HC Deb 14 May 1998 vol 312 cc572-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

7 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)

I should start by saying how grateful I am to Madam Speaker for the chance to raise this serious matter on the Adjournment.

In environmental terms, the River Kennet is one of the jewels in my constituency. It is not only one of the finest trout streams in England; the stretch of river to which this debate refers is a top-quality chalk stream and a site of special scientific interest in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Rising by Avebury with its ancient and awe-inspiring standing stones, it flows along a broad green valley, through the royal borough of Marlborough, by the Roman relics at Mildenhall and the riverside gardens at Ramsbury and past Chilton Foliat into Berkshire, where it finally escapes my representation. Just before Ramsbury, it runs by Axford, where much of the cause of this debate arises.

The Kennet is a special river not only to the angler, but to the conservationist, the environmentalist and, above all, the genuine countryman. It is not a large river, which makes it vulnerable. It is not a fast river, which makes it precarious. It is the epitome of a crystal-clear chalk stream, bringing quality of life to the community through which it passes, habitat for local flora and fauna, and great pleasure to all the people who live near or along its banks.

The River Kennet is under threat—from a changing climate, which has, as we all know, recently produced episodes of drought, from man-made activity along its banks, but, above all, from the abstraction of its precious water to feed developments outwith its catchment area, which are mostly in and around Swindon, to its north.

I have watched the River Kennet at close quarters for some eight years. I have read all the technical data about the river and have tried, along even with experts, fully to interpret those data. It is not easy, especially for the layman. I hear the arguments about levels of flow and their effect on the ecology of the river. I struggle with cost-benefit analyses. My plea tonight, however, is based as much on my instinct as a simple countryman as on any of those matters. To a simple countryman, the fact is that the River Kennet is declining and the main cause for that decline is the amount of water that is abstracted from it both at Axford and further up the river.

It is deeply depressing to see that the River Kennet to the west of Marlborough is, in the summer, effectively a dry and overgrown river bed, and to the east of Axford an unnaturally slow and reduced flow. It is an alarming spectacle when, each year, the extent of those problems appears to increase. It is not only of direct and understandable concern to people who fish or earn their living from fishing on the river; they have a direct and legitimate interest in being concerned. It is also a cause of anxiety to all the people who just value the countryside and the natural environment. However, that depression, that alarm, that concern, that anxiety are seemingly just brushed aside by those who have an interest in abstracting water from the Kennet, and it seems recently, I regret, by the Government as well.

Ironically, anyone who looks at the River Kennet today might wonder at this debate because, after a month of unusually high rainfall, the river is in what is known as spanking condition. It is looking as it always should look. The sad truth is that this is the exception which proves the rule. Normally these days, a much diminished version is seen. The river's flow has been reduced and that cannot be denied.

Thames Water Utilities Ltd., which abstracts the water, blames river modifications for the changes in flow patterns and droughts for the reduction of flow. I find that a somewhat specious argument as, in the absence or with a reduction of abstraction, those other circumstances would themselves be less significant.

Blaming drought in particular begs the question. If the risk of flooding on a flood plain is measured on a ratio of 100 years as a relevant criterion in considering planning applications for housing, surely the risk of drought measured on a similar ratio and for similar reasons in applications for water abstraction licences should equally apply. That is to say that, unless it is shown to be likely, rather than the exception, it should not be relevant. The real point is rather simpler: without drought, abstraction still reduces the river flow by the amount abstracted and the damage of that reduction still occurs. With drought, that problem is merely compounded.

None of us argues that no water should be abstracted, only that it should be contained within the limits that the river can, without lasting damage, afford. People need water, but so does the environment. It must be a matter of proper balance. It is the lack of that balance that gives rise to such anxiety.

The subject has long been a matter of local concern. I pay tribute to the group Action for the River Kennet, which is known locally and affectionately as ARK, for the way in which it has informed and guided local opinion and ensured that it has been directed constructively. The extent of that local concern has been demonstrated over a long period by substantial attendances at local meetings—not least one three weeks ago. My constituents mind about the Kennet. I mind about the Kennet. We are looking to the Government to mind, too.

Although this concern arises as much in relation to the reduction of water in the aquifers at the head of the river, which is the apparent cause of the river's virtual disappearance to the west of Marlborough in the summer—a matter that also needs to be addressed by the Minister—the most recent concern has been brought to a head by the Government's decision in February in relation to the River Kennet, consequent upon a public inquiry in 1996 into Thames Water's abstraction at Axford.

The inquiry was precipitated by Thames Water's application to make permanent a temporary variation to its abstraction licence, which had been in force for 15 years and which allowed the company to exceed its base licence of 13.1 megalitres per day by a further 7.4 megalitres per day, subject to a minimum flow of 61.4 megalitres per day measured at a particular point. The Environment Agency had sought a progressive minimum flow increase and, most important, a reduction in the base volume. Thames Water appealed against that.

The inquiry was highly technical, hearing evidence on hydrological models of the effect of abstraction on river flow and, consequently, on aquatic flora and fauna. The case against Thames Water, which was led by the Environment Agency, was in summary that low flows were making the river less suitable for water crowfoot and brown trout, two species that are particular indicators of a healthy chalk stream. The argument was that the river was being damaged.

In the event, the inspector recommended against the Environment Agency's proposal for a reduction in the base rate of abstraction and suggested a review of that in 2007. He accepted a first-stage cut-off of 69 megalitres per day, but extended that to 1999. He reduced the agency's proposed second-stage cut-off from 104 megalitres per day to 90 megalitres per day.

In February, the Secretary of State upheld Thames Water's appeal and endorsed the inspector's findings with no further comment. Although that was an improvement for the river on the current position, the result was deeply disappointing considering the circumstantial evidence in support of the Environment Agency's position. However, the lack of explanation of the Government's decision caused the greatest concern; hence today's debate.

People regard the Environment Agency as not only the Government's adviser in matters environmental, but their protective arm. When the Government appear to cast aside that protective arm, that is obviously a matter for consternation and requires, at the very least, substantial explanation. After all, to whom else can people look for environmental support and protection? That consternation has been further compounded by the apparent conflict of the Government's decision with the Secretary of State's statement at last May's water summit that the forthcoming review into water abstraction would examine ways in which environmentally damaging abstractions … can be equitably curtailed". The decision also seems to be at variance with the parliamentary answer from the Minister for the Environment on 25 March 1998, which said: Where water abstractions are damaging sites specially protected— by, among other things— designation as SSSIs"— as is the case here— the Environment Agency should seek voluntary agreements for reductions with the abstractors where possible. Where that is not possible, the Environment Agency should use its existing powers … to vary or revoke the relevant licences, and be prepared to pay compensation where necessary. As part of their review of the water abstraction licensing system, the Government are considering future compensation arrangements and a consultation paper on those and other proposals will be published within the next few weeks."—[Official Report, 25 March 1998; Vol. 309, c. 163.] That has certainly not been the outcome of the Government's decision in this case; far from it. I have not read the consultation paper—I am not sure whether it has yet been issued.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

indicated assent.

Mr. Ancram

The Minister nods—it has been issued. More importantly, the lack of explanation as to why the decision runs so counter to the statements that I have quoted is a genuine cause of resentment and concern. I hope that we will receive some explanation tonight.

First, I hope that we can agree that there is damage to the River Kennet from abstraction. There may be arguments about the extent and effect of such damage, but the acceptance of its existence is an important starting point. At the inquiry, it was generally agreed that the river's flow had been reduced by the Axford abstraction and that over time the diminution in the flow roughly equals the abstraction.

It was also generally accepted that ranunculus growth had declined noticeably around Axford, which also corresponded roughly with the increased abstraction from that point, and that ranunculus growth is a good indicator of a river's health. I therefore hope that we can all accept that there is some damage, and hence some danger, related to abstraction. That falls fairly and squarely within the parliamentary answer to which I have already referred.

Why, then, in their decision, have the Government seemingly ignored that damage in agreeing with the inspector to leave the base rate of abstraction unchanged? Could it be that there was a desire to avoid the question of compensation arising, especially as the formulation of compensation, and where it would come from, has yet formally to be articulated? Did the inspector deliberately avoid the issue of compensation because there was a lack of direction, and if so, should not the Government have re-examined that aspect of the report and, if necessary, made changes to the recommendations in the light of that? If decisions have not yet been made about the thorny problem of compensation, would it not have been better to hold off the decision—which, after all, had been waiting, without explanation, for over a year—until any new criteria or arrangements could be applied? Why did the report and, by their endorsement, the Government cast aside the cost-benefit analysis of their own Environment Agency in favour of Thames Water's figures? The decision to reject the agency's basis of calculation created an adverse difference of £12.9 million—between the agency's figure of £13.6 million and Thames Water's figure of £0.7 million—so there can be no doubt that that was a significant deciding factor.

The agency had followed the benefits manual guidance in making its calculation, using the number of people in Thames Water's supply area. The inspector rejected that in favour of using a much smaller local head count. The agency believes that that decision has blown a hole in the wider strategy that it is pursuing on behalf of the Government and will seriously hamper its work on other rivers and wetlands.

We are not talking about a peripheral judgment on methodology. The decision on the cost-benefit analysis strikes at the heart of the environmental argument. It illustrates an enormous variation in the methodology used to calculate what is known as the non-use value, which might more accurately be called the environmental value. By endorsing the lowest basis for calculating the environmental value for the Kennet, the Government are in danger of undermining the importance of the environment in such disputes.

I hope that the Minister will explain why the endorsement was given and whether it reflects the Government's view of how environmental value should be assessed. If it does, we shall have to revise our perception of the Government's environmental policies; if it does not, the validity of the Government's judgment on the Kennet will be seriously called into question. The Government cannot have it both ways. I suspect that no one is more aware of that than the Environment Agency. I hope that the Minister will clarify the Government's position on that important issue.

More generally, is the forthcoming review likely to produce findings that, had they been effective, would have led to a different conclusion on the Kennet? If there is any chance of that, would it not have been fairer and more sensible to have held the Kennet decision until the review was complete? If that proves to be the case, will the issues be reviewable before 2007—the date proposed in the report endorsed by the Government? Anything less than that would lead to great resentment in my constituency. I hope that the Minister will consider my request seriously.

I fear—I am always a pessimist on such occasions—that the Minister will tell the House that nothing can be done until 2007. The river will not survive that long without further deterioration. We need reassurances now. In spite of my fear, I live in hope that they might be forthcoming, if not tonight, then in the near future, when the full implications of the Government's decision on the Kennet, and more widely, have had time to sink in.

The Kennet won a little respite from the outcome of the report, but not as much as had been hoped. If abstraction continues, even at the newly proposed rates, the river will remain in danger. Environmental damage to rivers such as the Kennet is easy to cause, but more difficult—sometimes impossible—to repair.

I read the inspector's report, which the Government endorsed, with a heavy heart. I appreciate that such reports and decisions must be informed by models, methodologies and statistics, but I cannot help feeling that the real criteria are to be found in what the eye can see and what those who live by rivers such as the Kennet feel and experience. Rivers are more than a set of statistics and scientific findings; they are as much a part of our environment as the air that we breathe and the ground on which we walk. We know instinctively when our environment is under threat. In my part of Wiltshire, we know that the Kennet is under threat. We can see that, and physically experience it, as the river dries and the flow reduces.

The Kennet is much more than just a stretch of water, a source of fishing or a pretty sight. It is part of the lives of my constituents; part of the environment in which we live and work; part of the quality of life in my constituency. That is why we fight to defend it. That is why we resent the current levels of abstraction and the half-hearted response to the danger in the inspector's report. That is why we find the report and the Government's acceptance of it, without explanation, so unpalatable. That is why I am seeking explanations and hoping for reassurances. The Kennet needs help. We are looking to the Government to provide it. I hope that the Minister will not disappoint us.

7.18 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) on successfully securing this debate.

I am aware that there have been concerns about the River Kennet for several years. Indeed, they stretch back to the term of office of the previous Government, of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member, as well as into this Government. I am grateful for the intense interest in the issue that the right hon. Gentleman and his local community have taken, and for the work of various conservation groups, which not unnaturally guard the Kennet jealously. It is essential that environmental issues such as this are fully aired and that all those with an interest have an opportunity to contribute their views.

The Government are determined that the water industry should be world class, water efficient and environmentally sustainable. That was the message at our water summit just a year ago, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, at which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister set out a 10-point plan of action to deal with leakage, and challenged water companies to increase efficiency measures so that our water resources were not squandered or put under undue strain, but used sensibly to meet people's needs. We also announced at that summit a review of abstraction licensing, as the right hon. Gentleman has pointed out. We shall announce the results of that review soon. If he wants a copy of the consultation paper, I should be happy to get one for him.

The public inquiry into Thames Water's Axford abstraction licence appeal lasted 22 days. The inspector heard not only from the principal protagonists, Thames Water and the Environment Agency, but from English Nature, the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, Action for the River Kennet, the Kennet Valley Fishery Association and 15 interested persons. He also took into account written representations from 19 organisations and individuals, of whom the right hon. Gentleman was one.

In the course of his inquiry and his consideration, the inspector had the benefit of numerous written reports and proofs of evidence from the various parties. There can be no doubt that all concerned took a full opportunity to present their cases to him. His report runs to more than 140 pages, and is commendably thorough and clear in its approach. It makes it clear that the upper River Kennet is a valuable example of an English chalk stream, and its associated flora and fauna. Indeed, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, from Marlborough to Thatcham, it has been designated a site of special scientific interest.

Much of the concern among local people about flows stemmed from their observation of reduced water depths in the river, although the inspector pointed out that dredging and other work on the river channel and general silt removal may have had some effect on water levels. He also pointed to the effect of weirs and hatches, and of reduced weed growth on river water levels. He recognised that the Axford abstraction had had an effect, but on consideration of flow modelling and other technical information put before him, found that the Axford abstraction could affect the river water levels by only about 3 cm. Although a possible contributory factor, that is certainly not sufficient on its own to explain the changes that have occurred to the plant life and general ecology of the flood plain.

The inspector saw no reason to suppose that there was anything but a normal healthy macro-invertebrate population in the River Kennet, but he found, as the right hon. Gentleman at least hinted, a considerable decline in the growth of ranunculus—the common name for which is water crowfoot—in the entire upper Kennet between Marlborough and Knighton since the early 1980s. That decline seems to have been particularly marked in the Axford and Ramsbury area.

The presence of water crowfoot encourages fish and their food sources. In addition, a good growth of it considerably increases water depth simply by its mass and impedance to the flow of the river. For those reasons, the inspector accepted that the plant was an important indicator and controller of the health of a chalk stream such as the Kennet. He concluded that, in normal winter periods, there was no particular concern about the effect of the Axford abstraction on ranunculus, but he found that changes in river velocity, such as might occur in summer or in exceptional winter conditions, might explain the greater decline in the plant around Axford and Ramsbury.

River dredging deepens the river channel and contributes to reduced velocity. The inspector indicated that changes to such practices, or the carrying out of other in-stream engineering works, might help to maintain river velocity. Interested parties might care to consider that further. If the Environment Agency were to find any serious legal impediment to the maintenance of or alteration to such a course of action, it would no doubt draw that to Ministers' attention.

Water crowfoot could also be affected by increased siltation, increased growth of the blanket weed, cladophora, or by the growth of brown algae, but the inspector found that the Axford abstraction would have no significant effect on any of those processes. Even without the slight reduction in dilution caused by the abstraction, phosphorus concentrations in the river are considerably higher than would be required to limit the growth of blanket weed or algae.

Phosphorus concentrations are influenced by agricultural practices in the catchment and by the Marlborough sewage works discharge. I understand that Thames Water is working with the Environment Agency on a new project to investigate the impact that phosphorus reduction has on the river. That is a good example of co-operation, of which we would like to see more, in tackling environmental problems in rivers. It also exemplifies the holistic approach to river catchment management, which is essential if we are to do the best for the environment and its users. As a nation, we lead integrated catchment management. The proposed water framework directive, on which we are making great strides during our presidency of the European Union, is founded on that approach.

I am aware that the Kennet sustains a varied grouping of fish species. The inspector found that, apart from brown trout and, perhaps, grayling, there is little evidence to suggest that any of the populations of fish have suffered recently. No direct link was shown between the Axford abstraction and the declining size of the grayling population. Furthermore, the inspector considered there to be only limited evidence of a decline in the wild brown trout population in the river, and practically none to indicate that the situation was any worse in Axford and Ramsbury than anywhere else.

The inspector went on to consider the computer modelling work that featured in the inquiry. It rejoices in the acronym, PHABSIM—physical habitat simulation model. It was developed in the United States of America, and has been used in New Zealand and several European countries as well as the UK, where our Institute of Hydrology has concluded that it is a powerful technique. The inspector accepted that, if correctly applied, it could help to inform decisions relating to the ecological impact of changes in river flows. The inspector also recognised the complex nature of the work.

Hon. Members will not expect me to launch into a detailed explanation of such work, but, as the inspector pointed out, it was unfortunate that the protagonists were not able to co-operate and reach agreement on how PHABSIM should have been applied in this case. That is clearly one of the lessons to be learned from this episode. I trust that all with an interest in the matter will join me in encouraging scientists to work together to improve the application of such techniques.

Nevertheless, in the light of his detailed consideration of what he was told by the protagonists, the inspector concluded that the PHABSIM work tended to support the view that ranunculus could suffer at flow rates in the order of those associated with the Axford abstraction. He therefore reached the conclusion that abstraction of the full 20.5 megalitres per day, which had been allowed under the previous time-limited variation to Thames Water's licence whenever the river flow at Knighton was above 61.4 megalitres per day, should in future be allowed only when the river flow was above 90 megalitres per day. That is a tightening of abstraction licence conditions.

Moreover, the inspector recommended that the new variation should last only for a further 10 years, rather than in perpetuity, as Thames Water had sought. That should be regarded as a victory. However, from consideration of all the environmental evidence, the inspector concluded that there was no requirement for a reduction in the abstraction rate below that of the base licence, which dates from 1965 and authorises abstraction of 13.1 megalitres per day.

The Secretary of State accepted those conclusions. As I have said, the inspector was presented with a wealth of information pertaining to the fundamental question. That is the purpose of any public local inquiry. After prolonged consideration, the inspector found that the environmental evidence did not fully support the proposed action, and the Secretary of State found no reason to disagree with that view.

Since our decision was announced and the inspector's report was put into the public domain, much has been made of his comments and conclusions on the costs and benefits associated with the reduction of the Axford abstraction to the extent proposed by the Environment Agency. I think that it proposed a level as low as 3 megalitres.

The letter conveying the Secretary of State's decision made no reference to those conclusions, as the decision was taken on the basis of the inspector's conclusions in respect of the environmental evidence. Despite the inspector's stated view that the approach adopted to the assessment of benefits was acceptable in principle, it was clear from his further comments that considerable and unresolved uncertainty and controversy existed over the detailed way in which the approach should be followed in that particular case. That was the lack of agreement that I mentioned earlier.

The approach adopted was that described in a manual published in 1996 as a result of collaborative research funded in part by the former National Rivers Authority and the then Department of the Environment, as well as by a body representative of the water companies, so it is untrue to say that it was simply a creation of Thames Water. The executive summary to that manual made clear the limitations of the methodology, and envisaged that experience in its application would provide a basis for updating it in due course.

Moreover, no matter how well developed general methodologies for assessing environmental costs and benefits become—and it is evident that a considerable amount of development remains to be done—the complex and highly variable nature of individual river systems and of their significance to society will almost certainly make it essential for detailed and specific studies to be carried out in particular cases. I hope that that goes some way towards reassuring the right hon. Gentleman that in future hearings on abstraction licences, there will not suddenly be rule by computer models and manuals that do not apply to specific cases. Even as we speak, officials of my Department are discussing the matter with their counterparts in the Environment Agency.

The appeal also highlighted the fact that many abstraction licences have no time limit attached to them. They remain until revoked or varied and, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, if either of those things is done at the direction of the Secretary of State, the question of compensation arises. Compensation arrangements, in both the short and the longer term, and time limits for licences are among the many facets of the present licensing system that we are examining in our review. However, I must emphasise that it is the system that we are now reviewing, not individual licences.

My answer to a question that the right hon. Gentleman asked is that that decision was taken under the existing system, and does not prejudice any future system that we may put into effect after the review is published, should we decide to legislate. We shall publish a consultation paper on our proposals in the next few weeks. As I have already said in the House, where voluntary agreement cannot be reached on licence changes necessary to protect SSSIs, the Environment Agency should, on a prioritised basis, use its existing powers to see that the changes are made.

It is the environmental evidence that is and will remain all-important in carrying through contested changes to licences. There has to be a strong case—a case that, as I have said before in the House, will withstand the scrutiny of public inquiry—to show that a particular course of action is appropriate for correcting whatever environmental harm is being caused.

Clearly, the question of the Axford abstraction can be reopened at any time. I hope that that that gives the right hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he sought. There is certainly no requirement to wait until 2007, but the case for further action must be strong. It is clear that the causes of the perceived problems with the River Kennet are complex. Here, as elsewhere, there is a continuing need for all concerned to work together to understand the causes and to agree on whatever action needs to be taken. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in encouraging all concerned about the Kennet to do that, to ensure its future as an important SSSI, as a beautiful feature of his constituency and as a river that many people enjoy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Eight o'clock.