On 3 November 2021, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following question for short debate, tabled by Lord Chidgey (Liberal Democrat):
Lord Chidgey to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the Catchment Based Approach’s Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy 2021 and related reports from the Angling Trust and the Rivers Trust and others; and what steps they intend to take in response.
Chalk streams are rivers and streams emanating from chalk aquifers and springs. It is estimated that around 85% of the world’s chalk streams are in England. As a result, England’s chalk streams are believed to make an important contribution to global biodiversity, with them providing natural habitat for many plants and animals, including: Atlantic salmon, sea trout, grayling, lamprey, otters, water voles, kingfishers, rare invertebrates such as the winterbourne stonefly, and plants like stream water crowfoot.
However, chalk streams in England are said to be at risk of “drying out”. A 2019 joint report by the Angling Trust, Rivers Trust and other related organisations discussed this issue in depth, describing it as a crisis. It blamed a number of factors for causing this issue, including water wastage, agricultural pollution and over abstraction when compared to rainfall:
There are a host of reasons why our chalk streams, and other rivers, are at risk. Agricultural pollution, a decline in native species and particularly invertebrates, the introduction of non-native invasive species, development and population growth in the South East of England, and the fact that we simply use, and waste too much water. On average, in Britain we use more water per-head, per-day, than anywhere else in Europe.
But most pressing of all are low flows and chronic over abstraction. We have simply not had enough rain to support the level of abstraction still taking place.
The report made a number of recommendations to tackle the issue. This included improving public awareness of issues with water supplies, compulsory water metering and better drought management planning by water companies.
Recent discussion in the House of Lords
A cross-party amendment (amendment 83) to help protect chalk streams was debated in the House of Lords during report stage of the Environment Bill on 13 September 2021. The amendment sought to:
[Provide a] mechanism for developing a designation for chalk streams, which facilitates greater protection for them and their channels, aquifers, and floodplains, and drives greater resources and investment into the protection and management of chalk streams. It will require the Government to adopt the recommendation set out in the Catchment Based Approach Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy to develop an action plan for the implementation of those recommendations, and report on progress.
Speaking to the amendment, Lord Chidgey (Liberal Democrat) stressed the importance of giving chalk streams greater protection status, claiming that the use of “priority habitat status” and water framework directives had failed to provide enough cover.
Responding for the Government, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, the Minister for Pacific and the Environment, said that the Government was taking action and would support the Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy:
The Government will welcome the publication of the chalk stream restoration strategy and agree that the detailed recommendations in it should be explored. For example, one expected recommendation will be a need for the Government to consider how chalk streams are protected. The Government and their advisory bodies will take this recommendation extremely seriously once the strategy is published. The Government are committed to supporting the overall direction and ambition of the report.
Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy
Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) published its Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy in October 2021. CaBA describes itself as a “civil society-led initiative that works in partnership with government, local authorities, water companies, businesses and more, to maximise the natural value of our environment”. It works with groups such as the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Rivers Trust, Natural England and the Angling Trust, all of which were involved in producing the strategy.
CaBA called the strategy a “comprehensive, up-to-date analysis of the issues threatening chalk streams in England” and of how ecological pressures are assessed and dealt with. It also stated:
If we are to achieve the goal of [the Government’s] 25-year Environment Plan and leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it, we must address the multiple threats to the ecological health of our chalk streams.
CaBA’s key recommendation was “for an overarching level of protection and priority status for chalk streams and their catchments”. It wanted them to have a “distinct identity” and for this to drive investment in water resources infrastructure, treatment and catchment-scale restoration.
Other recommendations from CaBA included calls for:
- Agreement on the definition of sustainable abstraction that ensures flows are reduced by no more than 10% from natural at the most water-stressed times of the year.
- A review of waterbody boundaries and assessment points to ensure that methods for assessing flows and water quality protect all of the chalk stream.
- Designating chalk-stream regions where public water supply is heavily reliant on groundwater abstraction as ‘water-stressed’, enabling greater protection in these areas.
- Multiple actions to drive down the nutrient loading of chalk streams to ecologically appropriate levels.
Reaction to the strategy
Commenting on the publication of the strategy, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rebecca Pow, outlined the Government’s support for the strategy and stated that work was already underway on a third of the recommendations:
Chalk streams are both incredibly rare and a hugely important part of our environmental heritage.
That’s why on behalf of the government I called for the creation of an independent CaBA-led working group, the Chalk Streams Restoration Group (CSRG) last year and welcome its ambitious strategy. Action is in progress wherever possible with our flagship projects programme underway. A third of the strategy recommendations are already being taken forward by government, regulators and other CSRG members.
I look forward to seeing how the work progresses and continuing to work together on ways to further protect and restore this vital habitat.
The Environment Agency chair, Emma Howard Boyd, also highlighted the importance of chalk streams and the need for collective action to be taken to protect their future. She said that their value should not be undermined and believed the report added certainty about what is expected of their users.
Thames Water’s chief executive, Sarah Bentley, who was representing water companies at the launch of the strategy, said ambitious steps were being taken to improve water quality and reduce unsustainable abstractions. She saw the strategy as another important step:
I’m passionate about us protecting our precious rivers and streams. At Thames Water, we’re lucky to have world-famous chalk streams flowing through our region and are working hard to restore them back to their natural beauty. We’re progressing ambitious plans to stop unsustainable abstractions to increase flow and eliminate untreated discharges to improve water quality. While this will take time, we are making progress and the strategy is an important step forward that informs and supports our wider restoration plans.
- Environment Agency, ‘New strategy launched to protect chalk streams’, 15 October 2021
- Debate on ‘Degraded Chalk Stream Environments’, HC Hansard, 22 July 2019, cols 1167–90
- Robin McKie, ‘The battle to save England’s chalk streams, one of the planet’s rarest habitats’, Guardian, 6 June 2021
Cover image by Ian Rob from Wikimedia Commons.