Wilson and others who have been involved in bringing forward the catchment-based approach, which is absolutely leading on this.

I turn to the substance of the amendment. Clause 143 draws on the relevant definitions in the Environment Act and includes protection of the natural environment from

“the effects of human activity”,

as well as

“maintenance, restoration or enhancement of the natural environment”.

The natural environment includes the habitats of plants, wild animals and other living organisms, and explicitly includes water. The Government’s initial view is that this provides sufficient scope to address issues affecting chalk streams.

However, having heard the views of this House on the importance of chalk streams, and especially the passionate arguments from my noble friend Lord Trenchard, I can confirm that the Government intend to support the principle of the amendment. However, there are some concerns with its exact drafting. We are concerned that, as drafted, it could cast doubt on the breadth of existing provisions that stem from the Environment Act and increase the risk of legal challenge to future EOR regulations—a situation we have worked really hard to avoid. However, I absolutely want to get to where my noble friend is and see the recognition of chalk streams in the Bill. I therefore undertake that the Government will bring forward an amendment at Third Reading to provide clarity and reassurance regarding chalk streams in the context of environmental outcomes reports.

I pay tribute to my noble friend for bringing this amendment forward. I hope he will continue to work with me to ensure it meets our shared intention of protecting England’s chalk streams.

Photo of Viscount Trenchard Viscount Trenchard Conservative 7:15, 18 July 2023

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his extremely welcome reply, and I thank all noble Lords who took part in this short debate. I also thank my right honourable friend Sir Oliver Heald, who is in his place on the steps of the Throne, for his tireless work in supporting our chalk streams, of which I think eight flow through his constituency. We should also remember the late Lord Chidgey, who did so much good work campaigning for chalk streams.

I clearly should have placed more trust in my noble friend to bring back the right answer. I thank him warmly for his very welcome words; I take them to mean that he will table an amendment at Third Reading that is substantially the same as mine and that will recognise chalk streams as a different and specific part of the environment, deserving special protection. Taking his most welcome answer, for which I am most grateful, into account, I therefore beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 102 withdrawn.