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The river runs through Verulamium park in the city centre, which was a major part of the old city of Verulamium, bending sharply to the south where its flow was blocked and diverted by ice half a million years ago. It is a globally rare chalk stream bordered by rough grassland, water meadow, rare reed beds, hedgerows and woodland. That important mix makes a huge difference to the species of flora and fauna in the area, and we disturb it at our peril.

Although periodic low flows are not good for many species, the farmland along the river is becoming much more wildlife friendly, as colleagues have said. The countryside management scheme and the previous set-aside schemes are starting to take effect. There is some diversity of species—kingfisher, heron, coot, moorhen, little grebe, wagtail and so on. I am not knowledgeable about birds, but people who are tell me that certain species have been declining alarmingly during the past 20 years, particularly skylarks. However, they have started to recover slightly in recent years because we are starting to recognise what damage we are doing to the fragile ecosystem.

Hertfordshire chalk streams have shallow gravel beds and clear water, as the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) said, and are fed by groundwater stored in the layers of chalk beneath, which soak up water like a sponge. That soaking-up is crucial. One thing that has not been mentioned in the debate is the run-off resulting from hard landscaping, which causes water to course down culverts and run off rather than being absorbed by the area surrounding the chalk streams. If we build the expected thousands of additional houses, we will have to deal not only with abstraction, but with hard landscaping and run-off.

At various points, water emerges in the form of springs that feed the river. Chalk streams are important and deeply sensitive to environmental pressures, including increased pressure to build in our area. They are unique in Europe. I find it staggering that we are asked to be concerned about rain forests, ice caps and all the other environmentally sensitive areas when we treat some of our local environmentally sensitive areas with such disregard and disdain.

I cannot help but stress how annoyed I was by the apparent statutory obligation to provide water and the fact that the Government can ratify a plan that local people do not feel is acceptable, putting thousands of extra houses in an area that is already stressed. We must stop that now. It is no good saying 20 years down the line, “We have ruined our rivers, and by the way, we put 82,000 houses in Hertfordshire at the same time.”

Our chalk streams are unique and recognised globally. They are the European aquatic equivalent of the rain forests, and we should treat them as such. We cannot lecture other societies about what they do in the name of their economies, such as cutting down masses of timber, while we say that our economy in the south is the powerhouse of England and we are going to build wherever people want to live. We must think about it.

The Environment Agency allows Three Valleys Water to abstract more than 30 million litres of water a day from the Ver aquifer by pumping from deep underground at several pumping stations. We have our concerns about that. The Buncefield oil depot disaster in 2005 occurred just outside my constituency, but as we have heard, the flow of rivers and aquifers means that the pollutants that entered the water will reach everywhere.
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Perfluorooctane sulfonate has entered our waterways, and I am still not reassured that we know exactly what the impact will be. I cannot understand why the Government altered the acceptable threshold of PFOS.

We are still waiting for a particular borehole to be opened. A large aquifer was polluted. The Bow Bridge pumping station, which serves my constituency, cannot be used, but is soon to be reopened. We have not had the environmental reassurances that we need, nor have the long-term impact studies that we have been calling for been done. What will this mean for the environment of our area, which relies on that valuable resource?

I am pleased to report that, after several months of above-average rainfall, the aquifer returned to average in March 2007 for the first time in more than three years, and remained at roughly that level throughout 2008. It is amazing that we had a hosepipe ban for 11 of 12 months, despite the fact that it bucketed down with rain everywhere in St. Albans and we had several dreadful summers in a row. The levels had gone so low that it has taken three years just to get back up to the average.

Mr. Heald: I forgot to say earlier that our hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) wanted to be here, but parliamentary business did not allow it. He is very concerned about the Buncefield issue, which my hon. Friend has just mentioned.

Anne Main: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has worked so hard, particularly in relation to the pollutants from Buncefield, and been pressing hard for the aquifers to be monitored vigorously.

A lot of good work is going on; we have heard about wonderful work in all locations. The St. Albans Watercress Wildlife Association has opened the watercress beds. They are a fantastic resource, but pressures on building in my constituency mean that people look at those bits of green and think, “Where should we put our houses? How much do we value this?” When I bang on about the green belt and open green spaces, it is not because I am being a nimby; it is because, as all hon. Members have said, such spaces are part of a sensitive ecosystem.

There has been a huge decline in butterflies and pollinators in Hertfordshire. I know that bee decline has featured heavily, but butterflies have been decimated by farming practices. I am privileged to say that Butterfly World, which is opening in St. Albans, will address that issue. We are lucky that the chalk streams support butterflies such as orange-tips, brimstones, peacocks and small tortoiseshells, as well as dragonflies.

Such species are an indicator of good, clear water, but some are declining. As the hon. Member for Reading, West said, they used to be seen further downstream. Not only will we not see those beautiful creatures, but pollinators are being wiped out. That is incredibly important. The film supporting Butterfly World shows that when butterflies and bees decline, so do we.

We must make an incredible effort to support our rivers, resist inappropriate development and be mindful of the fact that houses bring people and that people have expectations about lifestyle and water usage. We cannot curtail those expectations and we cannot just expect water to be delivered by pumps from somewhere
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else. What is taken from somewhere else might cause pressure somewhere else. We should all ask the Government to listen to local people when they say that certain things must stop, including unsustainable development.

I am hopeful about the good work going on in my constituency and that the concerned people who value such things will not be seen as sandal-wearers fighting for their precious little bit of river and the right to selfish enjoyment of the countryside. It is not like that at all. They should be seen as curators of the future of us all. We are only borrowing the land for a short while, and we should hand it on to the future in better condition, not worse.

3.39 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara.

It has been a privilege to hear the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and his colleagues speak so enthusiastically about the chalk streams in their constituencies. We have had the benefit of the experience and knowledge of the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who is an acknowledged expert on fishing and fisheries. I remember listening to the late Lord Denning speak about chalk streams after he retired as Master of the Rolls. That filled me with ambition to see those wonderful streams. Now that my son is living in Harpenden, I have more of an excuse to do so and might spend some time there.

We make huge demands on our rivers for all sorts of purposes. Usually, they are forgiving and can accommodate many of the abuses that we throw at them. However, there comes a time when demand on our rivers becomes such that it damages them, whether temporarily or permanently. It is a huge challenge for us and the Government to find ways to correct the damage that we do.

Obviously, we look to our rivers to provide water, and concerns have been raised over the demand for water for additional housing. The Government must work with local planning authorities to see what can be done. I am sure that the Flood and Water Management Bill will contain proposals to deal with run-off from hard surfaces and to create a more permeable approach to development. There should be less concrete and more lawns and gravel, so that rather than run off and be lost immediately, water joins the aquifers that supply the streams.

It is not just housing that puts demands on water. There are demands from agriculture and irrigation. As a result of climate change, the need for irrigation will increase if we are to keep up with the food output targets that many think should be introduced. Irrigation can be improved. Rather than having a broadcast system of irrigation, more targeted forms such as the trickle system could be used so that water was delivered to the plant, rather than going across the whole piece of land. That would ensure that the water for irrigation was better used.

We also look to our rivers for conservation. Hon. Members have compared them to the rain forests in the Amazon in saying that rivers are our rain forests. That is
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probably true. We have heard examples of the plants and birds that they support. If the parks of London are the lungs of the capital, the rivers are perhaps the arteries and veins of our countryside; they support the countryside and its wildlife. Rivers also contribute to the landscape. Nothing is as great as a river flowing through countryside in completing the Arcadia that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) described. Artists have celebrated our landscape on many occasions.

We look to our rivers for recreation. Nothing has yet been said of the ongoing conflict between canoeists and fishermen. Perhaps the Minister will say a word about that. I was with a prime mover in the Wye and Usk Foundation on Monday night. He is hopeful that progress can be made by better management and through working together on those issues, rather than through conflict.

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

Mr. Williams: I knew that I would be able to incite the hon. Gentleman.

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

Mr. Williams: I thank the Minister for his intervention. I believe that that is the correct approach. There must be give and take on both sides. David Jones Powell holds the ring for riparian owners on the River Usk and has negotiated an agreement with the BCU. It has signed that agreement on a fairly regular basis, but I understand that lately the BCU has been unwilling to sign the document because it believes that it will create a legal right for riparian owners to control and negotiate on the matter.

The BCU believes that canoeists should have the right to access whenever they want it. All the sentiments that have been expressed today point towards a voluntary approach, not a right for canoeists to go wherever they want. We have to manage our rivers. If we are not able to do so, they will be in danger.

Just as there are debates over the recreational use of rivers for canoeing, there is much debate about their recreational use for fishing. Many comments on that have been made this afternoon. Our rivers are also used for transport. British Waterways controls some river areas around Gloucester for the movement of goods and for the use of pleasure boats.

Because we have abused our rivers in the past and continue to do so, we have suffered many problems. The problem that has been emphasised most today is low flows. There is evidence that if climate change develops as we think it will, by 2050 the autumn flows of all our rivers will fall by 80 per cent. Therefore, not only chalk
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streams, but rivers throughout the UK, will be damaged. In a way, you are highlighting what could be a problem for the whole UK, not just the streams in your area.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. As Chairman, I have no interest in any of these rivers.

Mr. Williams: I am sorry; I got a bit carried away with my enthusiasm for the rivers.

Another problem is pollution. Mention has been made of specific problems in specific places. Farming must play its part in ensuring that rivers are improved. Everything must be done to prevent the massive pollution incidents that occur from time to time, but those are not the only problems. There is also diffuse pollution. That is why nitrate-vulnerable zones were introduced. However, nitrate problems in river water are not solely to do with agriculture.

Certainly, the legislation on nitrate-vulnerable zones does not seem to be fit for purpose. Regulations were introduced many years ago, since when the condition of many of our rivers has improved in terms of nitrate pollution. However, the Minister should be aware that not only agriculture but sewage systems and various other industries are involved. The burden on agricultural industry should be viewed in proportionate terms, not in the absolute terms that the NVZ legislation requires.

The cleaning of rivers that pass through private agricultural land is both a private and public matter for which the Westminster and the devolved Governments must take some responsibility. Because we have had a certain amount of pollution, I am concerned about the licences that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform issues for specific, large-scale civil engineering work such as the gas pipeline through my constituency. Such licences have not been accompanied by conditions on remedying and alleviating the pollution of rivers over which those big schemes pass. DBERR issues the licences, but does not have the powers to ensure that those conditions are implemented, so the pollution goes on.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion, as the Minister has a lot on his plate. He will need all the time available to him to respond on all those issues.

3.51 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I apologise for my voice, Mr. O’Hara, and I shall ensure that the Official Report gets the full text of my contribution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on the sterling contribution that he has made under your excellent chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara, and may I say what a privilege it is to appear under your chairmanship? My hon. Friend has put a lot of thought into his contribution and covered a lot of ground. I should like to make my bid for having the most stunning countryside in my constituency, which is also blessed with a number of very fishable and beautiful rivers, and I thank my hon. Friend for setting the scene.

Most hon. Friends and colleagues who have spoken today have done so in the context of the rivers that they live next to—chalk streams in a particular part of the
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countryside have been discussed—or the anglers whom they represent, but I am sure that the Minister will want to broaden his response to include the water framework directive. I was touched by my hon. Friend’s contribution, especially when he set the scene regarding unsatisfactory flows in our rivers and pointed out that the UK has a variety of local climates, with differing rainfalls. Having represented part of East Anglia in the European Parliament for 10 years, I am only too aware that the rainfall in East Anglia is probably less than in northern areas, and I am grateful to him for drawing our attention to the issue.

I congratulate the WWF on its latest campaign, “Our Rivers”, which aims to protect river habitats. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) for drawing the Chamber’s attention to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), because he was the first to set up a protection zone local area committee to protect the River Kennet, I think. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Benyon family have, for many generations, allowed fishing and other natural activities to occur on that river, and we pay tribute to the Benyon family today.

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

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that my hon. Friend will take me out and beat me up for misnaming the river.

I was particularly struck by the contributions on biodiversity, especially those of my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (Robert Key) and for North-East Hertfordshire, who spoke about the loss of the water vole, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) about the loss of butterflies. We have had debates about the bees, but we should also be aware of the contribution of the butterfly to biodiversity.

There have been many degrees of consensus in this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire spoke at great length about biodiversity issues. Personally, I would yield to no one in my quest for clean rivers of excellent quality. The main thrust of my remarks to the Minister will be about the need to assess the implications for England, for biodiversity and for water quality of the European water framework directive, which has huge implications for water companies, local authorities, highway authorities and, not least, farmers.

The WWF campaign, which most people would want to support, refers to three strands, the first of which is developing water efficiency, particularly in relation to new housing. The second strand is about providing incentives to promote water efficiency, and the third strand is about reviewing water abstraction. In all this, the Environment Agency is being asked to maintain a delicate balance. One relevant issue is the requirements of agriculture. Given that I represent one of the most rural constituencies—the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) represents another rural constituency—I am cognisant that the main industry in the Vale of York is agriculture. The requirements of agriculture and the responsible use of water should be encouraged and respected, as should the use of water for human needs and the protection of the natural environment.

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