Rebecca Pow retweets Defra’s latest water quality promises, but what about the Somerset Levels?

Editor: There’s a saying “words are cheap” which appears to apply to almost every promise by this government. Today, Rebecca Pow, Conservative MP for Taunton Deane and environment minister, retweeted the latest Defra promise on water quality. This came in a week of bad news on the water quality front, with the UK bottom of the heap on bathing water quality, the revelation that 40 per cent more sewage was dumped in our rivers and seas last year and the news that Natural England had downgraded the Somerset Levels to ‘unfavourable declining‘. It would appear from Pow’s column in the Somerset County Gazette that the environment minister is rather more interested in the impact on planning than the quality of the water. Here she is in January 2021:

I have also had constructive meetings with Natural England, Wessex Water, the local authorities and local businesses to help unlock the planning permissions process, which is stalled owing to the high levels of phosphates in the Somerset Levels and Moors. Gradual progress is being made.

Did Rebecca Pow retweet this? No. She did not.

Miles King takes up the pollution story in this brief thread:

Today @NaturalEngland (NE) changed the condition of the Somerset Levels SSSIs to unfavourable declining (the worst rating possible) thanks to phosphate pollution. But there’s an even more interesting story hidden inside.

The Somerset Levels was (until Brexit) a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the EU Birds Directive, being internationally important for overwintering wildfowl and waders, and important breeding populations of Bittern & waders of lowland wet grassland.

Despite it no longer officially being an SPA, it still benefits from the protections afforded to European Sites. Benefits that flow from the Habitat Regulations – which you will recall from an earlier thread are now under threat of evisceration.

Most recently the European Court ruling known as the “Dutch” ruling led @NaturalEngland to write to planning authorities in areas where wetland sites, like the Somerset Levels, are being damaged by phosphate pollution from the sewage outflows from new housing estates.

This has, amongst other things, caused a moratorium on new housing developments in Somerset until the planning authorities can come up with a way to ensure no additional phosphate enters the Levels. This isn’t a solution as there is already too much phosphate in the levels, but, still, at least it stops the problem from getting worse. South Somerset District Council have now identified types of development they can influence, to minimise their P effluent. Obviously this doesn’t include ongoing agricultural activities.

We can debate why standard agricultural practices lie outside the planning system another day, but suffice to say they don’t. Now getting back to NE’s story today. They have downgraded the Levels and Moors SSSI status because of phosphate pollution – from housing and farming.

Weirdly, the press release fails to mention the fact that NE (the regulator) is using EU law to protect the Somerset Levels SSSI from extra phosphate pollution coming from new housing. Instead the PR talks about voluntary initiatives & so on, but “don’t mention the Habs Regs”

Of course the press release was written by the Defra Media Team not NE (who have no voice of their own). They have been told under no circumstances must they mention that EU law is better at protecting our best wildlife sites, than UK policy is. Because George Eustice.

It just makes a laughing stock of NE and Defra, to perform these Brexit-derived comms somersaults (or should that be summersets?) rather than actually saying what’s going on.

Originally tweeted by Miles King (@MilesKing10) on 02/06/2021.

Perhaps Rebecca Pow would care to comment?

Look out for a further article on this issue in the next fortnight.