Amendment 102

Part of 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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Photo of Viscount Trenchard Viscount Trenchard Conservative 6:45, 18 July 2023

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.