DEFRA has been accused of downplaying both the scale of pollution problems on the Somerset Levels – and the challenge of remedying them.
Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger says the department seems to be seriously underestimating the risks to one of Europe’s major wildlife sites while blithely asserting that various mitigation schemes will be enough to combat them.
Natural England has imposed a temporary embargo on new development in areas on and around the Somerset Levels after tests showed phosphate concentrations in local waterways were three times higher than the normally acceptable limit.
The problem – caused predominantly by sewage discharges into local rivers – has affected all the specially-protected wildlife sites on the Levels, with algal growths now endangering aquatic life. There are fears the degradation could threaten the area’s internationally-protected status.
Out of touch
But Mr Liddell-Grainger, MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, said Defra appeared not to have grasped the seriousness of the problem.
And he has criticised as ‘completely out of touch’ a statement by Environment Minister Rebecca Pow – Taunton’s MP – which, he said, gave a clear impression that the problem had been resolved.
“It is full of talk about task forces, phosphorous budget calculators and mitigation methods – but it says nothing, absolutely nothing about the urgent action that is required now to restore the health of those waterways,” he said.
“I also read that Wessex Water has given an assurance that its discharges will be cleaned up within two or three years. But until we see those improvements in place and until we get proof that they are working that remains nothing more than a promise.
“None of this recognises the fact that the dire condition of the Levels is a consequence of years of uncontrolled phosphate pollution which is going to take years to correct.
“The most practical step mentioned is the decision by Somerset West and Taunton Council to spend £2 million on building reed beds to purify future discharges. But I wonder how the council’s taxpayers feel about their money being used to clean up the mess left by housing developers and water companies.
“What we are seeing is the result of throwing up housing estate after housing estate with no regard to the impact on the environment. And nothing in the ministerial statement provides any assurance that it is prudent or safe to lift the embargo and carry on building as we were before.”
Urgent measures needed
Mr Liddell-Grainger said Defra, the water companies and the Environment Agency needed to be looking at immediate, urgent measures such as installing oxygenation systems to drag the Levels back from the brink.
“If the minister’s statement represents the best Defra can come up with then clearly things are going to get much, much worse before we can even hope to see them getting better,” he said.
“The department is completely out of touch with the reality of the situation –and evidently unaware of the very real possibility that the Levels could be stripped of their protected status, purely as a result of Defra and its various agencies having presided over the irreversible destruction of much of their wildlife interest.”