ALSO BEING POSTED IN COARSE SECTION
Charles Walker (Broxbourne, Conservative)
Thank you for allowing me to speak on the Adjournment today, Mr Deputy Speaker. Let me begin by saying to the Minister that I am going to give him one hell of a beating over the next 15 minutes, and I hope he can suck it up and take it like a man.
We are a blessed nation. When God made this great world of ours, He gave India the Himalayas, He gave Brazil the Amazon rain forest, and He gave South Africa the savannah. Then God thought to Himself, “What can I give that great country, England ? What can I give England that it can be proud of?”, and He gave us 85% of the world’s chalk streams. The world’s chalk streams are one of the most precious previous ecosystems available, and God decided that we should have custody of 85% of that resource; so we are indeed a blessed nation.
As I grew up with my grandfather in Hampshire and Wiltshire, I spent many happy days trundling down the river banks, fishing rod in hand, with my grandfather carrying the picnic basket containing the tomato soup and my grandmother’s cheese and ham baps. We would sit there on the river bank, looking at the sparkling water, the kingfishers, the damselflies, the mayflies and the water voles, and the two of us, for that moment in time, were kings. But now, I am afraid, the House must hear the bad news. For the last 30 or 40 years, we have watched our precious chalk streams die. We have watched them drain away, abstracted to death.
Just after my grandfather died in January 2012, I visited the River Kennet at Manton, where we had had so many adventures together. I stood in that river with the former Member of Parliament for Reading , West, Martin Salter, and it was dry: dry as a bone. We stood in that river with my hon. Friend Claire Perry, in whose constituency it falls. It was dry; it had gone. There was no more water, and there was no more wildlife: no voles, no fly life, no fish, nothing. There was just a tiny puddle in the weir pool. I said that there were no fish, but in fact there were about 20 fish left in the weir pool, clinging on for life.
That was in January 2012, when we were facing an environmental disaster. We were only saved by a once-in-a-hundred-years event—the coming of the great rains in the spring of last year, which lasted throughout the summer and continued into the winter. Without those rains, there would have been standpipes across the country, and we would have been in crisis. Cobra would have been meeting. That is how close we were to the water system failing and our losing many more of our rivers, not just the upper Kennet.
As a result of this near-disaster, the all-party group on angling and interested parties from around the country—chalk streams are to be found in the east of England, the west country and as far away as Yorkshire, as well as in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire—held a summit at Stockbridge. The mood was one of extreme anger because this precious natural resource was being
allowed to die, and we were standing aside and watching that happen—we were watching our chalk streams drain away.
We in this House lecture Brazil on the Amazon rain forest and Indonesia on its rain forest, yet we are appalling custodians of our own precious resources. We are not in any position to lecture anyone about the environment.
The Environment Agency attended that summit meeting, and its civil servants looked us in the eye and assured us that it had the highest regard for our chalk streams, and that it was committed to conserving them and making sure they remained for future generations to enjoy. I do not want to say this, but I am going to: what total and utter rubbish. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. I said to those at the EA, “You come and visit our streams in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.” If they were to visit them today, they would need a pair of waders, as we have had historically high levels of rainfall, but if they had come last spring, they would not have needed to bring waders, or even gumboots or ankle-boots. In fact they could have brought their bedroom slippers and still not got their feet wet, because these rivers have been abstracted to death, and some of them are not even there any more. Last year, we lost three, and another two were 50% dried up. They will come back, but there will not be any wildlife in them, there will not be any fly life and there will not be any fish.
What really sticks in the craw is that the EA puts out press releases saying, “Our rivers have never been cleaner than they are now.” Some of them might well be clean, but they might also be only 1 inch deep, so that message is deliberately misleading.
Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire are in this situation because we have been building houses for decades; we have been growing the population of the east of England for decades without any thought to how we are going to supply the water. We just keep sucking it out of the ground through abstraction. The last major reservoir that was built in the south-east and east was the Queen Mother reservoir, which was constructed 40 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of houses have been built in the intervening time.
In 1950, there was a debate in this Chamber about the state of the Mimram, running along the Hertfordshire-Buckinghamshire border. There was concern about its future back then, when households were abstracting an average of 60 litres of water a day. That figure now stands at 180 litres of water a day across the region, and, as I have said, there are so many more homes, too.
We are on the cusp of an historic event, as the draft water Bill will soon come before the House. The Bill must be robust. First, it must deal with Ofwat. I am not going to pull my punches: Ofwat is a really shocking organisation. It really is a disgrace, and it has worked against conservation in this country for many years. It has no regard for conservation. It is not interested in what happens in the natural environment. If a water company wants to install metering to try to reduce usage, it will not happen if it is going to cost anybody any money. Ofwat needs to be given some responsibility for the environmental consequences of its actions. We cannot carry on in the same way as at present.
We need to get far better at capturing and storing water. We currently have an abundance of water, but a lot of it is going down the rivers into the sea. As a result, it is replenishing the aquifers, which is a good thing, but the aquifers will be sucked dry again and in two or three years we will right back where we started. That means rivers that barely flow, rivers that do not support any life, rivers that are in essence dead—environmental vandalism on a extraordinary scale. As I said, how dare we lecture the developing world on its responsibilities to its natural environment when we so casually disregard our responsibilities to our natural environment?
I was educated in America , where people are far more aggressive in pursuit of conservation issues. Trout Unlimited in America routinely takes state and federal Governments to court when they are letting down the natural environment. It mounts court cases, fights court cases and wins court cases. I do not advocate direct action in this country. Sometimes I want to man the barricades, break the water pumps, let people know how I feel, burning tyres in the street in Stockbridge, for example, to make the point, but that is not the way forward. It might be tempting, it might be momentarily attractive to become a sort of middle-class Swampy, but that is not the way forward. If this Government, if future Governments cannot get it right, we have to go to law more often. We have to hold Governments to account.
We have an excellent Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Richard Benyon. His heart is in the right place. He has it within his powers to do something truly great. If he meets resistance in Ofwat, get rid of that resistance—show ’em the door. If the Environment Agency is not willing to step up to the plate, show those responsible the door. We need a can-do Government and a can-do Minister working in a can-do Department. We are at the business end of the coalition. We are halfway through the Parliament and now is the time to make the difference, to leave that legacy by which we will be judged.
So I urge the Minister in his remaining two and a half years at the Department—who knows, he might be there indefinitely as the Conservatives sweep the board in 2015, but I am almost sure that he has another two and a half years in that Department and I will ask him to do great things while he is there. This is not just about fishing, as much as I love fishing and catching beautiful wild brown trout that have swum our rivers since the ice age; it is about how we treat and regard our environment.
I am appalled when I hear that plans are made to build houses in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire without any thought being given to how we are going to supply those houses with water. In my part of the world 70% of our water is abstracted and there are tens of thousands more houses to be built, so more and more abstraction. We have a roll-call of shame—the River Beane, the Ver, the Bulbourne, the Chess, the Misbourne, the Gade, the Wye, the Lea, the Colne, the Mimram—some of them on their knees, some no longer on their knees but in the dust, because there is no hope for them if things continue as they are now.
On many of the rivers that do not flow there are still abstraction licences that are not even being utilised. On the River Lea, which is at about 10% of its historical flow, 15% of what it was 300 or 400 years ago, there are abstraction licences that are not being exercised, but if
the water companies see fit, they have the right to exercise them. We are on the cusp not just of things going along in an unsustainable way, but truly collapsing off the cliff.
I feel passionately about the matter. Normally I am a good-natured, mild-mannered Member of Parliament and I have tried to be good-natured today, but this Government must get a grip. We have kicked the issue into the long grass for far too long. Successive Governments have not tackled it. If we do not do so, we should say to Brazil , Indonesia and parts of Africa , “Get on with what you want to do with your own environment. We are totally useless at looking after our precious natural resources. Who are we to lecture you?” If I ever come to the House at a time when no action has been taken to address the problem of our own natural resources, if I ever come to the House and hear colleagues and Ministers pontificating about what Brazil should be doing in respect of the Amazon rain forest, I will either walk out in disgust or make a scene, which will be very unattractive for all concerned.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity, and Minister, I look forward to your response. You have the potential to be a great man. You are a great man in creation at the moment. I really do hope that the Department will march to your tune, that you will crack the whip and that Ofwat and the EA will get a grip, step up to the plate and sort out this terrible, terrible unfolding catastrophe.