Labour Angling Spokesman and Reading West MP Martin Salter spoke up for angling once again in the House of Commons this week in a debate on the “Condition of Rivers” in Westminster Hall timed to coordinate with the launch of the “Rivers on the Edge” campaign supported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the RSPB and the Angling Trust.

 In a wide ranging speech, Mr Salter called for less abstraction, greater introduction of water metering, better storage of winter rainfall, water conservation measures, a new upper-Thames Reservoir at Abingdon, the scrapping of the Severn Barrage and got the Government to come out against the granting of a statutory right of access to sensitive watercourses  by canoeists.

Mr Salter stressed the need for anglers to work in strong and powerful coalitions with “bird watchers, environmentalists, naturalists, and wildlife groups” in order to protect and improve our rivers. He singled out for praise the work of the Angling Trust and one of its predecessor bodies, the Anglers Conservation Association as well as the Cleaner Kennet Campaign, the Thames River Restoration Trust, the Wye and Usk Foundation and the Blueprint for Water Coalition.

He told the Commons how he had witnessed the decline of his local chalkstream, the River Kennet following the opening of the Kennet and Avon canal in 1990.

He said:

“The River Kennet brought me to Reading. I had no intention of becoming the town’s MP; I went there to go fishing—simple as that. I was lucky that in 1979 and 1980, Reading was a relatively cheap place to buy a house and one of those rare places where small, terraced properties for first-time buyers backed on to the River Kennet in, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire will know, Elgar road.

“Most riverside properties tend to be outside the reach of the first-time buyer, but it was my privilege to own my own 12 ft of river bank, which, for a mad-keen angler in his 20s, was a bit of dream. I found after a while that I kept catching the same fish, but it was wonderful. I commuted to work, but did not have to commute to go fishing. That is what brought me to Reading and I have a deep affection for the river.

“The Kennet and Avon canal, which runs parallel to much of the River Kennet—until about halfway between Hungerford and Newbury—had been in a state of disrepair since the 1950s. I was lucky as a young man, until 20 years ago, to be able to fish the Kennet at its peak. It was a crystal-clear chalk stream. Even down to the outskirts of Reading, I could stand and see the bottom in 5 ft or 6 ft of water, which teemed with wildlife. It was an amazing fishery.

“Things started to go wrong—none of us spotted why—with the opening of the canal. As anglers, we thought it would be inconvenient to have more boats on the river between Reading and Newbury, but we had no idea of the impact that opening and linking the two watercourses would have.

“For 50 years, the sediment in the canal had got deeper and deeper. At the entrance to the canal and the confluence with the river, where the waters first mix at Copse lock, just upstream from Hampstead Marshall, one can now see great slugs of silt and turbidity flowing into what is a crystal-clear chalk river further upstream. The gravels consequently silted up, so the light could not get through, which meant that the ranunculus, a protected species that is vital for the biodiversity and shelter of other plant life and invertebrates in the chalk stream environment, ceased to grow. Slowly but surely, the Kennet began to decline.

“We can add to those problems the increase in abstraction, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said. It was appalling that the Environment Agency lost the inquiry on the Axford borehole—I cannot remember what year that happened. There was a reduction in flows, especially in summer, as well as an increase in point source pollution as a result of insensitive farming practice, increased run-off from the road network and a gradual decline of one of the finest chalk streams in Britain.

“I do not want to bore hon. Members too much about fish, but the grayling, a wonderful fish, is an indicator species. I advise anyone who wants to know about the health of a fishery, especially a chalk stream fishery, to look at the lowest downstream point at which the grayling is found. I used to catch grayling at Padworth, which is well downstream of Thatcham. The most skilled anglers would struggle to find many grayling downstream of Hungerford, some 20 or 25 miles upstream. That is how far the water quality in the river has declined.

“The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) referred to increased housing, but the biggest threat—the 7,500 houses for the Kennet flood plain to the south-west of my constituency, proposed by the independent panel in the south-east plan—has already been averted. On top of that, we have seen the growth of signal crayfish numbers and increased predation. However, all is not lost. It was my privilege, in 1992, to set up a unique partnership between West Berkshire council, boat owners, wildlife groups, Reading borough council and the angling organisations—the Cleaner Kennet Campaign.

“The campaign has played a key role in lobbying for funding, catchment management plans and habitat restoration projects, which can and will make a difference.
If we cease damaging environments and allow wildlife to regenerate and regroup, mother nature will do the rest.

“I am a trustee of the old Thames Rivers Restoration Trust, which runs a chalk stream restoration project. That project is levering in funding for habitat restoration and looking at whether there is an environmentally sensitive way to filter out the increased silt and turbidity coming into the river as a result of the canal and chalk stream watercourses being mingled downstream of Copse lock.”

As well as praising the work of the Wye and Usk Foundation, Mr Salter warned the government that he would support court action to stop the building of the Severn Barrage – the dangers of which the Foundation has been highlighting for a number of years.

He said:-

“On top of that, some other quite inspirational work is going on. The debate is about not just the Kennet and the Lee, but all the rivers of England, and I draw Members’ attention to the work of the Wye and Usk Foundation. It is well worth the Minister and the shadow Minister visiting the foundation’s website to see how we can adopt a professional approach to the restoration of one of Britain’s most famous rivers.

“The river will be under dire threat, particularly as a fishery, if the proposal to build the Severn barrage goes through, and I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Member for Salisbury has done to highlight what an environmental disaster the Severn barrage could be.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): “Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, to a man and woman, all those involved in the area’s fisheries and all those interested in fishing and in conserving fish in the Severn and its tributaries oppose the Severn barrage?”

Martin Salter: “They are opposed to it to a man, woman and dog. It is not that we are environmental vandals; we want the tidal power of the River Severn to be harnessed, because that could make a contribution to green energy, but we do not want that to happen at the cost of destroying the environment, the spawning habitat of 25 per cent. of all salmon in England and Wales, and the jobs that depend on angling tourism, particularly in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and in rural Wales and the border counties. Such a development would run completely contrary to not only the spirit but the letter of the European habitats directive.

“I may be Labour’s vice-chair on environmental issues, but if my Government pursue the Severn barrage, I give due notice that I will actively pursue action in the courts with non-governmental organisations and hon. Members on both sides of the House to ensure that the European habitats directive is enforced, because it is not possible, as the directive requires, to recreate a compensatory habitat in this case—we simply cannot build a new salmon river. We will return to that battle.”

In conclusion, Mr Salter argued for politicians to rise to the challenge of protecting our rivers saying:-

“There are some big issues facing hon. Members. This is an easy speech for me to make, because I am not standing for re-election, but we as politicians—we have all been guilty of grubbing around for a few votes—need collectively to confront the issue of water metering, conservation and the price of water. The public will not value water if we continue to treat it as a throwaway commodity. I have no doubt that the third world war—I hope to God that there is not one—will be fought not over culture or religion, but over access to dry land and clean water. That is an inevitable consequence of climate change.

“The way we allow winter run-off from our rivers is appalling. If hon. Members stand on the Terrace in winter, they will see billions of gallons of water washing away to the North sea, but in a few months we will be complaining about low flows. We in this country are not efficient at retaining, storing and using the resource that we are blessed with. That is why projects such as the upper Thames reservoir at Abingdon must go ahead and why strategic planning decisions must be made.

“I am afraid that such decisions cannot be left to little local councils, with their predilection for parish-pump politics. That is why we have to be big people on the issue of water and be cognisant of the fact that we should be working closely with the powerful coalition of birdwatchers, environmentalists, anglers, naturalists and wildlife groups out there, just as we are working with the coalitions involved with the Blueprint for Water and the “Rivers on the Edge” campaign. Such issues should set the environmental agenda for the next generation, and water should be at the heart of that.”

Later in the debate in an intervention to Roger Williams MP, Mr Salter drew a commitment from the Fisheries Minister Huw Irranca-Davies to reject the British Canoe Union’s (BCU) campaign for a statutory right of access. The Minister re-confirmed the Government’s existing policy of voluntary access agreements to deliver shared use of our rivers.

Martin Salter: “The Minister has not been in his post long, but he has impressed so far. It has been the policy of previous Ministers to say no to the absurd campaign being fought by the British Canoe Union for a statutory right to paddle up every river, ditch, stream and spawning ground the length and breadth of England and Wales. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that voluntary access agreements are the way forward. There will be problems if he does not.”

Mr. Williams: “I knew that I would be able to incite the hon. Gentleman.”

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): “There is much more scope for work on voluntary agreements. I hope that the BCU will work with us to take that forward, including in the devolved nations. We are keen to do a lot more within the current settlement.”

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