Late spring and early summer are a glorious time to be in Herefordshire. But with rising temperatures and more sunshine come more tourists - and renewed public concern about the River Wye.
Readers will recall the state of play so far. At the Shell Store meeting which I called last year with Bill Wiggin, the key agencies, local authorities and Welsh Water, it was agreed that we need an all party-all catchment approach to the problem. This was then picked up by Herefordshire, Powys, Forest of Dean and Monmouthshire Councils in the form of a joint Phosphates Commission, to gather evidence and formulate a detailed plan.
Over the border, there are signs of greater engagement by Natural Resources Wales. On this side, the Environment Agency has a new and dynamic Chief Executive taking over in July. I have met with the top team at the new Office for Environmental Protection and they are starting to take a close interest. At a recent meeting I had with Avara Foods, they pledged to play a key role in dealing with the use of high-phosphate chicken litter coming from their producers.
This is all helpful, if still far too slow. To make real progress, we need two more things. Locally, now that the local elections are past we need a strong Herefordshire Council, willing to take decisive action according to a clear clean-up agenda. The Wye is a vital shared priority; it must not be sidelined by party politics.
But most important of all, we need the UK government to step forward. A few weeks ago the Secretary of State at DEFRA, the Department for Food and Rural Affairs, set out her Plan for Water, and committed to take vigorous action on sewage. But in our own case, this crackdown alone will not be enough. Some 65% of the phosphate going into the Wye comes not from sewage but from agricultural run-off.
This is not to say that Herefordshire’s superb farmers are to blame for a problem that has built up over a generation. Rather, we need a long-term agreed collective solution which includes them, and for that only government intervention will suffice.
I am pressing DEFRA to take decisive further steps towards this solution. Wisely, they are taking a catchment-specific approach. It could start with better enforcement of the Farming Rules for Water, but ultimately the Wye plan needs to include every possible means to limit phosphate flows. Time to show how the government’s approach can really work!