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At last, red tape with some good news

Friday 23 July 2004

Whilst despairing of yet another acronym to be added to the lexicon of country life - SEAs - our commentator John Sheard welcomes a sliver of good news in another tangle of red tape

ON THE opposite side of the county of broad acres from the Yorkshire Dales lies a rare geological formation: a layer of chalk which gives us the likes of Flamborough Head and some of the finest stretches of trout river in the North of England.

The River Wharfe

There is a reason for this: chalk is the most alkaline of our native rocks and also the most porous. Fresh water marine creatures like shrimps, snails and fly larvae - fish food - thrive best in alkaline waters and, because rainwater has been filtered through chalk before it joins these rivers, they are remarkably pure.

That's the good news, news that has been unchanged for millennia. But it was drastically altered some ten years ago by - of course - the works of man. And some of those lovely chalk stream becks, the most expensive and exclusive trout fishing for hundreds of miles, literally dried up.

What had happened, you see, is that developers had been given planning permission to built hundreds of brand new houses in the Driffield-Beverley area to serve well-to-do commuters from Hull and York, commuters who had all the latest gadgets: laundry rooms, dish washers, shower rooms, sprinklers in the garden etc.

All these were supplied from the water table deep in the chalk. And, hey presto, suddenly the streams and becks dried up.

And this, strangely enough, was why this week I welcomed for the first time the addition of a new acronym to the interminable list dreamed up by the bureaucrats who run our countryside from desks deep in Whitehall and Brussels: SEAs (see News).

At first, this name seemed appropriate, because there is already an ocean of initials afflicting country life and one more sea would make little difference. But when I looked into Strategic Environmental Assessments, I found that there are flecks of gold amongst the dross.

SEAs are the latest imposition from the European Union and they will force our planners to take into account a whole raft of issues before giving the go-ahead for new development. To put it briefly - which is never easy when translating Euro-speak - the effects of any new development on a huge area around it will have to be taken into account.

These include matters like transport links, threats to wildlife, possible climate changes due to global warning and - to my delight as a river lover - the consequences on water supplies. This means that planners will have to consider any potential damage to a river over its entire length from source downwards.

Now for us in the Yorkshire Dales, most of our problems with water are the opposite to those of the East Riding. If global warming is becoming a reality (and this summer suggests it is) we are going to have far too much water, rather than too little.

If the scientists are correct, we will have warm but very wet summers, which means that the flooding could be a threat the whole year round instead of just the traditional winter-melt season.

That is very bad news indeed for some people in the valleys of the Aire, the Wharfe and the Ribble who in recent years have bought houses on the flood plains. They have already suffered disastrously in recent years and many are having difficulty is getting their flooding insurance policies renewed.

What we don't know, as far as I am aware, is how the very building of these houses has in itself made a bad situation worse. Massive housing schemes inevitably destroy huge areas of ancient field drains which have functioned well for many years, sometimes for centuries.

Add to that the effluent from all those household and garden gadgets and you are pushing the capacity for natural drainage to its very limits - and often past breaking point.

So if SEAs are going to prevent our river valleys, the jewels of our landscape, from becoming parts of suburbia, and at the same time save thousands of families from the fear of flooding, then they are very welcome indeed!

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