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 successfully to 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)
When last December I wrote my guest blog “How nature dies”, I predicted that although Affinity Water had recently withdrawn their damaging application which threatened the River Oughton and Oughton Head Common in Hertfordshire, they would be back. Well, less than a year later they are back, with the same proposition to build a denitrification plant and to restart groundwater pumping from the aquifer that gives life to the River Oughton and Oughton Head Common.
To recap, the Oughton River is a chalk stream in Hertfordshire. Chalk streams are a globally rare habitat, with 85% of the world’s chalk streams being in England.
Oughton Head Common is a Local Nature Reserve formed by the springs close to the source of the River Oughton. It is one of the premier wetland sites in Hertfordshire and is the largest base rich marsh on chalk in the county. Many of its features are priority habitat types in the Hertfordshire Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP).
The common, springs, river and associated woods used to be listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of their wildlife richness and diversity, but this listing was withdrawn in 1970 because of the deterioration of the site due to drying out of the peat marsh and lack of water flow from the springs, both caused by water abstraction by Affinity Water and its predecessors. However, this remains a local wildlife site and is in close proximity to the planning proposal’s site boundary.
The applicant, Affinity Water, clearly accept that both the River Oughton and Oughton Head Common are of significant importance. Their publicity film accompanying the planning application opens by saying that “Chalk streams are the UK’s rain forests or coral reefs. In their natural healthy state, they are home to abundant precious wildlife, including grayling, brown trout, mayflies, kingfishers, otters and water voles. The River Oughton is an important chalk stream near Hitchin, in North Hertfordshire. It flows north-east between Oughton Head Common and Oughton Head Nature Reserve, a well-used and much-loved place within the local community. Oughton Head also marks the natural spring that feeds the river with water rising from an underground layer of water-bearing rock called the aquifer.” (https://www.affinitywateroughtonhead.info/).
Affinity water has also publicly accepted that groundwater pumping is an unsustainable practice and pledged to stop it. In September 2020 Affinity Water’s Director of corporate affairs, Jake Rigg said: “Chalk streams are a precious part of our local and national heritage and a priceless natural resource. This is the decade where we will either protect and enhance the environment for every generation or fall further behind. We recognise this is not a new issue, but it is clear that we need to act with urgency. This is why on World Rivers Day in September, we announced that we stopped taking water from boreholes at the top of the Chess Valley and committed to end unsustainable abstraction from chalk groundwater sources in our supply area.”(www.thameswater.co.uk/about-us/newsroom/latest-news/2020/oct/water-companies-pledge-to-protect-rare-chalk-streams)
On the new planning application Affinity Water answers the question on the planning form which asks “Whether there is a reasonable likelihood of designated sites, important habitats or other biodiversity features on land adjacent or near the proposed development being adversely affected or conserved or enhanced”? with a “no”! The yawning gap between what they have said publicly (see the two paragraphs above) and their actions in filling out the planning form is a chasm – Low flows in chalk streams, drying out of marshes? Nothing to do with us!
Planning applicants need to file an EIA and the accompanying EIA notes deep in the text that the adjacent LWS has the potential to be indirectly impacted via changes to hydrology, but having briefly noted it, suggests nothing further since that might suggest that the development should not go ahead and who would want to do that?
Affinity Water’s has employed a planning advocate, Dalcour Mclaren, to make the planning case for their proposal. The resulting 24 page document tries to make the case using planning law and documents as to why this application should be given planning permission, but somehow missed those paragraphs in planning law which try to protect biodiversity or rivers, no doubt since that might suggest that the development should not go ahead and who would want to do that?
Specifically, Dalcour Mclaren somehow completely managed to miss the provisions of planning guidance paragraph 180(c) “development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats (such as ancient woodland and ancient or veteran trees) should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons and a suitable compensation strategy exists”. Now that’s a surprise!
This important planning provision is designed to protect biodiversity, the words “such as” in the guidance are clearly there to indicate that ancient woodlands is only illustrative and that other habitats of importance/irreplaceability should be included too. So is the River Oughton an irreplaceable habitat? Well, the applicant itself describes the River Oughton as an important chalk stream and describes chalk streams in general as the “UK’s rain forests or coral reefs”. So clearly Affinity Water consider chalk streams as of the highest importance and under considerable threat too, and in this they are right. Furthermore, a list of “Priority Habitats” exists drawn up as a result of work undertaken by Natural England under the provisions of Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006. This list includes chalk streams, and thus includes the River Oughton.
And there are the requirements of the Water Framework Directive. Planning policy requires that applicants identify whether their application might have implications under the Directive, ie in this case might affect the River Oughton. Affinity water admits in its EIA that what is proposed has the potential to impact the River Oughton and the Oughton Head Marsh, which it also accepts are habitats of immense value, but despite this, it has not undertaken any study (which should be required under planning guidance for the Water Framework Directive) to reassure itself, the public or the planning authority that what it is proposing will not damage these areas or meet the requirements of the Water Framework Directive.
How can Affinity Water possibly reconcile its words “Chalk streams are a precious part of our local and national heritage and a priceless natural resource. This is the decade where we will either protect and enhance the environment for every generation or fall further behind. We recognise this is not a new issue, but it is clear that we need to act with urgency”…..“ (We are) committed to end unsustainable abstraction from chalk groundwater sources in our supply area”, with their corporate actions, which include in this case a proposal to recommence pumping at a site that they stopped pumping 8 years ago; saying that there were no designated sites, important habitats or other biodiversity features near to their proposed site; failing to undertake any study of how their proposal might affect the river or marsh; etc etc?
At the recently concluded earth summit there was much discussion of the potential gap between the words and actions of governments and industry.
Remember Affinity Water’s words “This is the decade where we will either protect and enhance the environment for every generation or fall further behind”. In this application Affinity Water illustrates the yawning gap between their talk and their actions and it is in this yawning gap that nature dies.