2 November 2021
Jesse Norman calls for cross-border strategy to tackle phosphate pollution in River Wye

Speaking in the Budget debate in the House of Commons, Jesse Norman called on the Government to establish a cross-border, cross-agency, single strategy to clear up phosphate pollution in the River Wye and restore it to its pristine glory.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con)

I very much welcome this Budget and spending review. Were the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), in his seat, I would be able to extend to him my warm congratulations, as I do to his new Treasury colleague, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), on taking their places in such a fine Department and at such a difficult moment. To have delivered a spending review as a new Chief Secretary is a phenomenal achievement. I congratulate him, as I congratulate the Chancellor, on that.

Among the many good measures in the spending review and the Budget, I particularly single out—as many colleagues across the Government Benches have—the rise in the national living wage, the reduction in the universal credit taper rate, and the great emphasis placed on education and skills as the key to levelling up. I remind all colleagues, who will know this—none more so than my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee—that education and skills are at the core of all the regeneration that we have seen over the years, not just in this country, but around the world. Education and skills, even more so than infrastructure, are positively correlated with economic growth and development, so I very much welcome their inclusion.

There is one area where I do have a concern that the Budget and spending review do not go far enough. It may appear to be a parochial constituency interest of mine, but it is actually an issue of national importance: the plans for which we requested support regarding the River Wye. The River Wye is a priceless national asset. Many Members of the House will have visited it in Wales and in Herefordshire, and seen its flow all the way down to the Severn. They will have seen this extraordinary national asset and its impact locally—not just its environmental richness, but the strength that it brings to tourism and economic development, and its central place in the nation’s cultural history.

It is easily forgotten that the idea of the picturesque—indeed, the idea of domestic tourism in this country—comes from visits to the Wye valley taken at the end of the 18th century, most notably by Admiral Nelson. That was what put the idea of tourism and the picturesque on the map, and that is the historic reason why the Wye is so central to the way in which we understand ourselves as regards the natural environment and our countryside.

As the Wye winds its way through Hay to the west of my constituency, through Hereford—which is right at the centre of it, of course, economically and culturally—and down to Ross-on-Wye, this priceless asset is being undermined by dreadful phosphate pollution. We must be perfectly clear that it is being undermined by sewage discharges, which have been discussed in the House, but also by significant levels of embedded phosphate—that is, animal waste on fields that has run off. We do not know the full scale of the issue. The best estimates appear to be that about 65% of the problem is embedded phosphate, 25% is discharge, and there is a further component because of the recent impact of chicken litter.

We need to know the answers to those issues and have a plan that addresses them, and that plan—uniquely, I think, for major rivers in this country—needs to operate across the border, because a large chunk of the River Wye is in Wales. One point that has struck me most clearly when campaigning on this issue over the last year and a half has been in the way in which the agencies —Natural Resources Wales, Natural England and the Environment Agency—have not been adequately talking to each other. We therefore put to the Chief Secretary, and ultimately to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the idea of a cross-border, cross-agency, single strategy that is focused on a long-term approach to addressing the issue of phosphate pollution in the Wye.

The idea is a priceless opportunity for this country and the Government. At relatively little cost—through a degree of investment in measuring and enforcement; through a degree of constructive thinking about the long-term regulatory environment in which water discharges are to be managed along the Wye valley basin; and, of course, through the recruitment of citizen energies, which are already active and vigorous up and down the Wye—a great opportunity exists to bring these different resources together in a single, co-ordinated plan that is led by the Government, with the support of the Welsh Government, which I am afraid has been conspicuously lacking on the issue so far. That gives us a national opportunity to bring an end to this scourge of pollution and to restore this priceless, gorgeous, wonderful natural asset to its pristine glory.