Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Environment Agency (J 24)

SUMMARY

  1.  The Environment Agency welcomes the Water Framework Directive (WFD) as a timely and radical improvement on earlier, piecemeal water legislation. It provides a framework that allows for integrated and co-ordinated management of all waters through:

    —  management of water on a river basin basis, (requiring the management of land as it affects water and water dependent habitats);

    —  the development of ecological objectives;

    —  a risk based approach to protection and restoration of aquatic environments;

    —  an adequate contribution of the different water uses, particularly industry, households and agriculture, to the recovery of the costs of water services and;

    —  encouraging active involvement of all interested parties in water management.

  The Directive will thereby safeguard the sustainable use of water resources across Europe.

  2.  The WFD draws on the long experience of integrated water management in England and Wales. In legislative and institutional terms England and Wales are well placed to implement the requirements of the Directive. However, the Directive sets new technical and operational challenges for the Agency and this will require a major commitment across all its functions. The Agency is currently consulting on many of the technical issues in its document "The Water Framework Directive—Guiding principles on the technical requirements".

  3.  The Directive has three principal environmental objectives for surface water bodies and groundwaters: (i) deterioration in their status should be prevented, (ii) they should be restored to good status by 2015 and (iii) areas protected under Community legislation should be protected or restored to achieve their specific objectives.

  4.  In respect of (ii) the Agency's view is that where the boundary between status classes "good" and "moderate" is drawn is a critical issue: too stringent a classification and the required Programme of Measures would be disproportionate; at the other extreme the opportunities for achieving real environmental benefits within the context of sustainable development would be diminished. The establishment of the boundaries for good ecological status are part of a Europe wide exercise in which the Agency is taking a major role.

  5.  After setting out the principles of the WFD, the introduction to this Memorandum of Evidence then summarises some key issues from which the Agency's responses to the specific questions of the inquiry are developed.

WFD PRINCIPLES

  6.  The WFD seeks to resolve some of the conflicting approaches and implementation problems of the forerunner Directives through a new and integrated approach to the protection, improvement and sustainable use of Europe's rivers, lakes, groundwaters, estuaries, and coastal waters. It will also provide important benefits for wetlands.

  7.  The WFD embodies the concept of integrated river basin management. It sets out environmental objectives for water status based on:

    —  ecological and chemical parameters;

    —  common monitoring and assessment strategies;

    —  arrangements for river basin administration and planning; and

    —  a Programme of Measures in order to meet the objectives.

  8.  By taking an inclusive approach to managing water as it flows off and through land from lakes, wetlands, rivers and groundwater to estuaries and the sea, the WFD aims:

    —  to prevent further deterioration and protect and restore the status of aquatic ecosystems.

    —  to require controls of point and diffuse sources of pollution; thus influencing land management regimes to enhance water protection;

    —  to reduce progressively pollution from priority substances and cease or phase out discharges, emissions and losses of priority hazardous substances;

    —  to protect, enhance and restore all groundwater; and

    —  to contribute to mitigating the effects of floods and droughts.

  9.  The objectives of the WFD will be met through the production of River Basin Management Plans (RBMP), which will cover all water bodies within a river basin including rivers, lakes, groundwaters, estuaries and coastal waters as well as those water bodies which are also wetlands. The main stages in the production of RBMPs are:

    —  to analyse the current state of River Basin Districts, the human and natural pressures and the risks they pose to the water environment;

    —  to assess whether the environmental objectives of the Directive are likely to be met;

    —  to carry out scientific and technical appraisals of improvement options, assessing costs and benefits so as to develop management plans for River Basin Districts, ensuring the participation of stakeholders; and

    —  to establish a Programme of Measures that will set out the actions needed to achieve the environmental objectives of the Directive.

RIVER BASIN MANAGEMENT PLANS

  10.  The WFD introduces a new definition of water status, which is concerned with the ecological health of water bodies as well as with chemical standards. The future success in managing Europe's water will be judged principally by the ecological outcomes specified in the Directive.

  11.  To achieve these ecological outcomes we will need to understand amongst other things: the interactions between groundwater and surface water, the relationship between the water flows and habitats structure in watercourses, and the interaction of chemical and biological components of water quality. The management of the separate strands of water quantity, water quality and physical structure (hydromorphology) for all water bodies will be brought together into a coherent RBMP.

  12.  The WFD provides the Agency with the vehicle for delivering real environmental improvements, the Governments water quality and quantity objectives and hence delivering the Agency's Corporate Strategy.

ROLE OF COMPETENT AUTHORITY

  13.  The Agency understands that the 2nd Consultation Paper from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) will restate their intention to designate the Agency as Competent Authority for England and Wales. The Agency welcomes the opportunity and challenge of taking on this pivotal role, but recognises that in order to achieve the desired outcomes the Agency will need to work closely with:

    —  Water companies;

    —  OFWAT;

    —  the agricultural sector;

    —  Regional and Local Planning Authorities;

    —  other Regulators such as English Nature and Countryside Council for Wales; and

    —  data and research providers.

  14.  The Competent Authority will need to be assured that there are obligations on other statutory bodies to ensure timely and appropriate participation from them, to allow the Competent Authority to meet its statutory duties.

ACTIONS AND ACTIVITIES UNDERTAKEN TO DATE

  15.  To date, the focus of the Agency's WFD activity has been to take a strong role, at both European and National levels, in many of the Common Implementation Strategy (CIS) and other working groups. The groups are developing scientific and technical guidance on definitions and standards. That focus now needs to shift towards meeting the future milestones in the implementation programme for the Directive.

  16.  The Agency has used its knowledge of the scientific/technical issues to shape the CIS to fit both with experience from England and Wales and with the current regulatory systems. This should facilitate the application of the technical requirements of the WFD. The guidance provided by the CIS, if effective, will be helpful in achieving a consistent and proportionate implementation of the Directive.

PLANNING FOR TRANSPOSITION, IMPLEMENTATION AND BEYOND

  17.  Defra has so far approved the commitment of resources for an Agency WFD programme, developing of Agency policy and technical guidance and providing advice to government. This has also enabled Agency to provide inputs into the CIS working groups and expert fora in Europe. The Agency is discussing with Defra its future requirements for staff and other resources to deliver the further requirements of the WFD Programme.

  18.  Commitment of resources for the medium and long-term is essential to ensure continuity and effective implementation of the WFD.

  19.  The problem of managing diffuse pollution, not just from agriculture but also from runoff from other land-uses such as urban developments and transport infrastructure, as well as discharges from abandoned mineral workings, will require changes to existing policies and planning procedures. The Agency believes that a balance of flexible policy instruments and regulatory approaches will be required and that the mid-term review of the CAP provides an opportunity to implement some of these measures. Comments are given in the separate Memorandum of Evidence to the Committee's inquiry on the mid-term review of the CAP.

  20.  The Agency considers that planning authorities should be under a duty to take account of WFD objectives when developing Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Plans.

  21.  Appropriate implementation of the Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) Directive for plans and programmes will assist the integrated planning and effective delivery of the WFD.

  22.  The requirements for integrated management of river basins mean that clear links will need to be established with strategies for flood defence and Catchment Flood Management Plans (CFMPs). This is an important issue given the priority being set by the Government for enhanced investment in flood management.

OPPORTUNITIES AND RISKS

  23.  Implementing the Directive provides the opportunity to develop and manage comprehensive River Basin Management plans, linking with other national programmes including; flood management and conservation. The complexity of the WFD and its ambitious objectives mean that there are risks to its successful implementation and delivery. Joint action by Defra/WAG, the Agency and other stakeholders will be required to manage and mitigate these risks.

  24.  Risks to successful delivery include:

    —  the scale of the technical challenge in understanding and agreeing the Directive's definitions of water status across Europe;

    —  opportunities for improved management of diffuse pollution may be lost or delayed if reform of the CAP does not recognise the linkage to the implementation of the WFD;

    —  over-prescriptive approaches to characterisation divert attention from delivery of the benefits of the WFD in a timely and effective way and to promote decision making at the catchment level;

    —  lack of clarity in roles and powers of Agency as Competent Authority; and

    —  other stakeholders are unable or unwilling to provide sufficient commitment and resources to meet the Directive's objectives and timetables.

RESPONSES TO SPECIFIC QUESTIONS

By what means, and over what timetable, the Government intends to implement the Directive in the UK?

  25.  Defra is the Government Department responsible for ensuring the transposition and implementation of the WFD in England, with the Welsh Assembly Government taking that role in Wales in close co-ordination with Defra. It has consulted with the Agency amongst others via an Implementation Steering Group.

  26.  It is understood that the next Consultation Paper from Defra/WAG will provide greater detail on its strategy for implementation and confirm its intention to appoint the Agency as Competent Authority. This appointment would fit well with the Agency's current duties and powers as an environmental regulator, but in order to perform this role effectively additional resources would be needed. Other statutory bodies also may need clear direction and additional resources to achieve the aims of the Directive.

  27.  The Agency considers that in many cases the objectives of the WFD will not be achieved without a major reduction in diffuse pollution arising from a range of sectors and activities, and that a mix of mechanisms from regulations to incentives will be the most cost-effective way of stimulating reductions in pollution.

  28.  There is a detailed legislative, institutional and policy framework in England and Wales, which will facilitate the implementation of those elements of the WFD relating to water resources. In particular, these include: the Agency's water resources strategies, audit role in respect of water companies' resource and drought plans, Catchment Abstraction Management Strategies (CAMS) and the provisions of the Water Resources Act 1991 relating to abstraction licensing and management. However, there are some significant omissions in respect of abstraction licensing, which the proposed Water Bill will address and which will be essential for successful implementation of the WFD.

  29.  Since the WFD is a consolidation of previous European water legislation, the Agency would wish to see some consolidation of UK legislation relating to groundwater. The Agency is concerned that the envisaged daughter Directive on groundwater should not add to the difficulty of regulating groundwater effectively. In the light of the Agency's experience of implementing the existing Groundwater Directive the Agency would wish to ensure that any new measures should allow a practical and risk based approach to groundwater protection and improvement.

  30.  Man-made changes to river morphology can play a key role in creating and improving or damaging environmental status and habitats. Important advances in providing flood management, whilst at the same time maintaining or improving environmental status, have been made through Catchment Flood Management Plans (CFMPs). The ecological health of aquatic ecosystems is often also dependent on the nature of land close to the water body and the whole issue of flood plain management has to be given a more central role in delivering the requirements of the WFD.

TIMETABLE

  31.  The Directive sets out a series of implementation deadlines through to 2015, the date by which environmental objectives must be met; these dates are shown in Table 2.1 of the Agency's consultation document on the technical requirements. Some re-alignment of the Agency's existing programmes and re-allocation of resources are likely to be required to ensure that the WFD deadlines can be met. The first and challenging deadline will be the Characterisation of River Basins required by December 2004

What will be the costs of implementing the Directive, how the costs will be met, how they will be apportioned, and the implications for water pricing policy?

Costs

  32.  The main costs of implementing the WFD will fall into the following categories:

    —  investments and operating costs to improve water quality, water resources and habitat structure;

    —  collecting and analysing information;

    —  monitoring and;

    —  administrative change.

  33.  Some of the costs would already have been incurred as a result of other existing statutory requirements that will contribute to the implementation of the WFD and therefore should not be attributed as a WFD cost. Examples include:

    —  the provisions of the draft Water Bill which will impose an additional cost on the performance of the Agency's water resources duties; and

    —  the restoration of a sustainable flow regimes requiring compensation of abstractors whose licences are shown to be damaging the environment.

  34.  The Agency welcomes the indications from Defra that it will review the current estimates of costs and benefits of implementing the WFD and bring them up to date. This will provide a comparison with the recently published research on costs and benefits of the Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Bill. Other stakeholders including Water UK have commissioned work to update earlier analysis, but results are not expected within the timeframe of the written evidence for this inquiry.

  35.  The Agency is developing a method for assessing the costs and effectiveness of options in RBMPs through its case study of the Ribble (Technical Report on Integrated Appraisal of River Basin Management Plans, July 2002). Proper assessment of costs is essential to preparation of appropriate Programme of Measures.

How costs will be met

  36.  The costs of the WFD their apportionment and the planned revision of the Regulatory Impact Assessment are covered in the Defra memorandum.

  37.  The Agency's Ribble study, which has been undertaken with wide stakeholder participation addresses both effectiveness and costs. It identifies, through practical worked examples, the key issues involved in carrying out cost-effectiveness analysis in an even handed and transparent way as part of the economic analysis of water use in each River Basin Management Plan. The issues are complex and methods will need to be found to present the options in an accessible way during public consultation on the basin plans. The Directive allows for the achievement of good status to be delayed if costs can be shown to be disproportionate and work has begun to assess how such judgements might be made in a consistent manner.

Implications for water pricing policy

  38.  Water prices are set by the water companies, subject to limits and conditions established by OFWAT, within a policy framework set by Defra/WAG and legislation. The Agency, together with English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales, recommends the environmental benefits to be achieved by water company investment programmes for water quality and water resources. These environmental priorities have begun to be, and will be increasingly, influenced by the objectives of the WFD. Some aspects of diffuse pollution, such as leaking sewers, can be attributed to the water industry and can be dealt with under the above framework as part of asset maintenance. The allocation of the cost of addressing most forms of diffuse pollution, from both urban and agricultural land, will be harder to assess and recover. More work needs to be done, particularly in the context of other funding mechanisms, such as CAP and investment in urban regeneration, which influence the management of land that provides potential sources of diffuse pollution. The Agency's economic analysis will be able to provide advice on the implications of pricing options in the appraisal of the Programmes of Measures in RBMPs.

The role that the Environment Agency will take in implementing the Directive?

  39.  Defra has indicated that for the purposes of the WFD the Environment Agency will be the Competent Authority for England and Wales, and that the 2nd Defra/WAG Consultation Paper will cover the scope and range of the legal and administrative responsibilities and powers required.

  40.  The Agency currently has responsibility over a wide range of activities required by the WFD (some of these are detailed in Tables 9.2 and 9.3 of the Agency's technical requirements consultation document). Many of these activities will need modifying or enhancing to meet WFD needs. For example, the public registers maintained by the Agency do not include unlicensed abstractions—an omission which the Water Bill should address; and monitoring networks, in particular for groundwater quality, will need enhancing which will entail capital outlay.

  41.  As Competent Authority the Agency will be active in a wide range of activities that include:

    —  participation and/or leadership of Working Groups in the Common Implementation Strategy;

    —  identification of River Basin Districts, categorisation of water bodies, review of impact of human activity on water quality and co-ordination of the production of River Basin Management Plans;

    —  contribution of relevant information to the Secretary of State relating to the required economic analysis of uses of water;

    —  maintaining registers of protected areas, which include water bodies designated for abstraction for drinking water;

    —  establishing and undertaking water status monitoring programmes;

    —  co-ordinating and updating Programmes of Measures for achieving desired water status;

    —  management and review of abstraction controls and point source discharges;

    —  controlling diffuse pollution (in conjunction with other authorities), subject to delegated authority from Defra/Secretary of State;

    —  ensuring hydromorphological conditions are consistent with the required water body status; and

    —  consultation on RBMPs and promotion of stakeholder participation.

Economic analysis

  42.  The economic analysis required by the WFD is more wide-ranging and explicit than previous European water directives, and a new challenge to the designated Competent Authority. Since 1989 the Agency and its predecessors have undertaken economic analyses for various regulatory processes. Given appropriate guidance and information gathering powers by the Secretary of State, the Agency is ready to play its role in contributing to the economic analysis.

Planning issues

  43.  The Agency will need to have the capacity to undertake the characterisation, planning and measures to deliver the objectives. Whilst the Agency holds core data for characterisation and has powers to help meet the objectives (eg abstraction and discharge controls) at its disposal, these alone will not be sufficient. In addition, there will also be a need to ensure that other planning frameworks and policies take account of the needs of water management and the interaction with land use planning.

  44.  The Agency will seek to provide appropriate support to Government Departments, Local and Regional Planning Authorities, Statutory and other bodies involved in land-use planning and management, sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) and the development of Catchment Flood Management Plans.

  45.  Through its forward planning process the Agency will need:

    —  to align the programming and scope of its on-going activities such as CAMS with the requirements of the WFD;

    —  to convert/re-align existing monitoring and reporting responsibilities and timetable into those required for the WFD;

    —  to provide appropriate links/liaison with other organisations who undertake monitoring—water companies, for example may not monitor raw water at a regional scale, and at the point of abstraction may monitor only treated water; and

    —  to continue and enhance the public consultation processes that it currently undertakes

Monitoring and reporting

  46.  The development of appropriate monitoring systems will involve identifying suitable indicators and establishing reference conditions. This is one of the biggest technical challenges in implementing the Directive, but much progress has already been made. The Agency can build on its existing experience and expertise, which put it at the forefront of initiatives to develop a common approach to monitoring requirements for the Directive.

  47.  Monitoring programmes will provide targeted information to help identify, assess and manage environmental problems and thus support the new regulatory regime based on river basin management planning. These programmes will supplement and validate risk assessments, establish the status of water bodies at risk, provide information on long-term trends, and evaluate the effectiveness of the Programmes of Measures.

  48.  The status of water bodies needs to be reported against a range of biological, chemical and hydromorphological parameters. Agency functions already generate much of the required data and in addition to new data there will be a need to integrate this current information effectively. To address these needs, the Agency is putting in place plans to meet the integrated IT infrastructure needs of the WFD.

Whether the definitions of, for example, what constitutes a river basin and significant human activity have been clarified sufficiently to allow management plans to be formed

  49.  Much of the common understanding of WFD requirements and terms is being developed through the Common Implementation Strategy working groups. The Agency either leads or is represented in the majority of groups so will have a large input to the definition of terms.

  50.  The 1st Consultation Paper asked for comments and opinion on a number of definitions. It is understood that Defra/WAG has taken responses into account for the 2nd Consultation Paper.

  51.  The Agency's consultation document on technical requirements sets out its proposal for the definition of the various terms used in the Directive. A review of stakeholder responses and opinions is not available at the time of this written evidence as the consultation period closes at the end of September 2002.

  52.  The Agency believes that the precise wording of definitions will be important; incorrect or inappropriate definitions could result either in increased and unnecessary costs, or in inadequate implementation of the Directive. Through its involvement with the CIS, in its representations to Defra and through the technical consultation, the Agency has argued against definitions that might undermine the current comprehensive legislative, technical and policy foundation for water management in England and Wales.

What the tangible benefits of the Directive are likely to be and whether its objectives can be achieved in a cost effective way?

Tangible benefits

  53.  The WFD provides a mechanism for achieving the sustainable use of water by conflating the requirements of the disparate range of Directives through which environmental planning and management is currently carried out, and aligning these with current policy and vision statements.

  54.  A specific policy benefit of the WFD is that it brings a broad range of environmental objectives together with those of pollution control. In particular it provides a framework for regulatory and non-regulatory measures to prevent diffuse pollution, which can only be tackled in a piecemeal way at present. Through the emphasis on basin plans and Programmes of Measures it provides a means of better integrating land use, agriculture and water protection policies.

  55.  The WFD's integrated approach to hazardous substances will deliver benefits not achievable through other means. The Priority List of dangerous substances which present a significant risk to humans via the aquatic environment will be subject to Europe-wide controls and standards in measures aimed at the progressive reduction of pollution from discharges. Within this list are the Priority Hazardous Substances (PHSs) in respect of which discharges, emissions and losses to the aquatic environment should cease or be phased out.

Cost-effectiveness

  56.  The WFD changes the focus of the analysis of benefits. First the costs of a Programme of Measures to achieve the desired status are estimated. Then the question is whether these costs are considered to be disproportionate, taking account of benefits. The analysis then informs Defra's decisions on whether derogation is needed in terms of either less stringent objectives or extended deadlines.

  57.  Specific provisions are included in the WFD to ensure that cost-effectiveness issues are considered.

  58.  Judgements about the cost-effectiveness of a Programme of Measures designed to achieve "good" status for a given water body will be based on information that has to be collected by December 2004. Such judgements will influence the scope and content, and hence cost of all Programmes of Measures. Decisions on the definition of status classifications taken early in the Programme could therefore have a fundamental impact on the level of costs and hence cost-effectiveness much later.

CONCLUSION

  59.  Implementing the WFD will be a challenging scientific, technical and administrative task for Government, the Competent Authority and all stakeholders. However it offers a real opportunity for delivering a wide range of environmental benefits consistent with the Government's sustainable development objectives and the Agency's Corporate Strategy.

  For further information, contact Paul Logan, Water Framework Directive Programme Manager, Environment Agency. Tel: 01491 828631; [email protected]

Environment Agency

27 September 2002


 
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