Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Quin.)
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me for my Adjournment debate this evening. I am delighted that I did not try your patience with a spurious point of order, as that really would have been naughty. If I had tried your patience with a spurious point of order, it would have been on an environmental matter, and I would have just wanted to know how I could bring to the attention of this House the fact that, on Friday afternoon, the Secretary of State refused a planning application by Veolia to build a massive incinerator in my constituency. I was delighted with the refusal, and I now hope, as do all my constituents, that Veolia will give up its plans to put the incinerator in my constituency, give up trying to put one in Hertfordshire and disappear. If I had made a spurious and bogus point of order, that would have been it.
I will give way on that point, but I would like to get to the substantive part of my speech.
Does my hon. Friend agree that mine was not a spurious point of order? I have seven chalk streams and I want to make a speech.
Of course, and there was nothing spurious about my delight at Veolia failing to get its application through—it was just that I wanted to bring it to the attention of a wider audience.
My point of order was not a spurious one. I wanted to inquire whether the Secretary of State for Transport had indicated that he was going to make a statement on the escalating costs of HS2, which will damage the chalk streams in my area, as my hon. Friend well knows.
I thank my right hon. Friend for alerting the House to that very important point. HS2 does pose a risk to chalk stream and riverine environments. No doubt if time allows, my right hon. Friend will bring her concerns to the attention of the House.
I had miscounted; I have eight chalk streams in my constituency.
My right hon. and learned Friend is such an honest and decent man. He could have misled the House that there were seven chalk streams in his area, but he has corrected the record without being summoned back—in fact there are eight.
Let us now get to the serious part of this debate, because this is a very serious matter that causes a great many colleagues on both sides of the House a huge amount of concern. The Colne; the Beane; the Mimram; the Gade; the Ver; the Chess; the Misbourne; the Wye; the Rib; the Hamble; the Bulbourne; the Quin; the Hogsmill; and the Wandle. The list could go on, but these are all chalk stream rivers that are degraded or dying around my constituency in Hertfordshire and the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) in Buckinghamshire. This country has over 85% of the world’s chalk streams, and these streams are a unique habitat.
The hon. Gentleman and I share many loves of the countryside—particularly a love of country sports, but also a love of the environment. Does he agree that there is a delicate balance to be struck to ensure that companies can continue to operate as they attempt to find alternative sources of water rather than chalk streams? What more does he feel can be done as a matter of urgency to protect these environmental treasures, because treasures is what they are?
My hon. Friend is very perspicacious in his observations. I shall come to the matter later in my speech. He is absolutely right to raise that point and I hope that both the Minister and I will be able to address it, as I know other colleagues share his concerns.
The degradation of our chalk streams is one the two greatest environmental scandals of the late 20th century and the start of the 21st century. Of course, the other great environmental scandal is the destruction of the marine environment off the west coast of Scotland through salmon farming—an industry that has laid waste to numerous sea lochs off the west coast of Scotland and has destroyed the native fish runs in many of the rivers that feed those sea lochs.
It is important that I put the situation in context. As I said a moment ago, we have 85% of the world’s chalk streams and most of them are highly degraded. I find it extraordinary, given our own poor environmental record, that colleagues in this House lecture Indonesia and Brazil so freely on their responsibility to the rain forests. Of course, those two countries have a huge responsibility to the rain forests, but if we cannot save the chalk streams that are literally in our own backyard, what are we doing lecturing other countries on their environmental responsibilities? Saving the world does not start with the rest of the world. Saving the world starts right here, right now, doing our bit locally with our chalk streams—think locally, act globally.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just pointed out, our chalk streams are literally being abstracted to death. Parts of the streams that I named at the start of my speech do not flow. In fact, a few of them barely flow at all from their source to where they join a bigger river. That is our record and it is one that none of us should take any pride in—and it is getting worse. We have had three dry years in a row. There is this myth that we live in a wet country. Certainly, parts of our country are wet but the east and the south-east are actually dry, and they are getting drier. The aquifers are not being replenished by rainfall and they are getting more abstracted, so even less water is going into our rivers.
Let me give an example from the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham. In the last 10 years alone, there have been five dry events in the Upper Chess—the most stunning river, which I have the great privilege of visiting once a year as a guest of Paul Jennings and my right hon. Friend.
It is always a great pleasure to welcome my hon. Friend to Chesham and Amersham, particularly at the invitation of Paul Jennings. Does he agree that Paul Jennings is one of the most outstanding advocates for chalk streams and our environment, and that he should be praised for all the efforts that he and the River Chess Association put into trying to maintain and preserve this chalk stream for our children and our children’s children?
I entirely agree. I know Paul Jennings well; he is one of the greatest friends any chalk stream could have. He is a conservationist of the highest order, and he deserves our full congratulations and respect for the tenacity that he has shown in ensuring that the issues that afflict so many of our chalk streams are kept somewhat in abeyance on the Chess. However, I am afraid that even he would admit that he has not always been successful in doing that.
As I was saying, in the past 10 years there have been five dry events in the Upper Chess. In the 20 years prior to that, there were three. Drier years mean more abstraction, and things are only going to get worse. Affinity Water serves the home counties north of London, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) will know. Affinity has no reservoirs. It only abstracts waters from the chalk aquifers—that is the only place it can get its water from. As we know, the aquifers it abstracts from are those that feed the rivers that are currently dying. Affinity currently serves 3.6 million people. In 20 years’ time that number will be nearer to 4.5 million people. Where on earth is the water going to come from? If we go on as we are now, the water will come out of the aquifers and we will not have a single chalk stream running in Hertfordshire or Buckinghamshire. That is not an exaggeration; that is where we are at.
Affinity has tried, within the constraints that it is operating under—bearing in mind that it has no reservoir. It reduced pumping at one pumping station on the River Beane by 90%, which was actually a very brave thing to do. Yet that part of the river has not started flowing again because the long-term damage to aquifers that have been used and abused for the past 30, 40 or 50 years is so extreme that it may take decades to recover.
It is not just abstraction that kills rivers; it is also what happens after the abstraction. If companies are abstracting water from chalk streams, they either dry them out—and that does kill them—or they reduce the flow. When there is low flow in a river, it cannot get rid of pollutants; pollutants concentrate. A river that is flowing well can move pollutants on down it, dilute them and dissolve them. This does not happen when a river is being extracted to death. So what is the next consequence of extraction? We get topsoil run-off, which just sinks to the bottom of rivers and depletes them of oxygen. It sticks to the chalk at the bottom, destroying any oxygen that can get into the chalk for the small invertebrates that live in it. Then there is phosphorus from agriculture and sewage works, which causes oxygen depletion from algal blooms and eutrophication. Basically, we have environments that cannot support life, or which support limited life, because there is no oxygen. Agricultural pesticides wash in off the fields, destroying biodiversity and wiping out invertebrates and the fly life that comes from them. Then there are the many septic tanks up and down the country that are unregulated and leaking into groundwater that finds its way into rivers. The challenge is immense.
As I said, this is an environmental crisis of a monumental scale that we are failing to address. Fundamentally, we need to reduce abstraction now. Thames Water, which I have worked closely with at times, has done that on the River Chess and the River Cray, but it wants to do more—and quite frankly it needs to do more. So what is Thames Water doing? It is making efforts to reduce leakage, and those are to be welcomed and applauded. It can introduce metering, promote water efficiency, and go into schools to educate children as to the importance of water, but, at most, these efforts will reduce consumption in the area it serves from 142 litres per day to 136 litres per day. That is just not a significant decrease. It is an important amount of water, but at 3.5% it is not going to save the day. Thames Water estimates that by 2045 there will be a shortfall of 350 million litres of water a day between the amount of water available and the amount needed.
There is only one game-changing solution to this crisis, and that is to create more storage capacity, which we do by building more reservoirs. I think that the last major reservoir we built was the Queen Mother reservoir for the east and south-east of England in 1974, so we have grown the population by millions but we have not put in any additional water storage. If we want to save our chalk stream rivers, of which we have 85% of the world’s resource, then we really have to build reservoirs. The spade-ready reservoir that has been on the books for 12 years but has been blocked by a well-organised group of 20 people is the Abingdon reservoir in Oxfordshire. That is a game changer. If we get the Abingdon reservoir built, that starts to create the capacity we need, but at the rate the population of London and the south-east is growing, we will need more than one Abingdon—we will need two or three Abingdons. Until we start capturing water at the times of plenty and using it during dry periods like we are experiencing now, we will remain in trouble. We will be in a position where our own environmental record falls well short of where it should be, and we will limit our ability to change the way that other countries handle their natural resources, because they can look at us and say, “What on earth are you doing? You are in no position to lecture us.”
I could go on at great length, but I am not going to. In fact, I may have already gone on at great length, but this subject warrants some exploration. Finally, I would like to thank the Angling Trust, particularly Martin Salter—a former Member here—and Stuart Singleton-White, for the amazing document they have published, “Chalk Streams in Crisis”. It really is an extremely good, but somewhat depressing and sad, read. It is a call to arms. If we are to be taken seriously, we have to make changes to the way in which we approach our valuable and precious ecosystems. One of the most valuable and precious is our chalk streams, and, as I said, we have a lamentable record in this area.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on his thorough, wide-ranging and very informative speech. I, too, was exercised to come to this debate having read the report by Martin Salter that he referred to. It is a fantastic piece of work that all Members should have a look at.
The hon. Gentleman is a passionate and long-term defender of our river system. I simply want to make a couple of technical points. To clarify, by contrast to him, I am not and I cannot self-identify as a fisherman. I have stood by a few chalk streams with him occasionally, but that does not make me a fisherman. However, just like him, I am worried about how we preserve the unique biodiversity and international reputation of our threatened chalk streams. My chief concern is the degradation of our river systems due to water abstraction and what this tells us about some wider public policy concerns that we should all share in this House, irrespective of whether we are advocates of fly fishing in chalk streams.
It seems to me that the basic issue is quite simple: how can we protect our natural environment and chalk streams without making alternative sources of water available? The fundamental issue is how we can make more water available. As has been said, we have unique resources in this country. England has 160 of a total of 210 chalk streams in the world, and southern England has several of the greatest chalk streams on the planet. Yet today many of them are in an appalling state. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, no water is moving through them—there is no flow—and year on year the situation is getting worse. It is literally happening in front of our eyes: our unique river system is dying through a lack of water. I recently saw some data that suggested that only 14% of the rivers across England are now considered to reach good ecological standards. That is an environmental catastrophe, as the hon. Gentleman said.
The question is, why is it happening? Without doubt, our climate is changing, but this crisis is not about drier winters, hotter summers and drought: that does not give the whole picture. That is why this seemingly narrow conversation about chalk streams has much greater significance in terms of wider public policy issues and concerns. How do we achieve the provision of new water? The supply, distribution and quality of new homes is a central issue, as are the role of the water companies and patterns of regulation. These are all issues that—dare I say?—flow out of this debate about chalk streams. The demand for water, especially through new house building in the south east, has dramatically increased. For example, it is estimated that in my part of east London—in Barking, Dagenham and parts of Havering—there will be some 50,000 new units in the next 10 to 12 years. That is an awful lot of house building, and the question is, where will the water come from? Nationally, we seem to be moving towards a consensus of at least 300,000 extra units a year, which returns us to the question where the water will come from.
I, too, read the Thames Water briefing that was sent out at the back end of last week. It said—I think the hon. Gentleman mentioned these figures, which caught my eye—that accounting for climate change, population growth and environmental regulations, there will be a daily shortfall of some 350 million litres a day by 2045, and that will, in turn, double in the following 50 years. So this is an environmental catastrophe that is being played out day to day across the country.
A failure to provide new water means that water companies extract water from our rivers, which cannot cope and subsequently die. That appears to be the basic reality. The rivers are further undermined when excess sewage is discharged into them, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Time and again, the water companies have been fined, but they just take the hit. The point that he did not make is on how the water companies free-ride their ecological responsibilities. For example, last week it was brought to my attention in The Guardian that Ofwat has reduced the fines on Southern Water from £37.7 million to just £3 million for thousands of pollution spills, wilful misreporting of data and cover-ups. How will this type of leniency and—dare I say?—criminality be changed in terms of their behaviour, which is degrading our river systems?
Objectively, it seems clear to me that we need new water infrastructure, leakage reductions, smart metering, education and desalination—those all have their place—but the reality is that we do not have enough reservoirs. I think that the hon. Gentleman said that the last one was built in 1975. He can correct me if I am wrong, but I thought it was 42 years since we built a reservoir in this country. If we join the dots, the policy does not add up. How can we satisfy growth in London and the south-east without such new infrastructure? If this is not confronted, the current crisis that our rivers face will intensify and they will never recover.
As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Thames Water has announced plans to bring forward the Abingdon reservoir, with construction starting in 2025, but I gather that this has been beset by problems. It would be good to hear where we are with that project and any other proposed infrastructure projects, not least because the responsibility lies with several different authorities: the Environment Agency, the National Rivers Authority, the Government and the water companies. I will end on that point, but I repeat that tonight’s short and apparently narrow debate has great significance, not just for those who fish in our unique chalk streams, but for everyone who is interested in how we will meet the demands of a growing population without further degrading our river systems and wider environment. That is something that should be beyond party politics, and something on which we might all agree.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) for his remarkable and important efforts in this area.
In my constituency, we have eight chalk streams: the Upper Rhee, the Rib, the Ash, the Quin, the Beane, the Mimram, the Lea—near Bayford, where I think my hon. Friend fishes—and the Ivel. There has been some progress with the Beane and the Mimram following the WWF campaign “Rivers on the Edge”, of which Martin Salter was a strong supporter and about which we had debates in this House. There has been a 90% reduction in abstraction at Whitehall pumping station near Watton-at-Stone, and the Fulling Mill pumping station at Welwyn Garden City was completely decommissioned; that represented some success.
As my hon. Friend said, however, the condition of the northern part of the rivers is very dry. The Upper Rhee is dry, and there is a lot of concern about the Rib in the Standon area and north of Standon. The situation is similar with the Ash and the Quin. The Beane at Walkern, north of Watton-at-Stone, is short of water. There is a campaign in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) about the Mimram. The Lea is low, and the Ivel springs in Baldock are so dry that people regularly write to me to express their concern.
It is worth thinking about what the unique chalk stream environment is like. My constituency has small hills, between which are the chalk streams, and they create a unique environment with unique flora and fauna. Nestling in the environment provided by these ecosystems are flowers such as saxifrage, as well as small English crustaceans and the water vole. Tewinbury nature reserve is a very good place to measure the activity of flies and little creatures, and that is a remarkable thing to do. I pay tribute to the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, which does so much to support that.
I am sorry to cut my right hon. and learned Friend off as he is paying tribute to the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, but I want to pay tribute to it as well. Jeremy Paxman recently wrote that we no longer have to clean our windscreens, because there are now no insects splattered on them. There are so few insects because our rivers—and, in our part of our world, our chalk streams—have been so degraded that insects can no longer live there. Without insects, we have no fish and no kingfishers; the whole ecosystem and food chain begin to collapse. My right hon. and learned Friend is entirely right to raise that concern.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. People such as Jeremy Paxman, Feargal Sharkey—he used to be a pop star but now spends his time campaigning on this issue—Charles Rangeley-Wilson, who my hon. Friend will know, and Martin Salter, on the angling side, are dedicating their lives to trying to make people realise that this environment is as precious as the Brazilian rainforest. We have a major part of a unique environment. The water that comes up—or should do—from the aquifer is so pure, and that is a wonderful thing.
As my hon. Friend said, the problem is a mixture of abstraction; climate change, which means that in the next 25 years we will have 20% less water than we do now; and growth in housing, which means that we are trying to do more with less water. Some of the predictions that house builders and developers make in planning applications—they say that they will be able to get people to use no more than 100 or 120 litres of water a day—are just not in the real world. In my constituency, the average is about 175 litres a day. The first thing that people do in a water-efficient house is to put in a power shower, spoiling the good work of the designers. My hon. Friend is right to say that those predictions do not add up.
Soil erosion is a big issue, on which I have campaigned with WWF; it recently ran a campaign about the subject. As has been said, one of the effects of not having strong rivers is that they end up with soil in them, particularly if farming techniques are not respectful of the surrounding environment. In an area such as ours with hills that have chalk and soil on top, it makes a lot of sense to go for no-till farming, so that the soil is not blown off the tops of hills and into rivers. There is a lot that can be done.
I pay tribute to the societies in my constituency—including the Friends of the Mimram, the River Beane Restoration Association and the new organisation for the River Rib—which are trying hard to highlight the plight of the rivers. Despite the campaigns, the work that has been done and the reports in this House going back some years, we have made only a little bit of progress against a background of deterioration. It is a question of one step forward and two steps back. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue and giving us a chance to highlight the importance of this environment and ecoculture. Much more needs to be done.
On the Abingdon reservoir, I came into this House in 1992, and Thames Water was lobbying us then about building the Abingdon reservoir. Here we are 27 years later, and it has still not been built; it is still a few years away. We need to get on and do this. The background is against us, and action is needed.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald). I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on his speech, to which I listened increasingly intently as I sat on the Front Bench earlier. As someone who grew up in the area that he talked about, I am very familiar with much of the Hertfordshire geography and many of the wonderful landscapes that he described so passionately and fondly. It would have been very easy for me to leave the Chamber, but the threat of the loss of those habitats moved me to feel compelled to speak, and I thank him for that.
I will keep my comments brief. It is interesting that we often talk about the environmental crisis and climate emergency in various other manifestations, but we rarely talk about the threat that water shortages pose to our existence. I think we agree that climate change, as we face it, threatens us in many ways. We are experiencing a changing climate and changing weather events of a new severity. We grew up with wet Aprils, and perhaps even wet Mays, but we no longer experience them.
The climate in our country is changing, as it is across the world. We must think about how we address the challenges, whether it is by creating large reservoirs, as has been described, or by changing our housing planning policy that governs estates and new builds. We must insist on the attenuation of water on industrial and business parks and in our housing. There is so much potential to capture and re-use water with grey water harvesting systems, and all new houses must be built with them. I am proud to say that 10 years ago, I installed one, and it makes a dramatic difference to my water consumption.
These are the sorts of things we can do immediately. As has been described, we must of course build more capacity through reservoirs. I remember the Queen Mary reservoir from my youth and from driving around it, and there is such a need, as has been described. However, we can do this in addition by building capacity, on a very local basis, with our new homes. That will make a significant difference in reducing abstraction. May I again thank the hon. Member for Broxbourne? I welcome the debate, and I congratulate him on it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western). When I was growing up politically, one of my great mentors was Sir Keith Joseph. He said that one of the greatest challenges we were going to face in the future of the world was water shortages and the resulting movement of populations around the world, and I think that is starting to come very true today. My mother was always very keen on saving water. I do not know how many hon. Members will remember doing so, but she used to put a brick in the cistern to make sure that she did not use too much water when flushing the lavatory.
Aside from that, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on obtaining this debate? It would be fair to say that he and I have spent many a happy hour, with Paul Jennings, sitting beside one of the purest and clearest chalk streams, the River Chess, just outside London. It is not even at the end of the Metropolitan line; it runs alongside the Metropolitan line. It is accessible to the public, and it is one of those wonderful habitats and environments that can really bring people peace and tranquillity. People can leave this world behind as they sit there and, in the case of my hon. Friend, try to attract a trout to the end of his line.
The great sadness is that, to the uninitiated eye, the river looks beautiful—and it is beautiful—but as Paul Jennings would say, it is clinging on by its fingertips. Its flow is a fraction of what it should be; although it remains beautiful, its ability to support life is just draining away.
I am afraid my hon. Friend is right. I came into the House at the same time as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), in 1992. That reservoir is not overdue, but long overdue and should have been built many years ago.
May I also pay tribute to the authors of “Chalk Streams in Crisis”? Four of the organisations that contributed are closely associated with my constituency. The Chilterns chalk streams project—a fantastic project started in 1997, prompted by the low flows in the 1990s—was expanded in 2000 to include all the rivers. It is led by the Chilterns Conservation Board, with the River Chess Association and the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire wildlife trusts. All these organisations work constantly and tirelessly to try to protect our environment.
In my constituency, there are people who can remember swimming in the River Beane north of Watton-at-Stone when they were very young; now it is completely dry. Does my right hon. Friend have constituents with such recollections about the Chess?
Yes, very much so. Both the Chess and the Misbourne, at times in the past, flowed really well and invited people in during the hot weather, such as we are going to experience this week, in safety. Safety is very important, because although there is now the amazing rough swimming movement, it is important to remember that rough swimming must be carried out in safety. People need to think about how they are getting into the water and how they are getting out. I fear there will be plenty of people diving into the water later this week, as the temperatures soar.
I thank my right hon. Friend for letting me join this brief debate on chalk streams. I am going to spend the first Saturday of my recess canoeing down the River Chelmer in Chelmsford. I believe all our rivers are potentially in crisis and need protection. Does she agree?
I think the points made by colleagues across the House have been very accurate in that we are busy lecturing other people around the world about how they should save their environment, but we are not actually looking over our shoulders at our own backyard, which is deteriorating.
The point that we have 85% of the world’s chalk streams is not lost, particularly in the south-east, because about a fifth of those are in the Thames Water region. The combination we have talked about—the climate and the geology of where these chalk streams are—means that they have the most amazing characteristics. They support special wildlife habitats and species, including things such as the brown trout and the water vole. Chalk streams are really important not just for angling, but because they are fed by groundwater aquifers. That means the water is clear, pure and inviting, which is of course why the water companies always wants to take water from them.
The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) spoke about the Thames Water briefing that was put out. He said he was struck by the predicted shortfall of 350 million litres of water a day between the amount of water available and the amount we will need by 2045. Population growth, climate change and environmental regulations will dramatically affect our demand and need for water. I echo the call made by the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington, because unless we build in safeguards and build in the reuse of water, we are going to find ourselves in a desert and in a drought like no drought we have ever seen. We take water for granted in this country; it is such a shame that we have that attitude. We will have to change it if we are going to preserve our environment, particularly our chalk streams.
I hear what my right hon. Friend says, and she is absolutely right. There is nothing more irritating than to hear weather forecasters on the BBC, ITV or radio programmes such as on Radio 4 going, “Good news, it’s going to be a dry week”, or “Good news, it’s going to be a dry weekend”. This country needs rainfall. We do not have it in abundance—and when we are not having it, we really do suffer.
The point is well and emphatically made: that is absolutely right.
The right hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way yet again. I would just add that so much of our culture has been steeped in this green and pleasant land, as it is oft described, but it is becoming increasingly parched. There is one point I want to raise with her. Does she share with me a slight concern that, with HS2, there will be some sort of disruption to the watersheds in her constituency and potentially to those in my own in Warwickshire?
I like the cut of the hon. Gentleman’s jib, as they say. I am going to get on to HS2—I tried to get on to HS2 earlier, but I was admonished—because it is important.
I want to make a couple of points, particularly about my own constituency. In the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, we have nine chalk streams. The River Chess and the River Misbourne sit within my own constituency, and I am afraid the problems are identical for both. When we talk about the term “over-abstraction”, I think that is to use the phrase quite mildly. To put this crisis into context for the Chilterns specifically, the average person there uses about 173 litres of water a day, which is 32 litres above the national average. In the Chilterns, we are also facing unprecedented levels of infrastructure development.
Being at the end of the Metropolitan line, we are obviously a popular place for people to live out of London, and we now have the arc of innovation joining Oxford to Cambridge. We will face housing pressure down from the north of the county and across the middle, which will bring hundreds of thousands of houses and more pressure on our precious environment. London and Slough are also expanding, so we have more and more demand coming up from the south of the county for housing and therefore water. The Chilterns AONB is being squeezed in the middle, yet it is the lungs of London. It is the nearest easily accessible area where people can enjoy the pleasures of walking in the hills and by the chalk streams, watching the red kites soar above, yet we will lose all that unless we try to protect it.
The Chess and the Misbourne are unique in finding themselves in the unfortunate position of being in the HS2 route and therefore part of what was a £55.7 billion taxpayer crisis—what I gather is now more likely to be an £85 billion crisis, according to the chairman’s internal review, if the rumours are correct. I believe the figure will be even higher. This is not just about the financial cost of HS2, but about the damage done to our chalk streams, which will cause a loss of environment and habitat that is irreplaceable.
For years my constituents have sent me pictures of the Chess and the Misbourne when the flows are low. They come back, but one day they will not. The River Chess in particular is one of the most important areas of wildlife. I have mentioned the brown trout and the water voles, but we also have stream water-crowfoot there. We get fishermen, photographers and the wildlife enthusiasts coming out. The Chess is also an important educational asset as a chalk stream, and we get universities gathering data and people coming to study there. It used to be very active, with amazing water mills, but that would not be possible today. The Chess was a productive river; we could not find that today. Those water mills are now private houses. The weather and the climate becoming drier, interspersed with some very wet periods, has done the chalk streams no good at all. The river also faces other threats, including from invasive species such as the mink and Japanese knotweed, and that is on top of the extraction for public water supply and the pollution that results from the concentration as the flows become lower.
I very much hope that this debate, which was called by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, will stimulate a greater interest in these chalk streams and a greater will on the part of the Government to protect them. We are pleased to see that Thames Water and Affinity Water are planning to work together on a new reservoir project near Oxford, which now features strongly in both their new water resource management plans and in Thames Water’s revised business plan for 2020 to 2025. The south-east region of the UK is one of the driest and most populated corners of the country and has the highest demand for water. If we do not increase our reservoir capacity, it will become the desert of the United Kingdom.
This excellent report, which we have all had the opportunity to read, contained a number of recommendations and actions. I will not read them out, but I recommend that the Minister reads them carefully and studies what could be an important way forward in giving vital protections to this part of our environment. It is unique, and the status of these chalk streams is important not just to the environment in the United Kingdom, but to the world. Once we have lost them, we will never ever get them back. If there is a climate change crisis, there is certainly an even bigger crisis in the state of our chalk streams.
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the register.
I have the honour and privilege to represent a large part of the Berkshire downs, which feed the chalk streams of the Kennet, the Dun, the Lambourn and the Pang. These are very special riverine ecosystems. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), whom I congratulate on calling this debate, chalk streams are hugely important not just for the area where the river flows, but for the entire catchment. They are extraordinary features of our natural world. Areas such as the Berkshire downs, and others that hon. Members have spoken about so eloquently, are the water towers of communities such as London, where we sit tonight, and they are under threat as never before.
In a brief moment of relevance in my parliamentary career, I held responsibilities not dissimilar to those held by my hon. Friend the Minister. We had had a number of years of drought, and that year we faced the Olympics and the Queen’s jubilee. The fifth largest economy in the world was literally at risk of having people in the south and south-east of England filling their water from standpipes in the street—an extraordinary moment. We were on the point of having Cobra meetings. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said to me in the Lobby, “Just make it rain.” That gave me powers of the divine, because you will remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, that, as the Queen and Prince Philip stood by the Thames, the heavens opened.
I do not take any responsibility for that, but the problem was not that it rained—that was very welcome—but that it rained for three years. All the work we had been doing in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on drought management, fantastic work across a whole range of different trade bodies, other organisations and agencies of Government, was subsumed by having to deal with too much water. We have terribly short memories in this place and in Government. I hope that what is happening now is starting to cause real concern, because if we have another dry winter my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues will be contemplating a real emergency.
Mention has been made this evening of the great naturalist and broadcaster, Jeremy Paxman. In his foreword to the river fly census, produced by Salmon & Trout Conservation, he mentions what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) referred to: insect armageddon, the really quite staggering reduction of insect life in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne made the point clearly that we have to understand where those insects come from and what they depend on. Jeremy Paxman says in his foreword:
“No-one much cares about it, because creepy crawlies find it harder to make allies than do soft and cuddlies. Ludicrously, even pests like grey squirrels have more friends.”
We in this House have to be a friend to the insects. Some 80% of species on our planet are invertebrates and the foundations of food webs.
The river fly census shows some alarming facts. Species loss in any environment indicates ecosystem distress. Across 12 chalk streams in England there has been a 75% decline in caddisfly species, a 54% decline in stonefly species, a 44% decline in dragonfly and damselfly species, and a 40% decline in mayfly species. A river in my constituency, the Lambourn, a most beautiful and precious river with overlaying European designations—a site of special scientific interest, an area of outstanding natural beauty and every conceivable designation one can think of—is effectively in crisis.
My contribution tonight is really this: the management of our rivers, particularly the fragile ecosystems that are chalk streams, needs to be perfect. There is no margin for error in how we manage chalk streams. I am therefore concerned when I read that a salad washing company in the upper Itchen, Bakkavor Salad Washing, has found itself in difficulties with the Environment Agency over its own sewage works. I gather that it has now addressed them, following discharges that were reported to the Environment Agency. The EA’s investigation, however, also exposed a potential pesticide threat. The EA has not been able to rule out damage caused by traces of pesticide present on the salad leaves used by Bakkavor, which were subsequently being washed into the upper Itchen. I understand that the EA is monitoring the situation, but that cannot be allowed to happen. In an ecosystem as precious as this, which is suffering from really low flows, there is no justification whatever for a company to be polluting an environment as rare as this.
I have heard stories from fishermen about salad washing. They tell me that the salad is not even grown in the UK, but has been brought to the UK for washing in our rivers and then packaging. If that is true, that is even more shocking, but maybe it is a fisherman’s tale.
I have heard similar stories, and I do not know the circumstances of this. I wrote to the company before this debate asking for it to give its side of the argument, but I did not hear back. I am not necessarily criticising the company, as I approached it only at the end of last week.
My point is this: in our management of these rare systems, we need not just to be getting the sort of thing I was just discussing right, but to be looking at agriculture. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire was so correct in what he said about that. Min-till—minimum tillage—agricultural systems are vital, not least because of the worms that are allowed to prosper in the soil, which affects the permeability of that soil crust so that water goes through to the aquifer, rather than running off and taking with it a lot of the topsoil. We have a wonderful, rare and special opportunity that we can now deliver through the Agriculture Bill and the environment Bill. We are talking about changes that can make sure we are incentivising farmers and working with them right across a catchment to deliver extraordinary benefits.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would wish to comment on the state of the River Kennet, which is a precious chalk stream close to him. Where does he think the Kennet is going—is it improving? Some attempts were made to improve its condition. Secondly, when he was preparing the water White Paper, I think he was hoping that it would be possible for water companies to move water more easily from one area to another. Has he any take on how that has been going?
One of the most enjoyable things I did in government was writing the water White Paper, and I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to page 35—I think that was the one. It showed a scene of good farming on one side of a river and bad farming on another, so that figuratively laid out before us was what we needed to see more of and what we had to stop happening. I bored my civil servants with that and I bore most of my family, with my wife referring to the River Pang as my mid-life crisis, but the River Kennet is in such trouble. A few years ago, someone spilled about an egg cup-worth of Chlorpyrifos into the system somewhere and it effectively killed several miles of life. That shows us just how extraordinarily vulnerable these ecosystems are.
We can debate great matters of state in this place, and we often do, but rivers are about people’s sense of place. As has been said, we can hold our heads high internationally if we are getting it right on rivers and we cannot if we are getting it wrong. What is shaming is that, while 85% of the chalk streams in the world are in the UK, we are getting it wrong. Wonderful things are done by organisations such as Action for the River Kennet and many of the other organisations that hon. Members in all parts of the House have talked about, but I believe the recommendations at the end of the river fly census are really worth reading.
In the context of the water framework directive, which we are transposing, correctly and with more ambition than exists in that directive as it stands, we should have a special designation for chalk streams. We should also look at the impact of phosphorus spikes and recognise that after we leave the European Union the world is our oyster and we do not have to be stuck by the same rules that govern rivers in southern France and northern Spain. This is our ecosystem, and we have to get it right.
I will give way for a final time, then I will conclude.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We are currently reviewing the position on national parks and the designations that we make around the country. I have asked for the Chilterns AONB to have a stronger designation in order to give it protection. Does he agree that we should see whether the chalk streams in our country could get a higher designation for protection? Does he agree that this would be a golden opportunity to lift that level of protection, particularly for this rare habitat and environment?
My right hon. Friend is right. We look forward with interest to what the Glover review will deliver, because it is an opportunity to look at our most precious landscapes and to see whether we are protecting them in the right way. We have an enormous number of designatory tools at our disposal, but they do not seem to stop the problems happening or result in our Environment Agency and other organisations cracking down on wrongdoing as much as they should. This is an opportunity to stand up for what we believe in on the natural environment and say, “Here is something really special, and we are going to get it right.”
The hon. Gentleman, I and many others in the Chamber agree on and appreciate the wonderful work of the National Farmers Union and the Northern Irish Ulster Farmers Union on habitat, climate change, their commitment to carbon zero and many things. Should we not have on record in this debate the good work of the NFU and farmers who are committed to changes to make things better and preserve the environment for the future, which he and I believe in?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Perhaps I can conclude by entirely endorsing what the farming unions of these islands have agreed, and Minette Batters’ very brave and clear statement about moving to net zero considerably before the rest of the country and making sure that agriculture fulfils its responsibilities. Part of that is about looking at catchments and saying, “How can we lock up more carbon?” The clear, easy way of doing that is to have a more broken-up mosaic of land use, which includes grass as part of the rotations. With encouragement for minimum tillage, not only can we start to see more carbon being locked up, but our rivers will be protected from many of the things that are causing problems at the moment.
I genuinely apologise to the House for not being here at the start of this important debate, because I know how passionate right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken about this issue are. One of the joys of being the Minister responsible for the Environment Agency is seeing that the environment matters to so many people in different ways and seeing the important role of the Environment Agency. I hope, by the end of the debate, that I will have been able to persuade hon. Members and those still watching—there were four people in the Public Gallery at the start of it—on this matter, including Feargal Sharkey who is a great advocate of what we need to do to support chalk streams. The Environment Agency also has other roles and I was stopped on the way here to talk about Grenfell and some of the situations in which we are involved there. I apologise to the Chamber for that.
I have had three years in this very special role as Minister for the environment. I am very fortunate that, by and large, neither an official drought nor an official flood has been declared. I am conscious of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on what happened recently in Wainfleet; I visited his constituency to discuss floods. The issues that have been raised about drought worry many of our farmers around the country, who are also considering the impacts of abstraction reform. I am very conscious that my constituency of Suffolk Coastal is one of the driest in the country. That said, at the Latitude festival, which was held this weekend in my constituency, they had a hailstorm, in the middle of July. Who would have thought that in Suffolk, when we are all having a heatwave? It just shows how important it is that we look after the habitat that is special to our country and to our world, while the impacts of climate change do what they do.
I will come to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) shortly, but I want first to refer also to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), who was in the Chamber for much of the debate, because he has one of the most special chalk streams in his constituency—the River Test, which many people have mentioned and in fact fished in, including my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). The Test is regarded as one of the most special chalk streams in the country, as right hon. and hon. Members will recognise. I used to live in Whitchurch, which is 2 miles from the source of the river, so I am well aware how special it is.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne on securing today’s debate. It is well known in the House that he is an active champion of chalk streams and that he recognises their importance for nature and for good fishing. I will never forget the day after the 2017 election, when I was not sure if I would be reappointed to this role, when I joined him in Hampshire on the River Itchen. He had a good day’s fishing and I had a good day being shown around by the WWF and being told about the importance of chalk streams. Having lived in Hampshire, I was aware of this, but it brought to my attention some of the particular challenges that the Environment Agency regularly faces from water companies wanting to abstract more water further upstream, which has a damaging impact on the environment and the flow, as others have mentioned, as well as on the quality of fishing. That is when I met the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), who was also very passionate on this topic, which is why he contributed to the debate on 12 December 2018 on the Thames Water reservoir in Abingdon and why he strongly supported that measure.
On this matter, I have been given a very strong message by my civil servants, who are in the Box and provide excellent advice, and I am conscious that the water resource management process has not yet been finalised, but I can genuinely say, even though the Secretary of State has not yet agreed the plans, that I believe that Thames Water and Affinity Water, both of which are promoting the reservoir in their preferred plans, will receive a very warm welcome when they are put forward, so that, as many others have mentioned, we can finally get on with the Abingdon reservoir, which will do a lot of good for the people of south-east England. I am conscious that when speaking in the House I have some leeway with parliamentary privilege and that my comments will not prejudice any quasi-judicial decision that the Secretary of State might take in the future.
I return to the main topic of the debate. While chalk streams contribute to our health and wellbeing, they are principally unique habitats supporting a diverse range of invertebrate and fish species and have long been held in high regard for the quality of the fisheries they support. Only 200 chalk rivers are known globally, and it is amazing to think that 85% of them are found in the UK in the southern and eastern parts of England. It is well recognised, however, that our water resources are under pressure and that this pressure is growing as the climate changes and the demand for water increases from a growing population and greater housing need. As my hon. Friend outlined, our chalk streams are facing an unprecedented challenge, having been heavily affected by human activity, including abstraction, pollution and historic modification.
The role of Ofwat has not been mentioned yet. It has no duty to have any environmental regard. Its only interest is in driving down bills, but it should take a great deal more interest in the environment. I think we have all had enough of Ofwat in this place. I hope the Minister will take that on board.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. Ofwat is a champion of the consumer, and I hope that in its recent interventions with the water companies he will recognise some of the progress it has made, but I hear what he says. The Environment Agency challenged Ofwat in its initial 2019 price review over the fact that it and some of the companies that had come up with particular plans and made some good progress were none the less not fulling their environmental obligations. I am pleased therefore that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last week met the water companies and challenged them by saying that, while we recognised the strength of the investment they had brought to the water industry in the last 25 years, they must not forget the environment and we would continue to press them on that point. I am pleased that the Environment Agency is pressing the case with Ofwat so strongly. I hope that the next Government, to be formed this week, will proceed with the environment Bill, which will strengthen Ofwat’s powers. Who knows? There may be opportunities for even further consideration of a duty relating to the environment.
It is really important for there to be people in Ofwat who share the Minister’s passion for the environment and the passion displayed by so many colleagues here, not only in this debate but in others.
I entirely agree, and I hope that that will happen. I think that the term of the current chair of Ofwat, who is a doughty defender of the consumer, is due for a short extension until 2020. I also genuinely believe that any future holder of the great office of Secretary of State—if that person is not our excellent right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who has done so much for the environment and, indeed, so much in challenging water companies—will take that point into account.
No one has mentioned one issue so far tonight, but it is important for it to be on the record in Hansard. I refer to the issue of water leakages. If there is a demand for more water—which clearly there is—water companies need to address the issue. Will the Minister make that a priority, so that water is not wasted as it clearly is being wasted now, and we can use that precious resource much better?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. For several years there has been an economic calculation about the cost of repairing the causes of leakages rather than doing something else to keep water flowing. I will not say that the price of repairs is irrelevant, but it is not only the only factor under consideration. Water users struggle. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) spoke extensively about the water consumption of residents, and the need for us to consume less. If the water companies are allowed not to take the issue quite as seriously as they have been, why should the end user make a difference? I think that the situation is changing, but we need to recognise that the economics do not always add up.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, this matter is devolved. Our 25-year environment plan for England, which concerns reserved matters, sets out our commitment to protect our water environment and how we will do that, to ensure that there is enough water for the environment as well as for homes and businesses.
Our abstraction reform plan, launched in 2017, explains how we will ensure that abstractors can access the water that they need, and that there is enough water in our rivers, and groundwater, to maintain habitats and water quality. That includes reducing the damaging abstraction of water from rivers and groundwater, so that by 2021 the proportion of water bodies with enough water to support environmental standards will increase from 82% to 90% for surface water bodies, and from 72% to 77% for groundwater bodies. Earlier this year we published our abstraction reform progress report to Parliament, which shows that the Environment Agency is on track to meet those targets.
The Environment Agency has already reviewed thousands of abstraction licences, and has changed many of the most damaging. Seventy-one abstraction licences on 15 chalk streams across England have now been changed. Those changes will return 16 million cubic metres of water per year to the chalk streams, and will remove the risk of another 8 million cubic metres per year being taken. This is equivalent to the average annual domestic water use of approximately 200,000 people, the approximate population of Oxford.
Developing a stronger catchment focus is a key aspect of abstraction reform. The Environment Agency is now testing innovative solutions to protect the environment and improve access to water in priority catchments. The Cam and Ely Ouse and East Suffolk priority catchments both contain rivers that are fed by chalk groundwater. In these priority catchments, there are now stakeholder groups, which are made up of a wide variety of abstractors with an Environment Agency co-ordinator, who are working together to develop and trial new solutions to address sustainability issues. I look forward to the Environment Agency launching more of these water resource catchments later this year.
The River Bulbourne in Hertfordshire is impacted by the Canal and River Trust operations including groundwater abstractions. The Environment Agency is presently negotiating delivery of recommended solutions with the trust. Affinity Water has also completed an investigation for the River Bulbourne and as a result will implement river restoration projects in the catchment by 2025, subject to its business plan being approved by Ofwat, and I see no reason why Ofwat will reject it. The Environment Agency’s chalk stream partnership “Bringing Back the Bulbourne” has been an award-winning success story.
Turning to the River Kennet in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), the Environment Agency, working with Thames Water, has changed abstraction licences that impact the Kennet, Wye and Hughenden stream. This includes reducing Thames Water’s licence at Axford to restrict groundwater abstraction when flows are low, revoking its Ogbourne licence, and investing in a £30 million pipeline that prevents up to 10 million litres of groundwater from being abstracted when river levels are low.
Turning to parts of north London and an issue not directly in the constituency of the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham but close to the heart of Feargal Sharkey, the River Lee below Ware weir lock splits between the old River Lee and the Lee navigation. The Loop was the original course of the River Lee and is the site of two fisheries clubs. Flows in the loop are influenced by the volumes abstracted upstream from the Lee by Thames Water and by navigation activities. The Environment Agency seeks to manage flows on the Lee between Thames Water, the Canal and River Trust and the Amwell Magna loop. Thames Water operates under a voluntary flow trigger to reduce its abstraction volumes. This assists with downstream flows but its abstraction is still a significant volume of the available flow. Thames Water has invested in habitat enhancement improvements in the loop, working with the fisheries and the Environment Agency.
Several contributors to the debate talked about the impact of dry weather on chalk streams. Some of our chalk streams are currently showing flow impacts that could be attributed to the prolonged dry weather we have experienced over the last couple of years. Impacts are visible in chalk streams in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, north London, Lincolnshire and Northampton, but I have to admit that the national picture is variable.
The impacts we are seeing in chalk streams include changes to fish movement, a decline in the numbers of invertebrates and an increase in algae. The Environment Agency’s current actions include leading and co-ordinating the National Drought Group, which brings together a wide range of stakeholders responsible for water and for those who need the water. This partnership includes water companies, the Government and non-governmental organisations, including the National Farmers Union, environmental groups and business groups. The Environment Agency also collates and monitors evidence of impacts of dry weather on chalk streams and actions undertaken to protect the streams.
If required, the Environment Agency will implement abstraction restrictions to protect the environment. For example, as we have heard, the Environment Agency is likely to implement restrictions in a number of places, including the River Stour catchment in Essex, which is a chalk stream. That will affect 16 abstraction licences, and there will be a reduction of 25% to their weekly abstraction limit. The Environment Agency is discussing these matters with individual abstraction licence holders in other parts of the country, particularly Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Herefordshire.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to the designation of sites. The Government have designated 11 high priority chalk rivers as sites of special scientific interest to protect them from the pressures they are under and to begin work to restore them. Each of those 11 designated chalk rivers that has been assessed to be in an unfavourable condition has a river restoration plan. For the record, those rivers are the Kennet, the Nar, the Test, the Frome, the Hull headwaters, the Lambourn, the Itchen, the Wensum, the Bere streams, the Moors rivers system and the Avon system. By implementing these action plans, we have enhanced more than 40 miles of priority chalk river habitat through 60 projects since 2011.
Chalk rivers are protected from harmful effluent discharges by a rigorous permitting process. When an operator seeks to discharge effluent, they must first get a licence from the Environment Agency. In consultation with Natural England, civil society and the public, the agency will then grant the permit to discharge into a priority chalk stream only if the environmental risk is low. I am conscious of the example that was used earlier, and I will draw it to the attention of the Environment Agency so that it can investigate further the concerns about discharges.
Natural England has been delivering catchment-sensitive farming, offering a combination of grants and advice to help to reduce pollution from farms within priority catchments, including chalk streams, across the country. There is clear evidence that this advice has led to improvements in water quality and a reduction in serious water pollution incidents, and ecological communities have responded positively to the reductions in sediment pressure. However, it is important to stress that all water companies also have a significant role to play in protecting the environment. A large proportion of companies look after the chalk aquifer, which is the major aquifer of southern and eastern England. These companies include Thames, Affinity, Southern and Anglian. Apparently, South East is also included, as is Yorkshire, for some reason. This just goes to show how far the power of Yorkshire stretches, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton will know.
There are good examples of partnership work in action. The Environment Agency’s work with Affinity Water to reduce abstractions at 11 pumping stations across seven chalk streams means that 70 million litres of water a day will be kept in the environment by 2025, and they have reduced abstraction from the River Mimram and the River Beane by over 40%. In the north London and Hertfordshire area alone, the Environment Agency is working to improve more than 150 miles of chalk streams by 2025. The agency also hopes to remove or bypass 50 weirs or other structures to improve fish passage and habitats in the north London area.
When I spoke earlier, I made the point that builders and developers have suggested that it is possible for new homes to achieve water use of perhaps 120 litres per person per day. At the moment, in my constituency and others, the figure is about 175 litres. What does the Minister make of that? Does she think that such a reduction is realistic?
It is entirely realistic. Indeed, we want to go further and get the figure down to 110 litres. We believe that that is entirely possible, and I will address that further in my contribution, especially as the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) referred to it as well.
Work has also been done by water companies to improve the water quality of chalk streams, which my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne also identified as an issue. More than £3.4 billion has been invested between 2010 and 2015 to support the achievement of the water framework directive environmental objectives. I shall repeat that figure: £3.4 billion has been invested by the water companies. This has contributed to substantial reductions in phosphate pollution, to which chalk streams are particularly sensitive, and additional investment is proposed to secure further improvements. Water companies are also engaged in research to overcome technical limitations on phosphorus reduction. Additionally, 650 sewage treatment works across England, serving 24 million people, have phosphate removal in place, and many of them are on chalk streams.
The Government expect to see a multi-sector approach to managing water resources and want water companies to continue to engage in the catchment that they serve. We want them to take the lead on developing local catchment solutions to address the needs of all water users in their region. We are already seeing how this can work. I am particularly proud of Anglian Water, as Water Resources East is taking an innovative cross-sector approach and making important links to improve water abstraction management.
As my hon. Friend said, a large proportion of the water that is abstracted is for public supplies. Reducing the pressure on such supplies will also help to protect the environment. To do this, we need a twin-track approach of reducing demand for water, including driving down leakages, while increasing supply. That is why we recently launched a consultation, to which I hope my right hon. and hon. Friends will contribute, to understand by how much we can reduce personal water use by 2050 and the measures we need to implement to get there, including tightening building regulations, the labelling of water-using products and metering. This autumn, we plan to lay our national policy statement for water resources infrastructure, which will streamline the planning process for nationally significant water resource infrastructure projects, helping to increase water supplies.
I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate that Thames Water and Affinity Water are still developing their water resources management plans. They recently referred their statement of responses to their consultations to DEFRA, which the Department and the Environment Agency are assessing. That process is ongoing, and that assessment includes the proposed reservoir near Abingdon. The evidence from the National Infrastructure Commission is clear that new water infrastructure is required alongside a reduction in leakage, and I welcome the proposals from Thames Water, Affinity Water and others to develop regional strategic solutions for the south-east.
We want to see water companies taking more of a regional approach to water resource planning. They will need to make an assessment of the needs of different water users, including the owners of new homes, and the needs of the environment. That will be informed by the Environment Agency’s national framework, which is due to be published at the end of this year and will illustrate the regional and national challenge of water availability, as well as the needs of different water using sectors.
I am pleased to say that we have also consulted on legislative improvements to ensure that water companies’ plans are informed by effective collaboration, taking into account the plans of regional groups. We also recently consulted on a number of additional legislative measures regarding abstraction. Ofwat, the Environment Agency, and the Drinking Water Inspectorate all recognise the importance of a regional approach, which is why they set up the water Regulators Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development—water RAPID—team to ensure a smooth regulatory path for strategic water transfers and joint infrastructure projects.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) mentioned several streams in his constituency, and he is a champion on this matter. Anyone who looks at his website will see the long list of actions that he has taken, and he is right to praise the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust for its important work. I have already referred to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire and the fact that I grew up in Whitchurch, so I know about the importance of the River Test. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to the important Ox-Cam issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire is the Minister for that project and is aware of the importance not only of environmental issue, but of the water needs of households in that area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne started to talk about windscreens, insects and so on, and the IPBES report recognises the biodiversity challenge that we face. The main problem is with habitats and the change in land use. Rivers also face challenges, and my hon. Friend is right to stress that. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) pointed out, 80% of species under threat of extinction are invertebrates, which is why we must cherish habitats such as chalk streams.
I should also point out to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire that the aerodynamics of modern cars also contribute to our seeing fewer dead insects on our windscreens, but we are also driving somewhat slower because we are complying with speed limits when compared with what we might have got away with in the past—not “we”; I should not attribute that comment to any person in this House. He also talked about soil erosion and no-till farming, and I completely agree with him and the others who made this point. They should be champions for no-till farming, but they also need to be champions for glyphosate, as the people who advocate no-till farming rely on glyphosate. Indeed, its existence is under threat from 2022.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am afraid that I will not give way on that point, because I am still trying to answer the points raised by other hon. Members. We may still have time at the end of this debate, but I feel there is another time for another debate on the glory of glyphosate—I am sure that I will be slandered on social media tonight for having said those words.
My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned how long it has taken to get a new Thames reservoir, and I genuinely hope we will see the plan come forward soon.
The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington referred to his childhood roots, and in this House it is always important to recognise that, although we represent very special parts of the country, we sometimes have our roots elsewhere, which I think makes us better politicians. I appreciate that he has stayed here to talk about the impacts. He also mentioned grey water resources and how they might help water consumption. Indeed, there is a theory that the consumer is not keen on grey water, and we might need to do more work to promote the use of grey water resources in the water challenge of new homes, which I am sure he will recognise are important to his constituency, as they are in other parts of the country.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham also talked about water consumption, and I hope she will participate in the consultation. Importantly, she mentioned the challenges faced by the River Chess and the River Misbourne. It is astonishing to hear that the average consumption is 173 litres, which we need to change. I am sure she will be an active champion on that matter, as we already know she is an active champion on behalf of her constituents when it comes to High Speed 2. She referred to a number of different issues, but I am conscious that her work on the possible impacts on Ox Cam will not have been lost on the Housing Minister, who was present for the majority of the debate—he had the wisdom perhaps to leave for my contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) told us of her intention to go up the River Chelmer on a canoe, and I hope she returns with a paddle. My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, who I am delighted to say is leading a review on highly protected marine areas, does not forget the rivers and streams in his own constituency. Indeed, he referred to a number of them, including the River Lambourn.
On the number of years of drought—just make it rain—it is perhaps of some comfort to the Prime Minister that, in her three years in office, she has never had to worry about a flood or a drought. Who knows how long that luck can last?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury highlighted that 80% of species are invertebrates, which get ignored in our debate on the environment, and I am glad he is here today. He also talked about chemicals going into the water. That is important, and in the development of our chemical strategy over the next year, the Government will take account of how we get the balance right on chemicals, which produce much magic for our everyday lives, but we need to be very conscious of the impact they can have. Of course, he also referred to the River Kennet and to water transfer.
A number of issues have been raised about how we need to preserve these habitats, and I fully agree. The habitats in our country are so special. They are quite a small part of our British Isles, but they are so important to the world, which is why this Government will continue, in the 25-year plan, to make sure we pass on an environment that is in a better state than this generation inherited. We will do that domestically and internationally.
I thank the House. I know this has been a long debate, but one of the special things about this Chamber is that something that might seem quite parochial has huge global significance, and I am delighted to have shared this debate with so many right hon. and hon. Members tonight.
That was a great debate.
Indeed it was. Very informative indeed.
Question put and agreed to.