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

Examination of Witness (Questions 60-78)



  60. What about within Member States? I can see a great competition brewing to have the best river basin in the country. Will there be any attempt to ensure that within Member States there is uniformity of application?
  (Mr Murphy) As long as the minimum requirement meets the minimum standards, if river basins go further than they are required or they enter into some form of beauty contest between each other, the Commission will not intervene in that process, because, again, what we will check is that the requirements of the Directive are observed. I would imagine that within each Member State there would be some coordinating function which would try to ensure some form of consistency of approach within the river basins in each Member State.


  61. You have set what seem to be very ambitious implementation deadlines. Has any Member State indicated that they might have difficulty meeting those deadlines?
  (Mr Murphy) No.

  62. And you have a process of monitoring that they are doing so. Given the history of implementation and the wide range of efficiency in implementation, you are confident, are you, that these are reasonable deadlines?
  (Mr Murphy) I think they are ambitious deadlines. Again, one of the reasons we are working with the Member States and all of them are actively participating in this Common Implementation Strategy is, first of all, to provide support, mutual support, one Member State for another, and also, if necessary, we are very happy to provide guidance to the Member States on an informal basis about drafting of legislation. But no Member State has indicated to us that they have problems respecting the deadline.

  63. And you are confident that the mechanisms you have established, for example to establish common understandings of how things should happen, will end up with a delivery which, if not identical, is pretty close to an identical standard across the European Union—that the quality of the economic assessments, for example, will be comparable.
  (Mr Murphy) I am by nature optimistic. My expectation is that we will deliver, we will deliver on time and the Directive will be implemented correctly, but you cannot get away from the fact that it is very ambitious. As I indicate in my presentation, this approach of a mutual, consensual building up of understanding of best practice, and sharing that between the Member States, is quite unusual. There is a lot of investment and a lot of ownership from all people involved in all Member States, the Commission and the candidate countries, in the process. The big challenge for me personally is to ensure that consensus does not mean lowest common denominator.

Mr Drew

  64. Could I ask you one general question. I am sorry I was out for a bit and you may have covered this, but when I talk to people interested in general wildlife issues around river basins, they have always made the point to me that they think that estuaries are often the most unprotected areas in terms of the planning legislation. We have always built around estuaries because of course that is the place where you cross the river and there is easy fishing and so on. I just wondered whether in terms of planning across the EU, given the problems we have with planning in this country—you know, population density—how much is that part of your thinking? Or is that really somebody else's bag to worry about?
  (Mr Murphy) The easiest answer for me to give is that it is somebody else's problem. Land use planning is not formally part of the multi-framework Directive. Land use planning is clearly an issue of subsidiarity for the Member States. However, the requirement is for you to respect the objectives of the Directive in terms of water quality. If land use planning issues detract from achieving that objective, then the Directive does have some bite. The other point I would make is that there is an action called Integrated Coastal Zone Management, which is a recommendation but is also an action plan involving many Member States on ensuring a more holistic and integrated approach towards the development of coastal areas, which includes, clearly, estuaries.

  65. If I can take you back somewhat but also hopefully push on in terms of the argument. Going back to the Common Implementation Strategy, how would you respond to the criticism that this is fine but, because it is a very detailed technical set of procedures, actually moving that forward in terms of practical changes is going to be very difficult? How would you see yourselves addressing that in terms of bringing the mind set changes forward to make sure that every country is doing this?
  (Mr Murphy) Again it comes back to the pilot river basin activities. My concern at the moment is that we have a huge corpus of documentation on this. It runs into a thousand pages. But if I was manager of a river basin or a local authority and someone gave me a thousand pages and said, "This is how you implement the Water Framework Directive" I would not find it very helpful. I think we need to make sure that whatever approaches we develop are digestible and accessible to the people who actually have to do the work. On a number of the more challenging technical guidance documents, say the economic assessment, we are putting a lot of effort into producing documentation in a way which is user friendly. Also, in the pilot river basin we will be working with the practitioners who actually will have to implement the requirements of the Directive when it comes into force or the deadlines start to click in. The intention is that we do not end up with just a huge volume of paper that just gathers dust but we end up with an active system which provides real support to the people who have to do the work.

  66. Can you give us some idea of timetable? Is there going to be some commonality in that timetable or is it going to be up to the individual countries, having worked through the pilot river basins, to take that forward?
  (Mr Murphy) There are deadlines in the Directive. By the end of this year Member States have to transpose the legislation and we have to define the river basins and we have to define the river basin districts. By 2004 they have to do the economic analysis. By 2004 also they have to do the impact assessment. So there are a number of deadlines which are clearly specified in the legislation and for which it is not a question of flexibility; it has to be done. We are delivering the technical tools, the technical guidance documents by the end of this year, which will be tested in pilot river basins by the end of next year, which means that by the time Member States have to start working on delivery, economic assessments, impact assessments, monitoring schemes, the tools will be there to support them doing that job.

Diana Organ

  67. Another aspect of this Directive that again is very ambitious is the active involvement of citizens in the participation and consultation that Article 14 of the Directive is saying must be put into place. We do not actually have in the UK a very good record of consultation and participation in a whole raft of policy areas but particularly in water management. How are we going to do it? Are other Member States more advanced? Do they have mechanisms, maybe water parliaments set up, on which they can call? I wondered if you are concerned about whether we will be able to be successful in this ambitious approach and are the Member States better at it than we are.
  (Mr Murphy) The answer to the second question is no.

  68. So we are all bad at it.
  (Mr Murphy) I think all Member States, from a historical point of view, have some aspects of consultation which they have done well and others where they will clearly need to make changes in the future in order to develop the Directive. In Spain there have been water courts for 400 years, where you sit in front of the local church and you come and say, "Look, this guy is taking my waters." They still operate. There are consultation procedures which are required in a number of Member States but none of the current practices corresponds to what is required under the terms of the Directive. In terms of will we be able to do it properly, again I do not want to keep referring back to the fact that we have a working group looking at this, but the group looking at best practice in river basin management is specifically addressing the issue of public participation. One of our most active stakeholders in the whole process is WWF. They have produced a very good document on their vision of what public participation means. We are trying to promote public participation and good practice but I think it is a challenge. How do you force people to take an interest? You cannot oblige people to have an opinion if they are just not interested. It is finding mechanisms in order to get the message out to people in a way which actually engages their interest and they do not just get turned off—as in: Why has this got anything to do with me?—but then also actively to engage their opinion in formulating the River Basin Management Plan. We do not have an ideal recipe at the moment. There will be some basic ground rules and I think each Member State has to adapt those to their local requirements and also their history in terms of what is appropriate in local circumstances.

  69. Do you feel, as I do, that in the end it might just end up being some hard pressed member of a local authority plus one or two members from the internal drainage boards, the same old sort of people that are being concerned about it now, and no wider than that because that is about as far as we can get?
  (Mr Murphy) In the worst case scenario, yes, I think that might end up being the situation.

  70. That is not exactly full participation of citizens, is it?
  (Mr Murphy) No. I think with more imaginative use of the new technologies, like the Internet, you have mechanisms for trying to ensure wider consultation. We have done a number of Internet consultations now on various environmental proposals. For us it has been a very good way of getting input from people and groups you did not even know existed. They are out there and have an interest but they never felt engaged before. But, in order to have any engagement, people have to be aware that the process is taking place. There are a number of instruments. First of all, through the media you have to alert people to the fact that this is taking place but then you have to provide them with the mechanisms to engage in the process without making a huge effort. Trying to find out in which city hall on which rainy Thursday night this meeting is taking place, that might not happen, but if you sit in front of your computer and you have a questionnaire on your computer, and there are other means of accessing public opinion, I think with imagination it can be made to work.

Mr Lepper

  71. You have told us that the intention is that the public should be participating in the development of the draft River Basin Management Plans.
  (Mr Murphy) Yes.

  72. From the early stage, not just commenting on some final document that is published. Am I right that the latest date for that public participation to start—
  (Mr Murphy) 2006.

  73.—is 2006. So it could be put off, as it were, for quite a long while. But countries which are taking public participation seriously would want to get that under way at an earlier stage.
  (Mr Murphy) My personal view on this is that if Member States wait until 2006 before actually trying this out for the first time, it is going to be very painful for everybody.

  74. So it is something that Government should be thinking about now in this country, that DEFRA should be thinking about.
  (Mr Murphy) Very much so. By the time 2006 comes around there should have been some pilot trials in the pilot river basin.

  75. Of course we will not have a pilot river basin.
  (Mr Murphy) Although the UK are not participating in the pilot river basin activities at the European level, I believe that things will be happening inside the UK but may not be inside the EU pilot river basin structure. But I would recommend that working with the NGOs, working through consumer groups, it would be possible first of all to develop some ground rules based on the guidance document from the EU and then trying some of these things out on a local basis before it has to be obligatory in 2006.

  76. So a task for us to ask ministers at some point is: What are you doing to encourage and set out a strategy for public participation?
  (Mr Murphy) I think this is going to be a difficult area. I think that the earlier this process starts, the more likely it is that it is going to be successful when it is done for real in 2006.

  77. WaterVoice have suggested that their regional committee structure and customer representative structure might well be a good vehicle for this kind of public participation/consultation. Do you have a view on that?
  (Mr Murphy) It is a personal view, it is not a view from the Commission.

  78. Of course.
  (Mr Murphy) While WaterVoice is very effective in representing its constituency, I am not sure that it has a comprehensive coverage of all constituencies and stakeholders in the process.

  Chairman: Mr Murphy, thank you very much indeed for coming. You have given us an extremely good start to this inquiry, which is enormously wide ranging. We realise that we have asked you to put on a virtuoso performance, having got up very early, and that you are probably absolutely (a) knackered and (b) hungry. I hope you can solve both those problems. We all had the image during the Labour Party Conference of the Environment Minister Mr Meacher wallowing in the waters off Blackpool Beach, which, according to our advisors, is clearly an extremely hazardous and dangerous activity. But, if he survives, he will at some stage appear before us in order to answer questions.

  Mr Jack: I used to sail in those waters and I have survived.

  Chairman: You are a fine example of what the waters do.

  Diana Morgan: It was Elliot, not Michael.

  Chairman: Whoever was wallowing in the waters, we hope they will survive in order to answer the relevant questions. Meanwhile, we are extremely grateful to you for coming and answering the questions and in fact fielding a lot of what are necessarily quite political questions being that we are politicians. We are very grateful to you for it.


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