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The River Mimram rises at Whitwell in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), flows through Welwyn and Hatfield, into my constituency and then on into Hertford. Over recent years, these wonderful rivers in my constituency, which are much loved and form an important part of our environment, have suffered. In 2006, the Mimram ran dry. Residents felt helpless—they have described it to me—as they watched trout dying and discovered that the rare white-clawed crayfish had died, too.

Recently, the Mimram has had low flows for far too many years, which is why it features in the campaign. For environmental purposes, it has adequate flow only 1 per cent. of the time, which is worrying, not only because of the rare flora and fauna at the SSSI, but because of what is being lost by local residents. I have visited the Mimram on a number of occasions with Tony Last and Tony Langford from Friends of the Mimram and I pay tribute to their work in highlighting the situation of the river.

The River Beane Preservation Society works hard for its river, too. I have visited the Beane north of Watton-at-Stone, with Ian Knight and Dave Stimpson, and I recognise, too, the contribution of Andrew Bott, who is the society’s secretary. The Mimram provides the water supply for Welwyn Garden City, and the Beane for Stevenage. Near the Whitehall pumping station, the River Beane runs dry going north away from Watton-at-Stone. There has been some improvement this winter, but the river has adequate flow, for environmental purposes, only 10 per cent. of the time.

It does not need to be like this. These rivers are great—and could be greater—leisure resources. An expert report by Entec, for the Environment Agency, shows that the benefits could be worth as much as £32 million to £34 million for the Mimram alone. If boreholes were used farther down the river, the benefits could be achieved at a modest cost. Dry fly-fishing is already well-established further down the Mimram and, in living memory, there was swimming and fishing in the River Beane—in parts that are now dry in the summer. It is vital that any new borehole for the Mimram does not damage the precious SSSI, but the site being considered at Tewin—only 1 km from the SSSI—is causing great anxiety.

Is this a sensible way forward? We must keep that wetland wet. Against that background, the additional burdens on water resources in the south and east need to be taken into account. The Environment Agency designates all rivers east of Luton as “over-abstracted” and “over-licensed”. Development poses a major challenge. The east of England plan calls for 83,200 extra homes in Hertfordshire. Yet no sensible plan is in place either for the water resources and infrastructure for those properties, or for maintaining or improving the environment.

Hertfordshire is losing water to pollution. It has all the usual problems, as well as bromate contamination at Sandridge, where an old potassium bromate factory has created a plume across Hertfordshire, resulting in higher-than-permitted levels of bromate in water supplies. One borehole is completely out of use, and seven public and three private boreholes have restricted use. The “polluter pays” principle is very important. Why is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs taking so long to decide the case of the bromate plume?
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I have asked several parliamentary questions about it; but after four years, still no firm decision has been made.

I welcome Thames Water’s approach; it says that one case of pollution from its sites is one too many. It achieved 100 per cent. compliance with the Environment Agency’s stringent sewage treatment standards at its Hertfordshire sewage treatment works in 2008-09, and it is working hard to keep it that way, with carefully targeted programmes of maintenance and investment. I am glad that it is supporting the campaign. However, it will not welcome some of my later comments about abstraction.

None of us can ignore the likely effect of climate change, with Three Valleys Water expecting to lose 5 per cent. of available water by 2030. Decisions will have to be made about our rivers this year. The water framework directive requires our rivers to be of “good environmental status” by 2015, yet the Government’s draft plans do not include any improvement in Hertfordshire. Currently, only 20 per cent of our national rivers and lakes are of good status, and the Government’s draft plans will improve that by only 4 per cent. by 2015. That is simply not challenging enough and more needs to be done. We need to draw up a proper Government plan to waste less water and reduce consumption to 130 litres per person per day; to keep our rivers flowing, which means altering and amending abstraction licences and, in some cases, moving our boreholes further down river; and to introduce a tiered pricing system for water to help vulnerable people and to reward those who conserve water—the technology is now available to achieve that through smart metering. We need to help farmers avoid pollution through advice, training and incentives; to create a firm policy on pollution; and actively to regenerate our dying rivers.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The draft Flood and Water Bill will provide us with some opportunities, but the clause on water may not be robust enough. The people drafting the Bill were fairly open-minded about some of the improvements that might be sought when the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee spoke to them last week. I advise the hon. Gentleman to look very carefully at that piece of draft legislation.

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman’s contribution is thoughtful and helpful. However, powers are available and the Government have compiled 39 reports on the issue, but we have not seen any improvement. It is a question not just of taking powers, reporting on the matter and having a structure and framework in place, but of taking action and making improvements. The debate should be about making things happen.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I am listening with great interest to what he says. Does he agree that the River Kennet, which flows through my constituency, is a very important river that does not get the same attention as the River Thames, which also flows through my constituency, and that it is extremely important that it is protected and enhanced for the benefit of future generations, particularly in and around my constituency?

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Mr. Heald: I could not agree more. The people of Swindon could help us out. The River Kennet provides the water supply for Swindon, and it runs dry because too much is abstracted. If the people of Swindon are listening—I hope that they are—I say use a little less water and we can save the Kennet. There are lessons in this for all of us. For example, if we used less water in my area and if more of us were metered, we might be able to save the rivers in my constituency. The problem is that all the current plans for metering and improvement seem to work on the basis that any water saved will be used for new housing. There must be some balance in the system that allows the environment to have its share, too.

Some people argue against the idea of moving boreholes downstream, but there is evidence to suggest that such a move would help the River Mimram, but it must be done sensitively. Similarly, recycling used water could be a way of helping the River Beane when a new sewage plant is built for Stevenage.

Water metering should be introduced sensitively. Smart metering enables companies to introduce a tiered pricing system, so that they can reward those who use less water, help vulnerable groups and better target water resources. Apparently, many people refuse to pay their water bills, knowing that they will not be cut off, because of the commitments made by the water industry. It is estimated that £150 million is owed—about £11 for every customer’s water bill—and water companies therefore have less money to invest in improvements.

An initiative called a trickle meter enables someone who is a bad payer to have enough water on which to exist but not so much water as to enjoy the resource. Apparently, that is a good way of encouraging a bad payer to pay. None the less, I accept that it is very important that vulnerable non-payers are given every assistance and that the measure should be used only for those who flagrantly abuse the system.

At present, housing need and other pressures are likely to take all the water released by efficiencies and water metering. Predictions by the east of England regional assembly on the need for water for the east of England plan are simply unrealistic. The assembly is working on the basis that each person will use 105 litres a day. At present, Three Valleys Water’s customers are using 175 litres per person per day. The national average is 148 litres per person per day. The “Rivers on the Edge” campaign hopes to reduce it to 130 litres; the Government guideline for a new build is 125 litres per person per day. The idea that housing in the east of England can be planned on the basis of 105 litres a day is optimistic to say the least.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend’s debate is very valuable. His last point was raised at the original east of England inquiry. When I talked to the water companies, I asked, “Do you not have any way that you can raise your concerns over this?” Basically, they said, “We are obliged to deliver water if the houses are planned.” I think that all of us would say that that is putting the cart before the horse. Rivers running dry and showing stress should be taken into account before more housing is planned, and not the other way round.

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend makes a customarily excellent point. That is a ludicrous way of planning. We have all become very used to water and are careless with
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it. We cannot build extra houses without having a sensible plan to deliver the water that is needed. We cannot just say to the water companies, “Abstract away.” That does not take adequate account of what a precious resource these chalk rivers are; they are unique and we need to fight for them, which is what the campaign is all about. Councillor Derrick Ashley, who is the planning executive for Hertfordshire county council, has made it clear that development without the proper infrastructure will put huge pressures on our environment in Hertfordshire.

Mr. Rob Wilson: Reading has just been informed that it must build an extra 12,000 homes. Does my hon. Friend not agree that that will place an intolerable pressure on local rivers as well as other infrastructure?

Mr. Heald: When I was a boy, Reading was a market town and not a huge place. One could walk through Broad street and know everyone—at least, it seemed that way. Over the years, it has grown and grown. I am proud that Reading is such an important centre, but it has done its bit in housing the people of this country. It is a good size, and it should not get too much bigger. However, I am not a Member for Reading—I was just brought up there—so the hon. Gentleman will know more about it than I do.

We must not have a situation in which our rivers die just for the sake of a desert full of development. It is important that we take the issue seriously. Unless we have a plan, we will not even ensure that the flow remains as it is in the Mimram and the Beane. That is not good enough; it needs to be better. The rivers should flow, and they should be given as much importance as housing. We need homes, but we need to preserve the environment, especially in a county such as Hertfordshire, which is already one of the most heavily populated and close to London. We value our countryside in Hertfordshire. We have already lost a lot of it to building, and we do not want to lose what we have left; we want to improve it.

Will the Minister and the Secretary of State come to see the Mimram and the Beane, which are not far from London? I have asked the Secretary of State to visit on a number of occasions. Those rivers are a unique environmental resource, and they should not be as they are at the moment. All rivers east of Luton are over-licensed and over-abstracted, with no available water supplies. Must our precious chalk rivers die, or will the Minister take the necessary steps to meet our demands and improve the condition of the rivers of England?


Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I welcome the debate and congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (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.
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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 the hon. Member for Broxbourne (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 coarse 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.

Mr. Heald: 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: 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 the hon. Member for Newbury (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
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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.

The hon. Member for Reading, East (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.

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