Fishing Gossip ‘slightly fanatical’

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3:01 pm
Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
I welcome the debate and congratulate Mr. Heald on securing it. I do not know how he managed it, but the debate coincides with the launch of the “Rivers on the Edge” campaign, which it was my privilege to attend last night. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the chalk streams that are at risk in his constituency, but he will be aware that the campaign, which is generously supported by the HSBC Climate Partnership, also focuses on the upper Lea catchment, which is in dire need of attention and has appallingly low flows.
The primary River Lea, which flows through his constituency, is down to about 9 per cent. of normal flows in summer, which could be ecologically disastrous. The campaign also focuses on the River Itchen in Hampshire and, as has been said, the River Kennet. The latter gets a lot of attention—one could argue that too many organisations are dedicated to saving it, but I will address their work in a moment.
I am a keen angler, as is Mr. Walker, who is not in the Chamber. The Rivers Beane and Rib, in years gone by, particularly in the 1950s, were heralded as fine dry and course fisheries. The grandfather of contemporary angling, Richard Walker, who was from Hitchin, fished the Beane and the Rib. As a child, I remember reading about his exploits in a river that now, I suspect, barely has enough water to cover the tip of a float, never mind to sustain fish life for the bulk of the year.

Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire, Conservative)
I was talking last night to Andrew Bott, whose father used to fish the Beane in the stretch to which I referred, north of Watton-at-Stone. He told me that it was a fine fishery.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
Perhaps in the not too distant future, the hon. Gentleman will invite me to fish the Beane when it has some water in it. That is the purpose of the debate and the campaign.
I was pleased to launch the parallel “Stand up for Your River” campaign, which is promoted by the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Angling Trust and a number of other organisations. The campaign feeds into the Environment Agency’s river basement management plan, the consultation for which closes on 22 June.
We launched the campaign just outside my constituency boundary in the Newbury constituency, in the aptly named Lower Benyons fishery. Conservative Members might be interested to learn that we anglers refer to Lower, Upper and Middle Benyons and may wish to quiz Mr. Benyon on which bits of him are lower, upper and middle. We are grateful to the Benyon family for making their fishing available to us and for their contribution to some important wildlife and conservation projects in the Kennet valley.
I ought to declare a number of interests that may make me sound slightly fanatical. I am founder member of the Cleaner Kennet campaign and a member of the Angling Trust, which is the new governing body for angling, having taken over from the old Anglers Conservation Association. I also chair the Blueprint for Water coalition in Parliament. Those organisations, and the Wye and Usk Foundation, are all doing sterling work, for which I praise them.
The River Kennet brought me to Reading. I had no intention of becoming the town’s MP; I went there to go fishing—simple as that. I was lucky that in 1979 and 1980, Reading was a relatively cheap place to buy a house and one of those rare places where small, terraced properties for first-time buyers backed on to the River Kennet in, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire will know, Elgar road.
Most riverside properties tend to be outside the reach of the first-time buyer, but it was my privilege to own my own 12 ft of river bank, which, for a mad-keen angler in his 20s, was a bit of dream. I found after a while that I kept catching the same fish, but it was wonderful. I commuted to work, but did not have to commute to go fishing. That is what brought me to Reading and I have a deep affection for the river.
The Kennet and Avon canal, which runs parallel to much of the River Kennet—until about halfway between Hungerford and Newbury—had been in a state of disrepair since the 1950s. I was lucky as a young man, until 20 years ago, to be able to fish the Kennet at its peak. It was a crystal-clear chalk stream. Even down to the outskirts of Reading, I could stand and see the bottom in 5 ft or 6 ft of water, which teemed with wildlife. It was an amazing fishery.
Things started to go wrong—none of us spotted why—with the opening of the canal. As anglers, we thought it would be inconvenient to have more boats on the river between Reading and Newbury, but we had no idea of the impact that opening and linking the two watercourses would have.
For 50 years, the sediment in the canal had got deeper and deeper. At the entrance to the canal and the confluence with the river, where the waters first mix at Copse lock, just upstream from Hampstead Marshall, one can now see great slugs of silt and turbidity flowing into what is a crystal-clear chalk river further upstream. The gravels consequently silted up, so the light could not get through, which meant that the ranunculus, a protected species that is vital for the biodiversity and shelter of other plant life and invertebrates in the chalk stream environment, ceased to grow. Slowly but surely, the Kennet began to decline.
We can add to those problems the increase in abstraction, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said. It was appalling that the Environment Agency lost the inquiry on the Axford borehole—I cannot remember what year that happened. There was a reduction in flows, especially in summer, as well as an increase in point source pollution as a result of insensitive farming practice, increased run-off from the road network and a gradual decline of one of the finest chalk streams in Britain.
I do not want to bore hon. Members too much about fish, but the grayling, a wonderful fish, is an indicator species. I advise anyone who wants to know about the health of a fishery, especially a chalk stream fishery, to look at the lowest downstream point at which the grayling is found. I used to catch grayling at Padworth, which is well downstream of Thatcham. The most skilled anglers would struggle to find many grayling downstream of Hungerford, some 20 or 25 miles upstream. That is how far the water quality in the river has declined.
Mr. Wilson referred to increased housing, but the biggest threat—the 7,500 houses for the Kennet flood plain to the south-west of my constituency, proposed by the independent panel in the south-east plan—has already been averted. On top of that, we have seen the growth of signal crayfish numbers and increased predation. However, all is not lost. It was my privilege, in 1992, to set up a unique partnership between West Berkshire council, boat owners, wildlife groups, Reading borough council and the angling organisations—the Cleaner Kennet Campaign.
The campaign has played a key role in lobbying for funding, catchment management plans and habitat restoration projects, which can and will make a difference. If we cease damaging environments and allow wildlife to regenerate and regroup, mother nature will do the rest.
I am a trustee of the old Thames Rivers Restoration Trust, which runs a chalk stream restoration project. That project is levering in funding for habitat restoration and looking at whether there is an environmentally sensitive way to filter out the increased silt and turbidity coming into the river as a result of the canal and chalk stream watercourses being mingled downstream of Copse lock.
National organisations are also highly supportive of the work that we are doing in the Kennet valley. In particular, I want to highlight the work of the former Anglers Cooperative Association, which is now part of the Angling Trust. The association is the only organisation that has used the common law consistently to prosecute polluters, often using civil actions to secure far greater damages than the Environment Agency or the statutory authorities.
The association’s 2008 annual report showed that record damages were reclaimed from polluters on behalf of riparian owners and angling clubs. The River Blackwater was polluted with tin oxide in 2002, and a case was settled after many years of delay, with compensation being paid to the Ilford and District Piscatorial Society and the Kelvedon and District Angling Association.
In Somerset, a farmer was prosecuted for a liquid food waste spill that caused massive damage to the waters of six different angling clubs on the River Brue, which is a beautiful river in the west country. The Environment Agency managed to secure a paltry fine of £1,000, which is hardly a disincentive to the polluter—Robert Key talked about the “polluter pays” principle. However, the ACA pursued a civil claim in the courts and secured more than £7,000 in additional damages, as well as £4,000 in costs against the farmer. I am therefore proud to be a member of the association, which has now been absorbed into the new governing body for angling.
On top of that, some other quite inspirational work is going on. The debate is about not just the Kennet and the Lee, but all the rivers of England, and I draw Members’ attention to the work of the Wye and Usk Foundation. It is well worth the Minister and the shadow Minister visiting the foundation’s website to see how we can adopt a professional approach to the restoration of one of Britain’s most famous rivers.
The river will be under dire threat, particularly as a fishery, if the proposal to build the Severn barrage goes through, and I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Member for Salisbury has done to highlight what an environmental disaster the Severn barrage could be.

Robert Key (Salisbury, Conservative)
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, to a man and woman, all those involved in the area’s fisheries and all those interested in fishing and in conserving fish in the Severn and its tributaries oppose the Severn barrage?

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
They are opposed to it to a man, woman and dog. It is not that we are environmental vandals; we want the tidal power of the River Severn to be harnessed, because that could make a contribution to green energy, but we do not want that to happen at the cost of destroying the environment, the spawning habitat of 25 per cent. of all salmon in England and Wales, and the jobs that depend on angling tourism, particularly in the constituency of Mr. Williams and in rural Wales and the border counties. Such a development would run completely contrary to not only the spirit but the letter of the European habitats directive.
I may be Labour’s vice-chair on environmental issues, but if my Government pursue the Severn barrage, I give due notice that I will actively pursue action in the courts with non-governmental organisations and hon. Members on both sides of the House to ensure that the European habitats directive is enforced, because it is not possible, as the directive requires, to recreate a compensatory habitat in this case—we simply cannot build a new salmon river. We will return to that battle.
The Wye and Usk Foundation was founded in 1996 and then became a company limited by guarantee. It has introduced radical measures to tackle acid rain and the acidification of the upper Wye catchment, which were making it impossible for salmon to spawn. We have seen the removal of man-made and sometimes natural obstructions, which were preventing the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. We have also seen amazing partnerships.
We have seen sometimes insular owners of fisheries working together, allowing coarse anglers on to rivers that had been closed to them for many years. We have seen about £6 million of public money—particularly European money—channelled through the Wye and Usk Foundation into voluntary groups and professional work carried out by contractors to restore a river that is certainly the pride of Wales and, in my view, the pride of Britain.
There are some big issues facing hon. Members. This is an easy speech for me to make, because I am not standing for re-election, but we as politicians—we have all been guilty of grubbing around for a few votes—need collectively to confront the issue of water metering, conservation and the price of water. The public will not value water if we continue to treat it as a throwaway commodity. I have no doubt that the third world war—I hope to God that there is not one—will be fought not over culture or religion, but over access to dry land and clean water. That is an inevitable consequence of climate change.
The way we allow winter run-off from our rivers is appalling. If hon. Members stand on the Terrace in winter, they will see billions of gallons of water washing away to the North sea, but in a few months we will be complaining about low flows. We in this country are not efficient at retaining, storing and using the resource that we are blessed with. That is why projects such as the upper Thames reservoir at Abingdon must go ahead and why strategic planning decisions must be made.
I am afraid that such decisions cannot be left to little local councils, with their predilection for parish-pump politics. That is why we have to be big people on the issue of water and be cognisant of the fact that we should be working closely with the powerful coalition of birdwatchers, environmentalists, anglers, naturalists and wildlife groups out there, just as we are working with the coalitions involved with the Blueprint for Water and the “Rivers on the Edge” campaign. Such issues should set the environmental agenda for the next generation, and water must be at the heart of that.

3:17 pm
Robert Key (Salisbury, Conservative)
We are talking about Arcadia—nothing less—and I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Heald on drawing the issue to the attention of the House.
In the 16th century, the Avon catchment in the heart of Wessex gave rise to the whole concept of Arcadia—the relationship between the land, the water, the people and what happened there. In 1220, at the confluence of the rivers of the Hampshire Avon catchment—the Ebble, the Nadder, the Wylye, the Avon and the Bourne—we saw the creation by Bishop Poore of Salisbury, with its great cathedral. Later, the landscape was painted memorably by John Constable. Isaac Walton—father and son—fished and wrote on the Avon in Wiltshire. The land on which the Parliament tree stood at Stratford-sub-Castle flows down to the river itself, which was a Roman ford.
The great chalk grasslands where the water for the Hampshire Avon originates are the most extensive west of Poland. On the plain in the midst of those grasslands is Stonehenge. The land round about is under the stewardship of the Ministry of Defence, and the well-being of that landscape has been protected, ensuring that it has remained balanced and diverse. As a result, the Avon river is now a special area of conservation under the European habitats directive.
I have an intimate relationship with the rivers of southern England. In 1947, I fell into one, and I was pulled out by the Bishop of Bombay, who happened to be passing—the true stories are always the best. It was the same river in which I learned to tickle trout and to tie my flies for trout fishing and where I enjoyed lazy summer days in the water meadows. Since then, however, we have seen the destruction of hatches and the abandonment of water meadows. I pay tribute to the work of the Harnham Water Meadows Trust, which has retained, improved and rebuilt much of the water meadow infrastructure. We have also seen the end of water bailiffs, who understood every inch of their waterways and who regulated our streams and rivers.
When I was first elected to the House in 1983, we had great arguments about fish farms. There were 23 fish farms in the Avon catchment, including the biggest in Europe, which was at Barford Park at Downton. I pay tribute to the late Lord Radnor, who instigated that fish farm, which is thriving. He argued long and hard that fish farms were not the devil incarnate, but he had a tough time.
On Thursday 16 February 1984, I asked the then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
“when he will announce the date on which the provisions of the Diseases of Fish Act 1983 will be implemented.”—[Hansard, 16 February 1984; Vol. 54, c. 257W.]
You will not be surprised to hear, Mr. O’Hara, that he answered, “Shortly.” Well, the question was not answered shortly. The situation went on and on, and I corresponded with the Natural Environment Research Council and its excellent chairman at the time, appropriately named Mr. Hugh Fish, about the future of the Hampshire Avon. On 10 April 1987, The Independent published an article headed “Fishermen blame trout farms for river’s slow death: conspiracy claim as anglers and landowners clash over decline of the once-glorious Avon.”
When the third report of the Environment Committee was published on 13 May 1987, it stated that the problem was caused by much more than just fish farms, referring to everything from controlling polluters to the control of sewage sludge, agricultural pollution, afforestation, fish farms, nitrates, silage, industrial pollution, chemical formulation and consented discharges. That is part of the long story of our steady destruction of our rivers, and we have only ourselves to blame.
The problems we now face arise principally from the demands of the public water supply. It is outrageous that we go on plundering our chalk aquifers in the way we do. The boreholes in the upper waters of the Avon catchment are responsible for taking up to a third of the water from the chalk aquifers right out of the region, and the water is piped to places such as Yeovil, and even to Bristol and towns such as Chippenham. Under the south-west regional spatial strategy, the water companies, without even being so much as formal consultees, simply had to provide as much water as the planners decided would be allowed for the houses they planned. Another 12,000 houses were planned in my constituency alone. Lord knows where that water would have come from, and, indeed, where the drainage would go and how much it would all cost. We simply cannot go on like that, because the impact on the aquifers is too serious. It takes 30 years for the pollutants to travel right through the aquifers on the Salisbury plain to their exit into the English channel off the Dorset coast.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am a member of the Longford fishing syndicate, which is based in his constituency. Is he aware that the beloved Hampshire Avon, one of the finest chalk streams in the country, now barely operates as a chalk stream? A few years ago it would not have been unreasonable to expect heavy rainfall on the chalk downs to take perhaps 24 to 36 hours to find its way down to Salisbury and into the river system. That water now reaches the river in a matter of hours because the aquifers are ceasing to work for the river and it is effectively acting as a Scottish spate river, which is a terrible indictment on what should be one of the finest rivers in this country.

Robert Key (Salisbury, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One can now find the real-time readings for the boreholes on Salisbury plain on the Environment Agency’s website and see for oneself that when the rainfall comes—in buckets—it does not do what it should do. It should go straight down into the aquifers, but instead it just runs off like a Scottish spate river, as the hon. Gentleman said.
We have many problems in this regard, which the water companies have to face, but this is the time to put pressure on them, because they are just at the beginning of their new plans for their five-year business cycles. I am delighted to see the Minister in his place, because he is a reasonable man who understands these things better than most Ministers do—we all have experience of being parachuted into a job in a Ministry.
One of the problems facing those who care about rivers is river restoration. Rivers have become canalised, over-dredged, over-widened and sometimes over-narrowed. They simply have not been looked after properly. If we are to look after our rivers properly, river restoration is a huge programme facing our nation. Climate change is also important in that regard. It will not be felt for perhaps another 30 or 40 years, but mark my words, by then the salmon population will be negligible and there will be no spawning because the water will be too warm. The decline of water fly life has already been dramatic, and there are now few big hatches on our rivers in the summer. Where is the research on that, and who is meant to be paying for it? Research is always the first thing to be struck off when organisations and agencies have a cash crisis.
Ten years ago, we started to look at one of the serious causes of biodiversity problems in rivers: endocrine disruption cased by the use of the pill. That problem derives not only from the female of the species—after all, it is us who cause the trouble in the first place, so we are all involved.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whom he means when he says “us”?

Robert Key (Salisbury, Conservative)
Well, I had better not go down that path, Mr. O’Hara, or you will have something to say. The problem of sex change in fish is serious and is leading to a decline in fertility. The spawning gravels in our rivers become repositories for endocrine disruptors, and for phosphates and nitrates from run-off from our farms.
That brings me to changes in farming practices, which we must ensure take place. The silt load in our rivers is worse than it has ever been, largely because of farming techniques and practice and the use of particular crops. The worst crop is maize. If only we could persuade our farmers not to plant so much maize, we would not have nearly so much top soil in the rivers. Maize is the biggest polluter when it comes to the problem of run-off. The phosphorous in the fertiliser gives rise to algal bloom, which in turn disrupts the spawning gravels.
There was an initiative about 15 years ago to introduce buffer strips along our watercourses, but that came to nothing. I spoke to the Environment Agency only this morning about that, but it had not even heard of the initiative because the current generation of people at the agency do not know what happened 15 or 20 years ago—why should they? They are not historians.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman is making a superb speech and a great contribution, but is he aware of something happening in his part of the world: the countryside stewardship scheme, which compensates farmers for creating those buffer strips? In the upper Kennet catchment we had problems with pig farms but managed to alleviate them in that way.

Robert Key (Salisbury, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that scheme was actually introduced in the higher-level stewardship scheme. The gentleman I spoke to at the Environment Agency this morning, who is a great professional, was unaware that it had been introduced—I kid you not, Mr. O’Hara. Actually, it was introduced by my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer when he was Secretary of State for the Environment.
There are other problems apart from those resulting from agriculture that we must address, although the nitrate problem and the nitrate directive are very serious issues, and that is linked to the question of the nil-grazing of stock. If we nil-graze stock such as the Holstein cattle, we will feed them on imported soya, which in turn gives rise to climate change issues elsewhere in the world. This is a global issue that is related not only to rivers in this country. I invite the Minister to address those other factors. Control of mink is seriously needed, for example. If we are to maintain biodiversity, we must keep a balance. Water voles are destroyed by mink, with which we have huge problems on the Avon catchment. Controlling mink means trapping and shooting them, but no one likes doing that to nice furry little mink, which look so nice. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire mentioned the problem of the signal crayfish, the American cousin. It has just about seen the back of the indigenous white-clawed crayfish, which I used to catch in the river in Salisbury as a child, turning over the stones to find them. They were wonderful eating.
Another bone of contention and serious problem, which we thought we had licked, is the number of cormorants on our rivers. They consume vast numbers of fish, which upsets the biodiversity in our rivers. The restocking of our rivers with fish cannot keep up with the stock lost to cormorants. In the Salisbury area, 30 miles upstream from the coast, we have huge problems with the loss of both course and game fish. All that is caused by there being insufficient food in coastal areas, including through the loss of sand eels. Again, that shows the various interrelationships and how enormous a brief the Minister must carry as he answers for all these problems in his winding-up speech.
Invasive plants are a serious problem in all our rivers. The Himalayan balsam is by far the worst. When the Himalayan balsam is present at the headwaters of a stream, as it is in the chalk streams of southern England, including the Kennet and Avon systems, everything downstream is clogged up. It has become endemic. Most major areas affected by Himalayan balsam have been identified by the Environment Agency, but if anyone spots it—if fishermen, for instance, see the plant or notice seeds floating down the river—for heaven’s sake, they should tell the Environment Agency. Not nearly enough effort is being put into the issue.
I could go on but I will not, as other Members wish to speak. I will just say that we have no right to plunder our rivers as we are doing. It is our duty to protect our heritage. It is our duty to protect Arcadia and the silver streams of Albion.

Edward O’Hara (Knowsley South, Labour)
I remind Members that with the addition of injury time, winding-up speeches should now start at 3.42.

3:31 pm
Anne Main (St Albans, Conservative)
I congratulate my fellow Hertfordshire MP, my hon. Friend Mr. Heald, on securing the debate. Chalk streams are an extremely valuable and incredibly fragile resource. The River Ver, an important chalk stream, starts in the Chilterns and runs right through the middle of St. Albans. Indeed, St. Albans was probably founded where it is because of that wonderful natural asset.
The river runs through Verulamium park in the city centre, which was a major part of the old city of Verulamium, bending sharply to the south where its flow was blocked and diverted by ice half a million years ago. It is a globally rare chalk stream bordered by rough grassland, water meadow, rare reed beds, hedgerows and woodland. That important mix makes a huge difference to the species of flora and fauna in the area, and we disturb it at our peril.
Although periodic low flows are not good for many species, the farmland along the river is becoming much more wildlife friendly, as colleagues have said. The countryside management scheme and the previous set-aside schemes are starting to take effect. There is some diversity of species—kingfisher, heron, coot, moorhen, little grebe, wagtail and so on. I am not knowledgeable about birds, but people who are tell me that certain species have been declining alarmingly during the past 20 years, particularly skylarks. However, they have started to recover slightly in recent years because we are starting to recognise what damage we are doing to the fragile ecosystem.
Hertfordshire chalk streams have shallow gravel beds and clear water, as Martin Salter said, and are fed by groundwater stored in the layers of chalk beneath, which soak up water like a sponge. That soaking-up is crucial. One thing that has not been mentioned in the debate is the run-off resulting from hard landscaping, which causes water to course down culverts and run off rather than being absorbed by the area surrounding the chalk streams. If we build the expected thousands of additional houses, we will have to deal not only with abstraction, but with hard landscaping and run-off.
At various points, water emerges in the form of springs that feed the river. Chalk streams are important and deeply sensitive to environmental pressures, including increased pressure to build in our area. They are unique in Europe. I find it staggering that we are asked to be concerned about rain forests, ice caps and all the other environmentally sensitive areas when we treat some of our local environmentally sensitive areas with such disregard and disdain.
I cannot help but stress how annoyed I was by the apparent statutory obligation to provide water and the fact that the Government can ratify a plan that local people do not feel is acceptable, putting thousands of extra houses in an area that is already stressed. We must stop that now. It is no good saying 20 years down the line, “We have ruined our rivers, and by the way, we put 82,000 houses in Hertfordshire at the same time.”
Our chalk streams are unique and recognised globally. They are the European aquatic equivalent of the rain forests, and we should treat them as such. We cannot lecture other societies about what they do in the name of their economies, such as cutting down masses of timber, while we say that our economy in the south is the powerhouse of England and we are going to build wherever people want to live. We must think about it.
The Environment Agency allows Three Valleys Water to abstract more than 30 million litres of water a day from the Ver aquifer by pumping from deep underground at several pumping stations. We have our concerns about that. The Buncefield oil depot disaster in 2005 occurred just outside my constituency, but as we have heard, the flow of rivers and aquifers means that the pollutants that entered the water will reach everywhere. Perfluorooctane sulfonate has entered our waterways, and I am still not reassured that we know exactly what the impact will be. I cannot understand why the Government altered the acceptable threshold of PFOS.
We are still waiting for a particular borehole to be opened. A large aquifer was polluted. The Bow Bridge pumping station, which serves my constituency, cannot be used, but is soon to be reopened. We have not had the environmental reassurances that we need, nor have the long-term impact studies that we have been calling for been done. What will this mean for the environment of our area, which relies on that valuable resource?
I am pleased to report that, after several months of above-average rainfall, the aquifer returned to average in March 2007 for the first time in more than three years, and remained at roughly that level throughout 2008. It is amazing that we had a hosepipe ban for 11 of 12 months, despite the fact that it bucketed down with rain everywhere in St. Albans and we had several dreadful summers in a row. The levels had gone so low that it has taken three years just to get back up to the average.

Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire, Conservative)
I forgot to say earlier that our hon. Friend Mike Penning wanted to be here, but parliamentary business did not allow it. He is very concerned about the Buncefield issue, which my hon. Friend has just mentioned.

Anne Main (St Albans, Conservative)
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mike Penning, who has worked so hard, particularly in relation to the pollutants from Buncefield, and been pressing hard for the aquifers to be monitored vigorously.
A lot of good work is going on; we have heard about wonderful work in all locations. The St. Albans Watercress Wildlife Association has opened the watercress beds. They are a fantastic resource, but pressures on building in my constituency mean that people look at those bits of green and think, “Where should we put our houses? How much do we value this?” When I bang on about the green belt and open green spaces, it is not because I am being a nimby; it is because, as all hon. Members have said, such spaces are part of a sensitive ecosystem.
There has been a huge decline in butterflies and pollinators in Hertfordshire. I know that bee decline has featured heavily, but butterflies have been decimated by farming practices. I am privileged to say that Butterfly World, which is opening in St. Albans, will address that issue. We are lucky that the chalk streams support butterflies such as orange-tips, brimstones, peacocks and small tortoiseshells, as well as dragonflies.
Such species are an indicator of good, clear water, but some are declining. As the hon. Member for Reading, West said, they used to be seen further downstream. Not only will we not see those beautiful creatures, but pollinators are being wiped out. That is incredibly important. The film supporting Butterfly World shows that when butterflies and bees decline, so do we.
We must make an incredible effort to support our rivers, resist inappropriate development and be mindful of the fact that houses bring people and that people have expectations about lifestyle and water usage. We cannot curtail those expectations and we cannot just expect water to be delivered by pumps from somewhere else. What is taken from somewhere else might cause pressure somewhere else. We should all ask the Government to listen to local people when they say that certain things must stop, including unsustainable development.
I am hopeful about the good work going on in my constituency and that the concerned people who value such things will not be seen as sandal-wearers fighting for their precious little bit of river and the right to selfish enjoyment of the countryside. It is not like that at all. They should be seen as curators of the future of us all. We are only borrowing the land for a short while, and we should hand it on to the future in better condition, not worse.

3:39 pm
Roger Williams (Brecon & Radnorshire, Liberal Democrat)
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara.
It has been a privilege to hear Mr. Heald and his colleagues speak so enthusiastically about the chalk streams in their constituencies. We have had the benefit of the experience and knowledge of Martin Salter, who is an acknowledged expert on fishing and fisheries. I remember listening to the late Lord Denning speak about chalk streams after he retired as Master of the Rolls. That filled me with ambition to see those wonderful streams. Now that my son is living in Harpenden, I have more of an excuse to do so and might spend some time there.
We make huge demands on our rivers for all sorts of purposes. Usually, they are forgiving and can accommodate many of the abuses that we throw at them. However, there comes a time when demand on our rivers becomes such that it damages them, whether temporarily or permanently. It is a huge challenge for us and the Government to find ways to correct the damage that we do.
Obviously, we look to our rivers to provide water, and concerns have been raised over the demand for water for additional housing. The Government must work with local planning authorities to see what can be done. I am sure that the Flood and Water Management Bill will contain proposals to deal with run-off from hard surfaces and to create a more permeable approach to development. There should be less concrete and more lawns and gravel, so that rather than run off and be lost immediately, water joins the aquifers that supply the streams.
It is not just housing that puts demands on water. There are demands from agriculture and irrigation. As a result of climate change, the need for irrigation will increase if we are to keep up with the food output targets that many think should be introduced. Irrigation can be improved. Rather than having a broadcast system of irrigation, more targeted forms such as the trickle system could be used so that water was delivered to the plant, rather than going across the whole piece of land. That would ensure that the water for irrigation was better used.
We also look to our rivers for conservation. Hon. Members have compared them to the rain forests in the Amazon in saying that rivers are our rain forests. That is probably true. We have heard examples of the plants and birds that they support. If the parks of London are the lungs of the capital, the rivers are perhaps the arteries and veins of our countryside; they support the countryside and its wildlife. Rivers also contribute to the landscape. Nothing is as great as a river flowing through countryside in completing the Arcadia that Robert Key described. Artists have celebrated our landscape on many occasions.
We look to our rivers for recreation. Nothing has yet been said of the ongoing conflict between canoeists and fishermen. Perhaps the Minister will say a word about that. I was with a prime mover in the Wye and Usk Foundation on Monday night. He is hopeful that progress can be made by better management and through working together on those issues, rather than through conflict.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
The Minister has not been in his post long, but he has impressed so far. It has been the policy of previous Ministers to say no to the absurd campaign being fought by the British Canoe Union for a statutory right to paddle up every river, ditch, stream and spawning ground the length and breadth of England and Wales. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that voluntary access agreements are the way forward. There will be problems if he does not.

Roger Williams (Brecon & Radnorshire, Liberal Democrat)
I knew that I would be able to incite the hon. Gentleman.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Ogmore, Labour)
There is much more scope for work on voluntary agreements. I hope that the BCU will work with us to take that forward, including in the devolved nations. We are keen to do a lot more within the current settlement.

Roger Williams (Brecon & Radnorshire, Liberal Democrat)
I thank the Minister for his intervention. I believe that that is the correct approach. There must be give and take on both sides. David Jones Powell holds the ring for riparian owners on the River Usk and has negotiated an agreement with the BCU. It has signed that agreement on a fairly regular basis, but I understand that lately the BCU has been unwilling to sign the document because it believes that it will create a legal right for riparian owners to control and negotiate on the matter.
The BCU believes that canoeists should have the right to access whenever they want it. All the sentiments that have been expressed today point towards a voluntary approach, not a right for canoeists to go wherever they want. We have to manage our rivers. If we are not able to do so, they will be in danger.
Just as there are debates over the recreational use of rivers for canoeing, there is much debate about their recreational use for fishing. Many comments on that have been made this afternoon. Our rivers are also used for transport. British Waterways controls some river areas around Gloucester for the movement of goods and for the use of pleasure boats.
Because we have abused our rivers in the past and continue to do so, we have suffered many problems. The problem that has been emphasised most today is low flows. There is evidence that if climate change develops as we think it will, by 2050 the autumn flows of all our rivers will fall by 80 per cent. Therefore, not only chalk streams, but rivers throughout the UK, will be damaged. In a way, you are highlighting what could be a problem for the whole UK, not just the streams in your area.

Edward O’Hara (Knowsley South, Labour)
Order. As Chairman, I have no interest in any of these rivers.

Roger Williams (Brecon & Radnorshire, Liberal Democrat)
I am sorry; I got a bit carried away with my enthusiasm for the rivers.
Another problem is pollution. Mention has been made of specific problems in specific places. Farming must play its part in ensuring that rivers are improved. Everything must be done to prevent the massive pollution incidents that occur from time to time, but those are not the only problems. There is also diffuse pollution. That is why nitrate-vulnerable zones were introduced. However, nitrate problems in river water are not solely to do with agriculture.
Certainly, the legislation on nitrate-vulnerable zones does not seem to be fit for purpose. Regulations were introduced many years ago, since which the condition of many of our rivers has improved in terms of nitrate pollution. However, the Minister should be aware that not only agriculture, but sewage systems and various other industries, is involved. The burden on agricultural industry should be viewed in proportionate terms, not in the absolute terms that the NVZ legislation requires.
The cleaning of rivers that pass through private agricultural land is both a private and public matter for which the Westminster and the devolved Governments must take some responsibility. Because we have had a certain amount of pollution, I am concerned about the licences that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform issues for specific, large-scale civil engineering work such as the gas pipeline through my constituency. Such licences have not been accompanied by conditions on remedying and alleviating the pollution of rivers over which those big schemes pass. DBERR issues the licences, but does not have the powers to ensure that those conditions are implemented, so the pollution goes on.
I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion, as the Minister has a lot on his plate. He will need all the time available to him to respond on all those issues.

3:51 pm
Anne McIntosh (Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Vale of York, Conservative)
I apologise for my voice, Mr. O’Hara, and I shall ensure that the Official Report gets the full text of my contribution.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Heald on the sterling contribution that he has made under your excellent chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara, and may I say what a privilege it is to appear under your chairmanship? My hon. Friend has put a lot of thought into his contribution and covered a lot of ground. I should like to make my bid for having the most stunning countryside in my constituency, which is also blessed with a number of very fishable and beautiful rivers, and I thank my hon. Friend for setting the scene.
Most hon. Friends and colleagues who have spoken today have done so in the context of the rivers that they live next to—chalk streams in a particular part of the countryside have been discussed—or the anglers whom they represent, but I am sure that the Minister will want to broaden his response to include the water framework directive. I was touched by my hon. Friend’s contribution, especially when he set the scene regarding unsatisfactory flows in our rivers and pointed out that the UK has a variety of local climates, with differing rainfalls. Having represented part of East Anglia in the European Parliament for 10 years, I am only too aware that the rainfall in East Anglia is probably less than in northern areas, and I am grateful to him for drawing our attention to the issue.
I congratulate the WWF on its latest campaign, “Our Rivers”, which aims to protect river habitats. I am grateful to Martin Salter for drawing the Chamber’s attention to my hon. Friend Mr. Benyon, because he was the first to set up a protection zone local area committee to protect the River Kennet, I think. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Benyon family have, for many generations, allowed fishing and other natural activities to occur on that river, and we pay tribute to the Benyon family today.

Martin Salter (Reading West, Labour)
I thank the hon. Lady for her generous tribute to my neighbour, for whom I have great respect. It is actually the River Pang that he was instrumental in enhancing.

Anne McIntosh (Shadow Minister, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Vale of York, Conservative)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that my hon. Friend will take me out and beat me up for misnaming the river.
I was particularly struck by the contributions on biodiversity, especially those of my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (Robert Key) and for North-East Hertfordshire, who spoke about the loss of the water vole, and that of my hon. Friend Anne Main about the loss of butterflies. We have had debates about the bees, but we should also be aware of the contribution of the butterfly to biodiversity.

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Published in: on May 18, 2009 at 2:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

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