Questions, questions, questions

Residents will be aware that for some time we have been concerned about the state of the river Cam and indeed all the rivers in Uttlesford. Together with Cllr Chris Criscione, whose ward of Flitch Green & Little Dunmow lies alongside the river Chelmer, we have tabled a series of questions relating to water sustainability and river pollution to be answered at full Council on 18th July. For those who delight in detail the questions and background appendix are at the end of this post. It’s heavy stuff!

Put simply, there is not enough clean water and far too much polluted water, while Uttlesford sits in the eye of a ‘perfect storm’ of water stress.

For a large part of Uttlesford our drinking water comes out of the ground, extracted via boreholes from the chalk aquifer. The aquifer is also the store of water that over thousands of years has bubbled to the surface in springs to create chalk streams that feed into major rivers. All of Uttlesford’s rivers historically emanate from the chalk. But that is no longer happening. For much of the year the springs are dry because too much water is being abstracted. The delicate chalk streams of Uttlesford rely on those springs for their natural flow. It is an essential component of the district’s ecology and part of a globally rare aquatic environment.

Our rivers are a pale shadow of their former glory. What little water flows is mostly recycled from sewage treatment works (STWs). And because most of the STWs in Uttlesford are antiquated and lacking the latest systems there is a high concentration of phosphate in the recycled water, smothering everything in algae and choking the rivers.

We are running out of water and in the process polluting what’s left of our rivers. For the past decade Govt has actively discouraged the Environment Agency from enforcing the law while also stripping local government of the resources to do its job properly. It is quite simply, unsustainable.

Questions to council

You may find this easiest to follow by reading the appendix first, followed by the questions.


Three years ago (July 2020) council unanimously passed a motion regarding the effect on Uttlesford’s rivers of over-abstraction of ground water. The motion required specific actions.

A year later (20/7/21), cllr Pavitt asked for a report to full council of the progress made in respect of those actions. In response, the Asst. Director of Planning provided a list of actions and a summary of progress (see appendix). Using that report as a benchmark cllrs Criscione, Gregory and Pavitt have raised five questions:

Appendix (and context for the questions):

The following was prepared by the Assistant Director Planning, 11 May 2021


On 21 July 2020 the Council resolved on Waters and Rivers: 

1) To act to raise awareness of the threat to its rivers and to: 

(a) Call on those responsible for water supply and environmental protection to adopt immediate measures to avoid the loss of important river habitats.

(b) Lobby central Government to gain better recognition of both Uttlesford’s water imperatives and also the need to protect its Chalk streams. 

2) To make water supply and river health a material consideration of sustainability when assessing major applications for development within the district.

3) When developing the district Local Plan to give full and detailed consideration to:

(a) The sustainable provision of water throughout the district; 

and (b) Protection of the Chalk stream habitats of Uttlesford.

4) At the earliest opportunity to introduce stringent policies for new buildings in respect of water conservation and recycling. 

5) To call on the Environment Agency to:

(a) Immediately submit a plan for restoring a proper and consistent flow to the rivers of Uttlesford; 

and (b) propose a programme for monitoring water quality and restoring the biological health of the rivers to at least “good” as defined in the Water Framework Directive;

and (c) Ensure that the alkalinity of the Chalk streams within Uttlesford is and continues to be sufficient to safeguard the natural ecology associated with a Chalk stream environment.

Actions to Date (at July 2021)

    1. Following the adoption of the Motion, the District Council wrote to the Environment Agency (Appendix 1) and a reply was received on 26 October 20 (Appendix 2). River Basin Management Plans are an important part of the Agency’s work and in Uttlesford there are two: Anglian and Thames (we fall within the Cam and Ely Ouse Catchment Partnership (CamEO) and the Combined Essex Catchment called Essex Rivers Hub). 
    1. The River Basin Management Plans are currently under review and a consultation took place last year with revised Plans due to go out for consultation before final publication this year.
    2. The District Council has also become a member of Water Resources East (WRE) which is preparing a strategy to address water supply and related environmental impacts which are serious issues for all local authorities in the region. The District Council is an active member of the organisation and a regional strategy is in preparation for consultation before the end of 2021.
    1. On 10 October 2020 officers of the District Council met representatives of the water companies and agencies and agreed how to collaborate in preparing the local plan. A copy of notes of the meeting are attached in Appendix 3.
    1. On 27 April 2021 officers of the District Council met officers from Great Cambridge Planning Service for an update on their work on Water Management Studies (as well as decarbonising the energy grid) and agreed further collaboration. A copy of notes of that meeting is attached as Appendix 4.
    1. On 29 April 2021 the Local Plan Leadership Group agreed the methodology for undertaking the next stage in preparing the Regulation 18 Draft of the Local Plan in accordance with the approved Local Plan Development Scheme. The methodology recognises that the water cycle issues, and related environmental issues, will be an integral part of the emerging local plan.
    1. On 29 April 2021 both the Local Plan Leadership Group and the Strategic Infrastructure Delivery Group considered the proposed scope for a study on Water Cycle issues. Consultants are being appointed to do this work with a target date for a report back to members in November 2021.
    1. On 22 April 2021 the consultation period closed for the Local Plan Issues and Options Stage and representations have been received from the Environment Agency, Anglian Water and Thames Water. These representations are currently being processed.

Summary of Progress (at July 2021)

    1. Both the Environment Agency and Water Resources East are actively considering a range of issues, including the matters raised in the adopted Motion and the Council. The Council will continue to engage with these organisations to ensure that the matters highlighted in the adopted Motion are fully addressed as a matter of urgency.
    1. The Local Plan presents a significant opportunity for the District Council to include measures to protect and improve water supply, river flow and environmental conditions and the actions described above support the preparation of a local plan to do that. The Council is currently obtaining further evidence and expert advice to ensure that this is done.


Q. Please advise what action has been taken to assess the extent to which the council may unwittingly or otherwise compromise its legal responsibilities, namely to ensure that it does not undertake nor authorise projects which jeopardise (a), (b), (c) and (d) as contained in the Environment Agency’s reply to UDC (dated 26-10-2020), which stated Legal obligations and Article 4.7 Regulation 33 of the Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) (England and Wales) Regulations 2017 place a duty on each public body, including Local Authorities, to have regard to River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) when exercising their functions. This means they must ensure they neither undertake, nor authorise, a project which may jeopardise: a) The current status of a WFD element or cause its deterioration; b) The attainment of good status; c) Pollution reduction measures; d) Standards and objectives for protected areas. 

Q. What further information has been received from the Greater Cambridge Planning Service on their Water Management Studies following the meeting of officers on 27th April 2021 and what implications are there for Uttlesford in the EA’s formal objection on 26th June 2023 to new housing in South Cambs on the grounds of water concerns and river damage which pose – quote: “a real risk to chalk streams, river, and wetland habitats.”

Q. What information has been received from the council’s water cycle study consultants in respect of the water sustainability and river pollution concerns summarised by JBA Consultants in their presentation in October 2021?

Q. How has the Environment Agency been – to quote: “actively considering…. the matters raised in the adopted motion” and is the cabinet member for Planning satisfied that both UDC and the EA have addressed these “as a matter or urgency” bearing in mind the motion was passed three years ago?

 Q. Is the cabinet member for Planning satisfied that suitably robust “measures to protect and improve water supply, river flow and environmental conditions” will come forward in what little time remains before Reg 18 consultation of the Local Plan and what “further evidence and expert advice” has been obtained to this end?

Would you like to help in protecting and restoring your local river? Please contact your nearest river support group. You’ll find them in Great Dunmow and Thaxted for the river Chelmer, and if you’re near the Cam you could think about joining CURAT [Cam Upper Reaches Action Team], a group of residents in communities between Newport and Great Chesterford. And here’s a link for more information on the Stort.

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