Previous Section Index Home Page

13 May 2009 : Column 262WH—continued

The campaign has played a key role in lobbying for funding, catchment management plans and habitat restoration projects, which can and will make a difference.
13 May 2009 : Column 263WH
If we cease damaging environments and allow wildlife to regenerate and regroup, mother nature will do the rest.

I am a trustee of the old Thames Rivers Restoration Trust, which runs a chalk stream restoration project. That project is levering in funding for habitat restoration and looking at whether there is an environmentally sensitive way to filter out the increased silt and turbidity coming into the river as a result of the canal and chalk stream watercourses being mingled downstream of Copse lock.

National organisations are also highly supportive of the work that we are doing in the Kennet valley. In particular, I want to highlight the work of the former Anglers Cooperative Association, which is now part of the Angling Trust. The association is the only organisation that has used the common law consistently to prosecute polluters, often using civil actions to secure far greater damages than the Environment Agency or the statutory authorities.

The association’s 2008 annual report showed that record damages were reclaimed from polluters on behalf of riparian owners and angling clubs. The River Blackwater was polluted with tin oxide in 2002, and a case was settled after many years of delay, with compensation being paid to the Ilford and District Piscatorial Society and the Kelvedon and District Angling Association.

In Somerset, a farmer was prosecuted for a liquid food waste spill that caused massive damage to the waters of six different angling clubs on the River Brue, which is a beautiful river in the west country. The Environment Agency managed to secure a paltry fine of £1,000, which is hardly a disincentive to the polluter—the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) talked about the “polluter pays” principle. However, the ACA pursued a civil claim in the courts and secured more than £7,000 in additional damages, as well as £4,000 in costs against the farmer. I am therefore proud to be a member of the association, which has now been absorbed into the new governing body for angling.

On top of that, some other quite inspirational work is going on. The debate is about not just the Kennet and the Lee, but all the rivers of England, and I draw Members’ attention to the work of the Wye and Usk Foundation. It is well worth the Minister and the shadow Minister visiting the foundation’s website to see how we can adopt a professional approach to the restoration of one of Britain’s most famous rivers.

The river will be under dire threat, particularly as a fishery, if the proposal to build the Severn barrage goes through, and I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Member for Salisbury has done to highlight what an environmental disaster the Severn barrage could be.

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

Martin Salter: They are opposed to it to a man, woman and dog. It is not that we are environmental vandals; we want the tidal power of the River Severn to
13 May 2009 : Column 264WH
be harnessed, because that could make a contribution to green energy, but we do not want that to happen at the cost of destroying the environment, the spawning habitat of 25 per cent. of all salmon in England and Wales, and the jobs that depend on angling tourism, particularly in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and in rural Wales and the border counties. Such a development would run completely contrary not only to the spirit but the letter of the European habitats directive.

I may be Labour’s vice-chair on environmental issues, but if my Government pursue the Severn barrage, I give due notice that I will actively pursue action in the courts with non-governmental organisations and hon. Members on both sides of the House to ensure that the European habitats directive is enforced, because it is not possible, as the directive requires, to recreate a compensatory habitat in this case—we simply cannot build a new salmon river. We will return to that battle.

The Wye and Usk Foundation was founded in 1996 and then became a company limited by guarantee. It has introduced radical measures to tackle acid rain and the acidification of the upper Wye catchment, which were making it impossible for salmon to spawn. We have seen the removal of man-made and sometimes natural obstructions, which were preventing the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. We have also seen amazing partnerships.

We have seen sometimes insular owners of fisheries working together, allowing coarse anglers on to rivers that had been closed to them for many years. We have seen about £6 million of public money—particularly European money—channelled through the Wye and Usk Foundation into voluntary groups and professional work carried out by contractors to restore a river that is certainly the pride of Wales and, in my view, the pride of Britain.

There are some big issues facing hon. Members. This is an easy speech for me to make, because I am not standing for re-election, but we as politicians—we have all been guilty of grubbing around for a few votes—need collectively to confront the issue of water metering, conservation and the price of water. The public will not value water if we continue to treat it as a throwaway commodity. I have no doubt that the third world war—I hope to God that there is not one—will be fought not over culture or religion, but over access to dry land and clean water. That is an inevitable consequence of climate change.

The way we allow winter run-off from our rivers is appalling. If hon. Members stand on the Terrace in winter, they will see billions of gallons of water washing away to the North sea, but in a few months we will be complaining about low flows. We in this country are not efficient at retaining, storing and using the resource that we are blessed with. That is why projects such as the upper Thames reservoir at Abingdon must go ahead and why strategic planning decisions must be made.

I am afraid that such decisions cannot be left to little local councils, with their predilection for parish-pump politics. That is why we have to be big people on the issue of water and be cognisant of the fact that we should be working closely with the powerful coalition of birdwatchers, environmentalists, anglers, naturalists and wildlife groups out there, just as we are working with the coalitions involved with the Blueprint for Water
13 May 2009 : Column 265WH
and the “Rivers on the Edge” campaign. Such issues should set the environmental agenda for the next generation, and water must be at the heart of that.

3.17 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): We are talking about Arcadia—nothing less—and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on drawing the issue to the attention of the House.

In the 16th century, the Avon catchment in the heart of Wessex gave rise to the whole concept of Arcadia—the relationship between the land, the water, the people and what happened there. In 1220, at the confluence of the rivers of the Hampshire Avon catchment—the Ebble, the Nadder, the Wylye, the Avon and the Bourne—we saw the creation by Bishop Poore of Salisbury, with its great cathedral. Later, the landscape was painted memorably by John Constable. Isaac Walton—father and son—fished and wrote on the Avon in Wiltshire. The land on which the Parliament tree stood at Stratford-sub-Castle flows down to the river itself, which was a Roman ford.

The great chalk grasslands where the water for the Hampshire Avon originates are the most extensive west of Poland. On the plain in the midst of those grasslands is Stonehenge. The land round about is under the stewardship of the Ministry of Defence, and the well-being of that landscape has been protected, ensuring that it has remained balanced and diverse. As a result, the Avon river is now a special area of conservation under the European habitats directive.

I have an intimate relationship with the rivers of southern England. In 1947, I fell into one, and I was pulled out by the Bishop of Bombay, who happened to be passing—the true stories are always the best. It was the same river in which I learned to tickle trout and to tie my flies for trout fishing and where I enjoyed lazy summer days in the water meadows. Since then, however, we have seen the destruction of hatches and the abandonment of water meadows. I pay tribute to the work of the Harnham Water Meadows Trust, which has retained, improved and rebuilt much of the water meadow infrastructure. We have also seen the end of water bailiffs, who understood every inch of their waterways and who regulated our streams and rivers.

When I was first elected to the House in 1983, we had great arguments about fish farms. There were 23 fish farms in the Avon catchment, including the biggest in Europe, which was at Barford Park at Downton. I pay tribute to the late Lord Radnor, who instigated that fish farm, which is thriving. He argued long and hard that fish farms were not the devil incarnate, but he had a tough time.

On Thursday 16 February 1984, I asked the then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

You will not be surprised to hear, Mr. O’Hara, that he answered, “Shortly.” Well, the question was not answered shortly. The situation went on and on, and I corresponded with the Natural Environment Research Council and its excellent chairman at the time, appropriately named Mr. Hugh Fish, about the future of the Hampshire Avon. On 10 April 1987, The Independent published an
13 May 2009 : Column 266WH
article headed “Fishermen blame trout farms for river’s slow death: conspiracy claim as anglers and landowners clash over decline of the once-glorious Avon.”

When the third report of the Environment Committee was published on 13 May 1987, it stated that the problem was caused by much more than just fish farms, referring to everything from controlling polluters to the control of sewage sludge, agricultural pollution, afforestation, fish farms, nitrates, silage, industrial pollution, chemical formulation and consented discharges. That is part of the long story of our steady destruction of our rivers, and we have only ourselves to blame.

The problems we now face arise principally from the demands of the public water supply. It is outrageous that we go on plundering our chalk aquifers in the way we do. The boreholes in the upper waters of the Avon catchment are responsible for taking up to a third of the water from the chalk aquifers right out of the region, and the water is piped to places such as Yeovil, and even to Bristol and towns such as Chippenham. Under the south-west regional spatial strategy, the water companies, without even being so much as formal consultees, simply had to provide as much water as the planners decided would be allowed for the houses they planned. Another 12,000 houses were planned in my constituency alone. Lord knows where that water would have come from, and, indeed, where the drainage would go and how much it would all cost. We simply cannot go on like that, because the impact on the aquifers is too serious. It takes 30 years for the pollutants to travel right through the aquifers on the Salisbury plain to their exit into the English channel off the Dorset coast.

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

Robert Key: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One can now find the real-time readings for the boreholes on Salisbury plain on the Environment Agency’s website and see for oneself that when the rainfall comes—in buckets—it does not do what it should do. It should go straight down into the aquifers, but instead it just runs off like a Scottish spate river, as the hon. Gentleman said.

We have many problems in this regard, which the water companies have to face, but this is the time to put pressure on them, because they are just at the beginning of their new plans for their five-year business cycles. I am delighted to see the Minister in his place, because he is a reasonable man who understands these things better than most Ministers do—we all have experience of being parachuted into a job in a Ministry.

One of the problems facing those who care about rivers is river restoration. Rivers have become canalised, over-dredged, over-widened and sometimes over-narrowed.
13 May 2009 : Column 267WH
They simply have not been looked after properly. If we are to look after our rivers properly, river restoration is a huge programme facing our nation. Climate change is also important in that regard. It will not be felt for perhaps another 30 or 40 years, but mark my words, by then the salmon population will be negligible and there will be no spawning because the water will be too warm. The decline of water fly life has already been dramatic, and there are now few big hatches on our rivers in the summer. Where is the research on that, and who is meant to be paying for it? Research is always the first thing to be struck off when organisations and agencies have a cash crisis.

Ten years ago, we started to look at one of the serious causes of biodiversity problems in rivers: endocrine disruption cased by the use of the pill. That problem derives not only from the female of the species—after all, it is us who cause the trouble in the first place, so we are all involved.

Martin Salter: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whom he means when he says “us”?

Robert Key: Well, I had better not go down that path, Mr. O’Hara, or you will have something to say. The problem of sex change in fish is serious and is leading to a decline in fertility. The spawning gravels in our rivers become repositories for endocrine disruptors, and for phosphates and nitrates from run-off from our farms.

That brings me to changes in farming practices, which we must ensure take place. The silt load in our rivers is worse than it has ever been, largely because of farming techniques and practice and the use of particular crops. The worst crop is maize. If only we could persuade our farmers not to plant so much maize, we would not have nearly so much top soil in the rivers. Maize is the biggest polluter when it comes to the problem of run-off. The phosphorous in the fertiliser gives rise to algal bloom, which in turn disrupts the spawning gravels.

There was an initiative about 15 years ago to introduce buffer strips along our watercourses, but that came to nothing. I spoke to the Environment Agency only this morning about that, but it had not even heard of the initiative because the current generation of people at the agency do not know what happened 15 or 20 years ago—why should they? They are not historians.

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

Robert Key: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that scheme was actually introduced in the higher-level stewardship scheme. The gentleman I spoke to at the Environment Agency this morning, who is a great professional, was unaware that it had been introduced—I kid you not, Mr. O’Hara. Actually, it was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) when he was Secretary of State for the Environment.

13 May 2009 : Column 268WH

There are other problems apart from those resulting from agriculture that we must address, although the nitrate problem and the nitrate directive are very serious issues, which are linked to the question of the nil-grazing of stock. If we nil-graze stock such as Holstein cattle, we will feed them on imported soya, which in turn gives rise to climate change issues elsewhere in the world. This is a global issue that is related not only to rivers in this country. I invite the Minister to address those other factors. Control of mink is seriously needed, for example. If we are to maintain biodiversity, we must keep a balance. Water voles are destroyed by mink, with which we have huge problems on the Avon catchment. Controlling mink means trapping and shooting them, but no one likes doing that to nice furry little mink, which look so nice. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire mentioned the problem of the signal crayfish, the American cousin. It has just about seen the back of the indigenous white-clawed crayfish, which I used to catch in the river in Salisbury as a child, turning over the stones to find them. They were wonderful eating.

Another bone of contention and serious problem, which we thought we had licked, is the number of cormorants on our rivers. They consume vast numbers of fish, which upsets the biodiversity in our rivers. The restocking of our rivers with fish cannot keep up with the stock lost to cormorants. In the Salisbury area, 30 miles upstream from the coast, we have huge problems with the loss of both coarse and game fish. All that is caused by there being insufficient food in coastal areas, including through the loss of sand eels. Again, that shows the various interrelationships and how enormous a brief the Minister must carry as he answers for all these problems in his winding-up speech.

Invasive plants are a serious problem in all our rivers. The Himalayan balsam is by far the worst. When the Himalayan balsam is present at the headwaters of a stream, as it is in the chalk streams of southern England, including the Kennet and Avon systems, everything downstream is clogged up. It has become endemic. Most major areas affected by Himalayan balsam have been identified by the Environment Agency, but if anyone spots it—if fishermen, for instance, see the plant or notice seeds floating down the river—for heaven’s sake, they should tell the Environment Agency. Not nearly enough effort is being put into the issue.

I could go on but I will not, as other Members wish to speak. I will just say that we have no right to plunder our rivers as we are doing. It is our duty to protect our heritage. It is our duty to protect Arcadia and the silver streams of Albion.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): I remind Members that with the addition of injury time, winding-up speeches should now start at 3.42.

3.31 pm

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I congratulate my fellow Hertfordshire MP, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), on securing the debate. Chalk streams are an extremely valuable and incredibly fragile resource. The River Ver, an important chalk stream, starts in the Chilterns and runs right through the middle of St. Albans. Indeed, St. Albans was probably founded where it is because of that wonderful natural asset.

Next Section Index Home Page