Alistair Gammell worked for RSPB for 40 years and was closely involved in the drafting of the Birds and Habitats Directives and for growing RSPB’s international work. He was RSPB’s first International Director and retired from RSPB in 2009. He then worked to successfully establish large scale fully protected marine reserves in the seas around the British Indian Ocean Territory and Pitcairn Island. He is a passionate nature conservationist and fly fisherman (email@example.com)
Oughton Head is a local nature reserve on the edge of Hitchin in Hertfordshire. It was once an SSSI, but was de-designated in 1970 because of the deterioration of the site due to drying out of the peat marsh and lack of water flow from the springs that feed it due to the abstraction of water from the underlying chalk aquifer. Within the LNR and close to its boundary are the springs with give rise to the source of the River Oughton, which after a couple of miles joins the Hiz. Both the Oughton and Hiz are important chalk streams, a UK BAP Priority habitat.
Oughton Head is still a Local Nature Reserve. Many of its features are priority habitat types in the Hertfordshire Biodiversity Action Plan and it is the largest base rich marsh on chalk in Hertfordshire and one of Hertfordshire’s premier wetland sites. As it borders on Hitchin, it is also a much used and appreciated site for the public to visit.
Chalk streams are not only very beautiful, but also very rare in global terms. There are around 200 such rivers in the world, most of them occurring in England. Their cool, clear and mineral rich water seeps slowly through the deep chalk strata eventually to bubble up from natural springs and then typically flows over clean gravel stream bottoms which are braided with waving beds of water crowfoot, starwort and water-parsnip. Such rivers provide a rich habitat for fish and invertebrates, support birds and mammals, whilst on their banks wild flowers are typically abundant. But over the past century this living Eden has faced relentless dredging, pollution and has been starved of their life-giving water by massive water abstraction from the chalk aquifers that give them life.
The Environment Agency in October 2019 blogged that ”chalk streams are one of the most precious and beautiful things in the natural world. They are known for their clear waters, rich wildlife and for providing a beautiful place for people to enjoy”. They then go on to say that ”We are doing everything we can within the legal framework and financial constraints that we operate in to increase the amount and quality of water in our chalk streams now and for the future. But much more needs to be done”.
Since both the Oughton LNR and the river are already stressed by drying out due to water abstraction, this site is designated as an “Abstraction Incentive Mechanism” site with the objective of encouraging water companies to reduce the environmental impact of abstracting water at such sites during low flow periods.
So you get the picture; nature has been wounded, but is far from dead; and officialdom recognises that action is needed.
So you are reassured and might think (or hope) that if a planning application were to be made which would allow the extraction of 1.6 billion litres of water a year from the chalk aquifer which feeds the river’s source and the wetland, someone might think that this might be damaging for both? After all it is a LNR, chalk streams are a priority BAP habitat, and the site is part of the “Abstraction Incentive Mechanism”.
But you would be wrong.
Recently just such a planning application was made by Affinity Water to North Herts District Council. They proposed building a denitrification plant at Oughton Head so that they could treat the water to remove nitrates and so resume pumping the aquifer, which hasn’t been pumped for the past 7 years. They planned to remove up to 1.6 billion litres of water a year, which is a lot of water and no doubt would have had to use a lot of chemicals to treat it.
Affinity Water’s planning statement attempted to disown any connection to the rivers “According to the EA main rivers maps the River Oughton is not considered a main river. The proposed development is not located within 9m of a main river or 5m of an ordinary watercourse and as such is considered to make appropriate space for water.” This despite knowing that the site is part of the “Abstraction Incentive Mechanism” – they proposed it to OFWAT!
Affinity Water hired SLR Ltd to undertake an Ecological Impact Assessment of the proposal. The resulting 36 pages failed completely to notice the river qualified as a UK BAP priority habitat, but gets close to noticing the elephant in the room when it notes that “The adjacent LWS (local wildlife site) has the potential to be indirectly impacted via changes to hydrology or increases in illumination from the proposed development.” Wow how’s that for understatement for an application that would allow the reintroduction of pumping of 1.6 billion litres of water from the aquifer underneath the wetland reserve and the use of hundreds of tons of chemicals to treat this water within about 200 metres of source of the river?
But despite this remark, SLR’s conclusion was that “Assuming the mitigation is implemented as described, no residual impacts are anticipated as a result of the proposal.” The mitigation measures proposed were 2 bat boxes, 2 bird boxes, a bird bath, an invertebrate box, a hedgehog box, a compost head for reptiles and some shrub planting. Nothing for the “changes in hydrology they noted might result from the proposed development”.
It would be interesting to know SLR’s reasons for failing to mention these impacts, because I can’t think of how or why an ecologist could miss them?
Then there is the Environment Agency, remember them; the Agency which has responsibility for water quality and resources, fisheries, and biodiversity conservation. Which is “doing everything we can within the legal framework and financial constraints that we operate in to increase the amount and quality of water in our chalk streams”. When asked as a statutory consultee, what did they have to say?
They supported permission being granted subject to a number of conditions concerning the risks of pollution to the ground water, but they didn’t have any concerns about the impact on the river, biodiversity or fisheries.
At first I thought this must have been a mistake, surely their fishery or biodiversity scientists would have wanted to object, surely an Agency that boasts it is “doing everything we can within the legal framework and financial constraints that we operate in to increase the amount and quality of water in our chalk streams now and for the future. But much more needs to be done” would want to do something? But no, I was clearly told they didn’t want to comment on biodiversity “given the distance to the Main River Hiz we did not comment on indirect impacts of the development on biodiversity. The river Oughton adjacent to the site is classified as an ordinary watercourse and as such falls under the remit of the Lead Local Flood Authority.”
This “Main River” defence used by both Affinity Water and The Environment Agency to deny any reason to be interested in the Oughton and its biodiversity is disingenuous. The designation of “main river” status is about who manages the flood risk, it has nothing to do with the Agency’s duties for water quality and resources, fisheries, and biodiversity conservation.
And where was Natural England in all this? As far as I can tell they weren’t consulted, and they certainly didn’t comment. Terrible considering Oughton Head is a designated LNR and the Oughton river should be recognised as a UK BAP priority.
So this is how nature dies.
A developer which says “we are committed to reducing the amount of water we take from the environment by 42 million litres per day by 2020 and by 78 million litres per day by 2025. In doing so we are looking to help protect the rare chalk stream habitats found within our company area”, but makes a planning application to allow it to re-open a pumping station closed since 2013 and to extract up to 1.6 billion litres a year.
An environmental consultancy which says “Our ambition is to be recognised as the global leader in environmental and advisory solutions, helping our clients to achieve their sustainability goals“, but which fails to identify or mitigate the risks the project poses to a local Nature Reserve or a river that is a BAP Priority habitat.
A statutory agency which says it is “doing everything we can within the legal framework and financial constraints that we operate in to increase the amount and quality of water in our chalk streams now and for the future. But much more needs to be done”, but raises no objection to a planning application which would remove up to 1.6 billion litres a year from the aquifer.
So are there any heros in this dismal story?
The Pirton Parish Council scores 10/10. With the village’s entire population being smaller than the staff of the Environment Agency and very that of likely SLR too, the parish council spotted the elephant in the room and objected saying “Oughtonhead is an NHDC Designated Nature Reserve. The important Springs will be but 200 metres from the new building. It is simply not good enough for the applicant to dismiss the River Oughton, with its ancient Spring Head as “not a main river”. It makes a very significant contribution to the ecology of the District, and contributes greatly to the health and well-being of the very many people who visit the nature reserve regularly for exercise, fresh air and relaxation. The impact on the Springhead and on the river should be assessed by the applicant and relevant mitigation measures introduced where necessary”. Bravo Pirton PC!
Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust also objected, as did the Wild Trout Trust and various individuals, so well done to all of them too.
And as news of this perfidy spread, Affinity Water realised they were going to face a public backlash and have recently agreed to withdraw the planning application. A battle won, but they or someone else will be back and when they come, experience has sadly taught us that we cannot rely on any help from the agencies whose statutory duty is to protect biodiversity.[registration_form]