It’s a great pleasure to be invited to speak at this event, and I am delighted to see that the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership is doing just what it says on the tin, by offering leadership at a crucial time in this debate.
I also congratulate Anglian, Thames and Yorkshire Water for their commitment to this agenda.
Early on in my ministerial career a number of events helped form my opinion about catchment management. The first was a visit I made at the invitation of WWF and ARK (Action for the River Kennet).
It was to Marlborough, just to the west of my constituency. I packed my wellies in the car because I imagined we would be walking through a riverine environment. I could have packed my slippers.
At that time (2010) the Kennet was dry at Marlborough – a combination of dry winters and over-abstraction had sucked the life out of the heart of this town and the surrounding countryside.
WWF also asked me down to see their Itchen project, where I saw a unique river with a multitude of over-laying designations and saw, at first hand, the impact of point source pollution, particularly from septic tanks and a range of water quality and quantity issues.
Fast forward a few months, and I visited the Wye and Usk Valleys. At one place, I discovered there were many metres of topsoil – I’m used to just a few inches. Beautiful red soil capable of growing high yields of most any crop, including potatoes.
We visited a mill house where the owner had lived for about eight years. She pointed to a set of farm buildings about half a mile away and said that when they had moved there, those buildings had been over the horizon. Approximately two metres of topsoil had washed away in that time and I asked where it was. She took me around the building and pointed to a really depressing site – the mill race which silted up with all that rich red soil.
The farmer who was responsible for this had been receiving Basic Farm Payment and probably an Agri Environment Scheme supplement. It was clear to me that regulation and cross compliance were not working.
As a Minister I was not particularly new to the subject. I farm in two valleys in West Berkshire. Both rivers are chalk streams – the Kennet and the Pang. Many years ago, I chaired a local organisation called the Pang Valley Countryside Project. This came out of the National Rivers Authority’s Areas of Low Flow Project. The Pang, like the Kennet, had water taken from the top of its catchment. In the Pang’s case, it was to provide water for Didcot Power Station and so, like the Kennet which was providing water for Swindon, that water was taken out of the catchment, never to return. My farm enjoys about 22 inches of rain a year, making it one of the driest in the country. It looks magnificent today but, in a month’s time it will look like a sub-Saharan savanna.
As a Minister, I was introduced to River Basin Management Plans. These are worthy documents of many pages, with many chapters, and are produced by good people using scientific evidence to produce plans for vast, all-encompassing river basins.
I found them to be pretty unworkable.
They tended not to be read by the people I wanted to read them: local land managers, riparian owners, members of wildlife trusts, river trusts, river keepers, angling organisations and local communities.
River Basin Management Plans tend to sit on shelves in Local Authorities or with NGOs and are not what you would call ‘user friendly’. With some forward thinking civil servants and the EA, we developed the concept of the catchment approach.
As the name suggests this centred on single catchments, where the intention is to produce solutions at a much more local level, engaging through the medium of trusted local partners.
Catchment management is an evolving concept, and there has never been a more important time than this to look at what has worked and what hasn’t.
To look at areas where rivers have become healthier, cleaner environments due to the engagement of local people, and areas where there is still much work to do.
My passion is chalk streams. England is the home to 80% of the world’s chalk streams and still too many of them are not still fully-functioning ecosystems.
Much good work has been done on chalk stream and other rivers to get them into a favourable status, but if Britain was to remain in the EU, we would still come up against a failure to deliver on the Water Framework Directive and, as such, Britain would be facing a hefty fine by the middle of the next decade.
However you voted in the Referendum, the best possible thing you could now do is to see Brexit as an opportunity to tie this, and future governments, into delivering a better environment.
The entirely noble ambition to leave the environment in a better state than we found it is actually a rather modest ambition. I know there are huge difficulties as we face a crisis of species decline and huge pressures on the environment from new plant and tree diseases and invasive species but I believe it is still possible to deliver a much better environment.
To do this, we need to have the proper governance measures in place and to engage an army of new actors in environmental management and improvement.
The institutionalised view is that Government somehow has to do this. Well, let’s look at that. Natural England has, I guess, slightly less than 2,000 employees. Its budget has been cut by nearly half in recent years and the idea that through an agency like Natural England or indeed the much bigger Environment Agency we can ‘deliver a better environment’ is fanciful.
That’s why it’s vital that we have an approach that deals with issues at a manageable level, that engages key elements of the state and its agencies, business – particularly water companies, local communities and, absolutely crucially, riparian owners.
It’s also important that we don’t just look at the river itself. Most of the problems facing our rivers happen because of activities, sometimes many miles away from the actual river course.
Point source and diffuse pollution can emanate from anywhere in the catchment.
Soil run-off can start on a range of hills that you can’t even see while sitting by the river.
Problems of water quantity, whether too much or too little, are affected by activities across the entire landscape, not just the river itself.
I know this is all pretty obvious stuff, but it needs to be said if we are going to have an effective system of catchment management.
In order to get Government to play its part, we need to push at open doors. The biggest open door of all is the Government’s own 25 year plan to improve the environment, entitled A Green Future.
Chapter 2 of the plan is entitled Clean and Plentiful Water. It is a worthy chapter, which covers issues such as reducing abstraction, improved environmental standards for water bodies, complying or exceeding objectives for rivers, lakes and groundwater as per river basin management plans, leakage and improving bathing water. But, as such, this chapter forms a relatively small part of the document itself.
However, flowing through the rest of this very good document is water in all its forms as a key basis for improving our environment.
Elsewhere in the report, for example, you see reference to new governance provisions, thriving plants and wildlife, reducing risk from environmental hazards, using resources more sustainably, enhancing beauty and heritage, mitigating and adapting to climate change, minimising waste, managing chemicals, enhancing bio-security, new farming rules for water, a great deal of discussion on soils and peatlands and a big section on reducing the risk of flooding. In all of these categories, water is fundamental.
We must remember that Governments do get things wrong. In an area of the Monadliath mountains in Scotland that I am responsible for, we are now filling in drainage ditches dug in the 1970s that were dug with a 91% grant by the then Government. A crazy thing to do which has caused flooding and damage to the River Findhorn as well as reducing the peatlands abilities to function as it should. We could also talk about the planting of sitka spruce in inappropriate places and many other cases where the prevailing view at the time was wrong.
I chair a Government/private partnership called the UK Water Partnership. It seeks to bring more cohesion into our diverse water sector so that the skills that exist in water products, water expertise and research are brought together to make a bigger offer towards a world which is spending $50 billion a year on water products and expertise. Britain has a great story to tell here, but it is not exploiting this sector in the way that it should.
Building on the 25 Year Environment Plan, we have developed the concept of Water First. This means that, if we are doing the right things for the water environment, everything else falls into place. Think about it. It is actually quite obvious and I am delighted that it is a theme that runs through the 25 Year Environment Plan. The UKWP’s work has shown me that the principles are the same whether you are dealing with Prime Minister Modi’s multi billion $ plan for the restoration of the Ganges catchment or a small river in the UK.
So how does this all relate to the catchment approach? If you look at this picture, you will see good and bad catchment management. This is taken from the Water White Paper, which I published in 2011. If you look to the left of this picture, you see the wrong way to do it; you have badly planted forests, planted right up to the edge of a water course, you have crops with no margins to prevent soil run-off and drilled down the hill rather than across it; you have poorly managed manure and run-off from roads, tracks and a farmyard and, at the bottom a field is over-grazed. To the right-hand side of the picture, you see virtue in all its forms; a bio-diverse river frontage acting as a buffer to the farm landscape; you see sensible stocking rates; a well-constructed and managed farm yard and a tractor ploughing across the contours rather than down it. The catchment approach, if it works well, will see all our rivers being managed as on the right of the picture and you will actually see wrong-doers, such as the farmer on the left of the picture, being financially penalised by a system of governance that will not tolerate such activities.
On the River Kennet, it is working because of a very well-motivated organisation called ARK (Action for the River Kennet). This is the catchment lead organisation which is working with a whole range of partners to improve matters, even down to a very local level. It includes working with the local Highways Authority to make sure that road run-off is caught. It includes dealing with major pollution events such as one that occurred a few years ago when a tiny amount of a chemical called chlorpyriphos was released into the river and killed a horrendous amount of river life in a four kilometre stretch; right down to issues that affect a 40 yard reach of the river. Crucial in this partnership, is a local water company. As a Minister, I must have bored my civil servants by my frequent mentions of the River Kennet. I did so because I knew that if we could sort out the over-abstraction issue in this river, we could solve many other similar problems across the country.
Through a complicated set of negotiations with Ofwat, pumping has been massively reduced from Axford (towards the top end of the catchment) and a new pipe system brings water from the Thames to Swindon and then returns clean waste water to that river system, which must be the kind of use for water we are all aiming for. But the pressure on the Kennet continues. We still suffer from extended periods of low rainfall and the pressures on this river from new demands from new housing and new industrial activity continue to grow.
Regulators like OFWAT need to know that their customers are not only concerned about price and cost. If they ask customers “do you want cheaper water?” they will, of course, give a simple reply. But if you layer into it questions about their environment, plastics, Blue Planet issues etc, you get a more nuanced response.
What this all means is that there is no margin for error any more in river management. If rivers are to become fully-functioning eco-systems, our management of them has to be perfect; we need to tick the box of every measure of river health, as described in the Water Framework Directive. That requires strategy; it requires leadership and it requires an understanding that the State itself is not going to be the means of delivery.
The government must do its bit by producing effective governance – this means firm but fair regulations for farmers with credible enforcement measures. It means policies that drive excellence in soil management and encourage, through incentives, efforts to use water more wisely. This includes slowing the flow in flood risk areas.
It means giving those responsible for these breath-taking landscapes the right advice and support as well as targeted incentives. It means water companies must be active at the most local level. Encouraging farmers in the careful use of chemicals and rewarding those that farm in ways that save water companies from using large structures to clean up water. Most of all, it requires a co-ordinated approach to keeping rivers flowing.
I started with the Pang, so I will finish with it. Over the last 12 years, the Pang has suffered serious flooding on three occasions. Living in the catchment are a number of keen local experts. We have hydrologists, we have logisticians, and we have people who just want to bring their skills as communicators to find resolutions to the flooding problems that they have experienced.
In addition to novel ways of funding flood protection measures, they are also building on work done in the Stroud area on slowing-the-flow, and have recently worked out that the vast majority of water run-off at high rainfall times comes from one side of the catchment. The chalk bit at the top of the Berkshire Downs soaks up water pretty well. To the south, which coincidentally is where I farm, there is much more clay and this is where the problem lies.
I hope that, within five years, we will have a comprehensive management plan which will not only hold up flood water but will also help us manage water more effectively at times of drought.
Coupled with this, are conservation measures being undertaken in and around the river to improve the habitat for wildlife, particularly the fish that are the indicator species under the Water Framework Directive. All of this means you are starting to see a picture which will see this river system brought back to health. Not just ecological health, but healthy in the minds of local residents and local communities who will be less fearful of flooding and will have a sense of ownership over their local environment.
What is so exciting about this gathering is that we have in this room people who really get that this is not just a sectoral issue or one of fascination for NGOs or others. It is about emerging thinking around natural capital. It is about joining water use with habitats.
It is about looking at the natural systems that underpin our human existence.
Today you will hear from a range of interesting speakers. I will delay you no further!