Guest blog – How nature dies by Alistair Gammell

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 protected])

Oughton Head. © Copyright Humphrey Bolton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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”.

© Copyright Humphrey Bolton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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 donewould 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.

Dudley Miles, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.


16 Replies to “Guest blog – How nature dies by Alistair Gammell”

  1. A victory won but how many other sites that are locally, regionally or perhaps nationally important habitats will be dismissed like this as developers of one sort or another wish to devalue and trash them for financial gain. It is appalling that the EA were going to allow this, hardly inspires confidence in them does it. As for SLR I have long had grave misgivings about many so called ecological survey companies if they don’t give developers what they want they go out of business.
    This is truly how our important nature sites get whittled away and the nation as a whole whilst impoverished by it barely notices and that is the way developers and perhaps government want it.

    1. Paul – erxactly. This one turned out well – but no thanks, it seems, to the statutory system.

  2. The government cuts to the EA have decimated its ecological capacity and they are incapable of standing up for the environment. They are unlikely to formally comment on anything not designated a ‘main river’. Sadly, NE & EA are shadows of what they were in 2010.

  3. This is from the SLR website: We strive to contribute to the prosperity of the communities in which we work. To achieve this, we encourage our people and teams to connect with their local and professional communities and to contribute positively to these. This is supported by corporate sponsorship and charity donations, with decisions on how these are allocated and shared being driven by our employees in each office.

    It’s part of the Money-Go-Round

  4. RSWT will know the figures but I think the Wildlife Trusts comment on something like 90,000 planning applications per year – such important work but vastly under-resourced and vastly under-appreciated. Big cheers to the Wildlife Trusts.

  5. Paul’s comment on ecological surveys is spot on in my experience – and it’s the same reason accountancy firms always seem caught out by their client going bust – if they told the directors their finances were dodgy they’d simply be sacked. There is also the issue of what is required – I wonder whether the Grenfell enquiry is going to re-set corporate responsibility or just get watered down and swept under the carpet by the establishment ?

    1. I was just thinking myself there are parallels with accounting firms auditing companies. I think there has been some tightening of how they operate given some high profile cases of irregularities in accounts that weren’t identified or reported …. maybe something that can be learnt for EIAs by consultancies?

  6. The Statutory system has been broken, quite deliberately, by government. Austerity was a purposeful dismantling of public bodies and also of effective regulation. Both EA and NE need to be mended. The first step would be to reintroduce a measure of independence from government and an expectation that it is their job to speak out.

    1. Greenfly – agreed, those things would be good. Although, the choice of the right leadership, maybe from a campaigning background, should ensure that happens anyway. Oh! Hang on…????

      1. Yes, but I believe all dealings with the press still have to go through Defra and its very easy for a minister just to threaten more cuts if they don’t like what the organisation says or does. I obviously should also have mentioned funding…the extent of the damage is a lot for even two very talented individuals to fix. I don’t think there’s anyone similar at EA.

  7. I wonder if this reflects as much deficiencies in the the planning and licensing systems as it does a failure of the relevant authorities to provide a vigorous defence of the environment? I see from the North Herts DC planning portal that the application was not to abstract water but to construct a building for water treatment that would in turn allow resumption of pumping under an existing abstraction licence. Affinity appears to have previously suspended pumping because of high nitrate concentration of the water in excess of standards for potable water.

    The planning application, EIA and various of the responses of statutory consultees all seem to limit their scope to consideration of the impact of the nitrate treatment building and simply do not consider the impact of resumption of water abstraction on the local hydrology and the related biodiversity. Was this because Affinity already hold the abstraction licence that entitles them to pump the water? Or to put it another way could the local authority refuse the planning permission on the grounds that it would facilitate Affinity abstracting water under a licence it already held? Equally could the Environment Agency object to the application on the same grounds? I don’t know the answer to these questions (and will be happy to be corrected by anyone who does) but it does seem curious that, as Alistair says, the elephant in the room seems to have been so studiously ignored other than by the Parish Council and for the proposed mitigation measures to have been so laughably inadequate relative to the impacts of abstraction.

    I should stress that I absolutely agree that protection of the biodiversity in the Oughton River should be prioritised over the abstraction of water and I am pleased that ultimately Affinity decided to withdraw its application. But if the reasons why this application got as far as it did was because to some extent the hands of licensing and planning authorities are tied by existing abstraction licences then perhaps that is something that needs to be looked at, especially given the stressed condition of many catchments in southern England, especially on chalk.

    I should add that as a general issue I am in full agreement with the sentiments expressed above about the reduced capacity, and will, of the statutory agencies to stand up for wildlife.

  8. Thank you Alistair for all you do in the wider battlefield of environmental protection. It is only a battlefield because the agencies who should be prominant in protecting places like Oughtonhead behave in a cowardly manner, and hide from implementing their stautory duties to ensure the protection of such special sites.
    Thank you also for your kind words in support of Pirton PC and our stand in objecting to this damaging planning application. My fellow councillor Diane Burleigh OBE deserves most of the credit, especially for her research, which itself is a profound reflection of the inadequacies of our statutory agencies; a small group of people has more interest in protecting our environment, than those charged by the State to perform this role.
    But will this be an end to this assault on our local environment? I fear not, as these issues will continue to haunt us, unless we receive the full support of those charged with responsibity for ensuring the protection of our environment, and in this case, Oughtonhead! Another battle we are trying to wage is with Anglian Water. which refuses to replace the completely inadequate sewage infrastructute leaving Pirton, to the Cadwell sewage processing unit, a few miles away. At the lowest point in Pirton village, Burge End (one of the oldest parts of Pirton) there is a pumping station which trips out whenever we have heavy rain (now an increasing occurrence). Anglian Water admit that the pump is inadequate, which is why it trips out. But they refuse to install a more robust pump because the sewar pipe from Pirton to Cadwell is of too samll a diameter, and could burst.
    The consequence of these failures of the sewage pump operating, is that raw sewage floods the area around the dwellings in Burge End. Not only that but this same raw sewage flows into the Washbrook, and eventually the River Hiz. All complaints over the last 25 years have failed to get those same statutory agencies to act, and deal responsibly with this appaling health hazard, which extends to the dreadful pollution of our natural watercourses.
    We continue to battle, but receive no help or support, so it is so welcome to have someone like you Alistair, become involved in our efforts to deal with these assaults on our environment; if we don’t solve these local instances of environmental damage, how can we ever solve the attacks on our national environment, let alone the continuing damage to our global environment; we continue to battle!

  9. Mr Wallace is correct. Affinity Water have an existing licence to extract water at this site. One of the issues that arose for the first time before the Planning Committee during its deliberatons on the planning application was the interplay between the existing licence, and the provisions of the National Planning Policy Framework, given that the proposed new building for the nitrate extraction plant is within the Green Belt. This does not, however, excuse the ignoring of the nature reserve and wildlife area or the Springs and River. The Local Planning Authority were going to seek legal advice on the matter, but I don’t know if they have done so in all the circumstances.

  10. Negligent EIAs & statutory bodies not doing their statutory duties …. sounds like a job for Wild Justice? (Your team were asking for suggestions Mark!)

  11. They have their pumping licence, but since 2013 they haven’t chosen to use it, because changes in the environment (nitrate pollution of the groundwater) have caused it to be unpotable. At the same time, other changes have been affecting the aquifer, most notably dry summers and consequential low river flows. So they want to build new infrastructure to allow them to restart pumping to fix one environmental problem without even considering the others. I would argue that the building of the water treatment works cannot be separated from the consequential and known environmental impacts that will be caused by recommencing groundwater pumping, since it those impacts are a direct consequence of the building of the chemical treatment facility. And this should be particularly so since legislation such as the water framework Directive etc cannot be implemented unless links are made. But planning law is about democracy and legal interpretation and appeals by aggrieved applicants are commonplace. Wouldn’t it have be great if NHDC had refused it (they can’t because it has been withdrawn) citing (possibly among other reasons) that its environmental impact was inadequately explained or mitigated. Then the applicant would have to appeal if they wanted to force the point. Then there would be a debate which included biodiversity the environment. Nothing abnormal or to fear in that and the deficiencies of planning law (if any) might be laid bare?

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