To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what recent discussions his Department has had with Natural England on the adequacy of their guidance to local authorities on river pollution.
26 April 2021
This answer is a correction from the original answer.
Defra is committed to improving our water environment and reducing the impact of excess nutrients, including on the River Wye.
Natural England, the Environment Agency and other partners, including Natural Resources Wales, have been working together through a Nutrient Management Board to find effective solutions and document these through an action plan which is currently being drafted. This will identify measures needed to both restore the site to favourable condition and seek to create capacity for development, without harming the natural environment.
Additionally, since 2016 the Environment Agency has been undertaking a significant amount of agricultural compliance and regulatory activity using satellite technology to identify and target locations at high risk of contributing to nutrient and soil pollution. This has been backed up by an extensive programme of advisory and support work delivered by Catchment Sensitive Farming and catchment partners such as the Wye and Usk Foundation and Herefordshire Wildlife Trust to improve agriculture sources of pollution to the River Wye.
Furthermore, there is work underway to tackle phosphate pollution from waste water treatment in the River Wye through catchment partnerships. The Nutrient Management Board, Dwr Cymru Welsh Water and the recently announced Storm Overflows Task Force will seek to make further improvements in this space.
I accept that there is more to be done. As this is a devolved matter I, and officials in my department, remain engaged with our Welsh counterparts to align efforts on cross-border pollution issues and monitor progress closely.
I have been informed by Natural England that the section of the River Wye in Gloucestershire is not in unfavourable condition and therefore the implications of the ruling in the Dutch Nitrogen case do not currently apply in this area. However, we are working across Government to address the issues arising out of the ruling and the subsequent requirement for development to achieve ‘nutrient neutrality.’
I co-chair a Task-force with Minister Pincher bringing together Defra, MHCLG, Natural England and Environment Agency officials to develop a clear action plan to tackle the issue. The aim of this group is to both ensure housebuilding can proceed near our most important protected areas whilst not negatively contributing to their condition, and develop long term solutions to the underlying issue of the condition of protected sites such as the River Wye/Lugg.
In Herefordshire, Herefordshire Council has developed its wetlands scheme and is commissioning the drafting of an ‘Interim Delivery Plan’ which includes a Phosphate Calculator, with advice from Natural England. This will assist in the development of mitigation options in catchment. Similar schemes are underway at other currently affected sites and are moving forward, such as agreed mitigation being in place for the River Avon SAC.
Furthermore, Natural England’s guidance to local authorities is being updated and they are working closely in catchments such as that of the River Wye and Lugg to share details of this ongoing work. We will continue to support developers and local authorities to meet the requirement for nutrient neutrality. We are also working to identify strategic actions to improve the overall condition of the sites and bring them back into a favourable condition.
In Herefordshire, this will include working with Welsh Government and their agencies. I have written to the Welsh Government Minister for the Environment to signal the need to work closely on this issue. Natural England and the Environment Agency, together with Natural Resources Wales and Herefordshire Council, will continue to work together to identify the measures to restore the site to favourable condition, and on creating capacity for development.
The requirement for nutrient neutrality will not affect current levels of Phosphate discharge to the river but it will avoid any further deterioration caused by additional nutrient pollution from waste water at these sites. The Nutrient Neutral approach, once mitigation has been agreed at particular sites, will allow for housebuilding to resume without causing this additional deterioration. There is a national programme under the Water Framework Directive for monitoring the status of rivers and we will continue to assess whether the site is moving toward good ecological status.