by David Bean

With well over three quarters of the world’s chalk streams located in England, these fantastic, biodiverse ecosystems, prized for their water quality and as spawning grounds for fish, are a true adornment to the British landscape. The Countryside Alliance was therefore pleased to see the House of Lords hold a short debate last Wednesday on the Government’s approach to their restoration.

Water quality has been in the news lately after the highly publicised Environment Bill debate over an amendment to ban sewage discharge into rivers entirely. The Government drew criticism for its stance that the Labour Party’s proposal was unworkable, but public pressure forced it into a partial U-turn by imposing a new legal duty on water companies to show progressive reductions in overflows and their impacts.

The debate was prompted by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Chidgey, a member of the APPG on Chalk Streams chaired by Charles Walker MP. Lord Chidgey argued that focusing discharge reduction efforts on priority river types, of which chalk streams would be high on the list, was both viable and cost-effective.

Turning to the chalk stream restoration strategy, published last month by the government-sponsored chalk stream restoration group led by the Angling Trust, he characterised it as “a clear, comprehensive vision and plan for the future of our chalk streams” that would nevertheless “be worthless unless immediate and urgent action is taken by the Government, the Environment Agency, Ofwat and the water companies”. It too calls for priority protection for chalk streams and their catchment areas, and in addition for abstraction from chalk streams to be required to reduce their flows by no more than 10 per cent.

Lord Chidgey noted the appeal of chalk streams as a habitat for Atlantic salmon, which he pointed out have now returned to the once-dead River Clyde, so with proper effort should be able to return still more readily to chalk streams such as the Itchen and the Test.

After a brief but well-informed debate, Lord Benyon responded on behalf of the Government. His former constituency of Newbury included four chalk streams as do the grounds of his house in Berkshire, and prior to returning to government he had served on the board of River Action UK. In his previous role as a Defra minister he had also established the catchment-based approach to river management, and set up the ‘Love Your River’ campaign back in 2012.

Lord Benyon was frank in lamenting the state of some of the English chalk streams and the impact on the species that inhabit them. Agreeing on the need for further action, he welcomed the restoration group’s strategy and said that the Government’s main initial step was to ask water companies to nominate a set of flagship catchment restoration projects to exemplify the best approaches, aiming to show that good ecological status can be restored within ten years. He also alluded to a mechanism to incentivise sustainable abstraction, and said that Defra plans to publish a cross-government Green Paper on nature recovery by the end of the year.

The Countryside Alliance fully supports efforts to restore the English chalk streams, for their own sake as well as that of the species and communities they benefit. We look forward to monitoring the Government’s progress.

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