My ministerial colleagues and I recognise that chalk streams represent an important part of our national heritage. England is home to 85 per cent of all chalk streams, which are the most biodiverse of all English rivers. However, chalk streams are threatened by multiple pressures, including over abstraction, agricultural pollution, and physical modifications. Protecting and restoring chalk streams is a priority and the Government, as well as regulators, plays a key role in delivering the National Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is reducing the amount of water abstracted from chalk streams by enabling abstractors to find more sustainable sources. I understand that over the last 15 years, the Environment Agency’s Restoring Sustainable Abstraction programme has resulted in 131 million litres less water a day being abstracted from chalk streams.
Further, the Government designated all chalk stream areas as high priority under the Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan, which has protected chalk streams from sewage pollution. Defra is also reducing the abstraction pressure on chalk streams by designating all chalk catchments as water stressed, which can drive action to increase water efficiency.
Furthermore, Ministers continue to work on improving chalk streams, through supporting the Chalk Streams Restoration Group, as well as beginning a national programme of flagship chalk catchment restorations launched by water companies and driven by local communities. In addition, more than £5 million is being invested by the Environment Agency to support 53 chalk stream restoration partnership projects nationwide.
I am aware that the Government has brought forward changes to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which will help to better protect England’s chalk streams. The proposed amendments would add chalk streams into the definitions of ‘environmental protection’ and ‘natural environment’ in the Bill, meaning that the Government must consider chalk streams when setting the outcomes which will form the framework of environmental assessments in the future.
The amendment will enable the Government to ensure that Environmental Outcome Reports suitably reflect our chalk stream interest when they are developed with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. It will ensure that chalk streams are specifically named in the Bill, recognising the value of these distinctive habitats. This is all part of the commitment to better protect England’s waterways through stronger regulation.