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

Memorandum submitted by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (J21)


  1.  The Water Framework Directive (WFD, or "the Directive") is the most important opportunity we have to achieve sustainable management of water. We must not waste this opportunity through misperceptions of costs or by underestimating the long-term benefits to society of WFD implementation.

  2.  The "no deterioration duty" commences in December 2003. The UK must start work now on measures to prevent deterioration—and not wait until 2012.

  3.  The Protected Areas Register must include Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

  4.  Wetlands are a crucial component of the water cycle and their breadth, location and health will directly affect "good status" objectives. Wetland restoration must be seen as an important means of implementing the Directive. This will also help government achieve UK Biodiversity Action Plan targets and commitments to water-dependent SSSIs.

  5.  DEFRA should instigate a public information and education initiative on water and wetlands.

  6.  There are critical links between WFD objectives and the sustainable management of coastal and river flooding which are not being capitalised on by DEFRA.

  7.  Agriculture is central to WFD implementation. Current agricultural reforms must be made compatible with obligations under EU water legislation.

  8.  The Environment Agency has a pivotal role in WFD implementation. However, catchment bodies should be set up to manage all water issues at the catchment level. They would develop catchment sub-plans under River Basin Management Plans.

  9.  UK implementation should be guided by the voluntary Common Implementation Strategy guidance documents.

  10.  There are many tangible and intangible benefits to WFD implementation. The key intangible benefit—that the environment supports quality of life—is reflected in the Government's own policies.

  11.  Assessments of the economic impacts of the Directive are unreliable and underestimate economic benefits. The latter include the enforcement of the polluter pays principle, which by controlling external environmental costs improves social welfare.

  12.  The real question is not whether the UK can afford to implement the Directive in full, but whether it can afford not to.


  1.  The RSPB works for the conservation of wild birds and their environment. We are Europe's largest wildlife conservation charity with over one million members. We manage one of the largest conservation estates in the UK, totalling more than 100,000 hectares, including extensive wetland habitat. Our priority wetland habitats are reedbeds, wet grassland and estuaries. We provide advice on the management of wetland habitats, and input to a range of water policy issues including flood defence, water resources, biodiversity and water quality.

  2.  Wetlands—on floodplains, in the upper catchment, and on the coast—are an intrinsic part of the water cycle, marking the transition between water and land habitats, and forming important points of exchange between groundwaters, surface waters and the atmosphere. When the water cycle is broken we can suffer catastrophic problems, in terms of drinking water quality, water in the wrong place at the wrong time, and not enough water for people and wildlife.

  3.  The Water Framework Directive recognises the need to protect the water cycle by including all water bodies, no matter what size or kind, and their physical habitats, such as riverbanks and beds, in its objectives. It also includes obligations towards ecosystems such as wetlands that depend on these waters. The Directive thus sets common standards for "good water status" across Europe and, importantly, integrates biological outcomes (eg the life, such as fish, living in water bodies) with water management in general. The health of aquatic and water-dependent ecosystems is the best test we have of sustainable water use. Water capable of supporting characteristic plants and animals will also be water that is clean, and available, for future generations.

  4.  Water and wetlands perform crucial life-support functions for people, providing drinking water, irrigation, transport and nutrient cycling. Wetlands also drive a range of beneficial ecosystem services, including flood defence through storing flood waters, and pollution control through natural filtering systems. It is for all these reasons that the RSPB supports full implementation of the Directive—in particular trying to manage water as close as possible to its cycle, rather than working against it.

  5.  Water and wetlands are fragile ecosystems, dependent on the way we manage water catchments. While we have seen vast improvements in some aspects of water quality, particularly sewage treatment and industrial effluent discharge, UK wetlands and water are still not managed sustainably. Many aspects of water and land management impact negatively on wetlands. Not only have we lost most of our wetland resource through land drainage, but we continue to damage what remains through drainage, pollution and water abstraction.


  6.  The RSPB is a major player in Water Framework Directive transposition and implementation work in the UK and across Europe. We have representatives on several WFD Common Implementation Strategy (CIS) working groups led by the European Commission, including: WATECO (economics), IMPRESS (impacts and pressures on water bodies) and REFCOND (reference conditions for water bodies). We are currently working with the European Commission and Member States to develop a CIS discussion document on wetlands in the Directive. We have assisted the Scottish Executive and the Northern Ireland Department of Environment in public consultation exercises on the Directive. We sit on DEFRA's Stakeholder Sounding Board for the Directive.

  7.  The WFD can play a pivotal role in delivering sustainable water and wetland management in the UK. In the future, we envisage healthy aquatic ecosystems across the UK—with more wetlands restored throughout the catchment, floodplains reconnected to rivers, and water again healthy enough to support complex functioning ecosystems. This is not simply for aesthetic reasons. As was made clear at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, water is our most precious resource. Despite this, many people still take it for granted, assuming there is more than enough to go round. In fact, in England, there is less waterper capita than in Ethiopia. With the effects of climate change already being seen, the resource will become increasingly fragile and more difficult to manage.

  8.  Without healthy and resilient aquatic ecosystems we will face numerous problems, including increased flood and drought risks, higher costs of cleaning up drinking water, more conflicts between different water users, difficulties supplying water to new housing developments and loss of water-dependent wildlife, which may threaten the UK's ability to meet its Biodiversity Action Plan targets for water and wetlands. However, the RSPB is concerned that the wealth of opportunities the Directive offers may be missed if current misperceptions of the costs involved in meeting its obligations, combined with underestimation of its benefits, prevail.


  9.  The RSPB believes the entire text of Article 1 must appear word for word in the transposition regulations to ensure the purpose of the Directive is not lost. The Scottish Executive has set a precedent for this by including Article 1 in its Water Environment and Water Services Bill.

  10.  The Directive provides for staged implementation through a series of deadlines for Member States. However, in many cases it will be necessary to undertake these activities before the deadline to ensure a cost effective approach to implementation and reduce the likelihood of infraction proceedings. This should not be mistaken for "gold plating".

  11.  The evidence does not support the accusation which is sometimes made of routinely early transposition and over-enthusiastic implementation of European Directives. Proceedings have been initiated against the UK in a number of cases over late implementation of environmental directives, for instance the Waste Framework Directive. The perception of excessive regulation from Brussels may arise from British delays in implementation (eg the Nitrates Directive), which have led to several directives being brought in concurrently to avoid legal action.

  12.  While the Programme of Measures in the WFD does not legally need to be instituted until 22 December 2012, in reality many measures are either already in place, or will need to be in place earlier than 2012, to ensure good status can be achieved by 2015. In particular, many measures will need to be in place to prevent deterioration of water status from December 2003 (see below), for example those required to prevent damage to aquatic ecosystems from eutrophication caused by excess nutrients from agriculture. Meeting the water requirements of SSSIs by 2010 will also require earlier adoption of measures (see paragraph 22 below).

  13.  The Directive places a duty on Member States (Article 4) to prevent the deterioration of the status of surface and groundwaters. No explicit date is provided in the Directive, and Member States are interpreting its commencement differently. An answer to a Parliamentary Question given by the Minister for the Environment (House of Commons Written Answers 25 June 2002 columns 754-5W) suggests that DEFRA is interpreting this duty by connecting it to the Programme of Measures, implying that it does not commence until 2012. The RSPB disagrees with this interpretation, and legal advice we have received considers compliance necessary by the date of implementation (22 December 2003). It is also strongly arguable that since 22 December 2000:

    —  Member States' courts and national authorities have been under an obligation, where possible, to interpret national legislation in accordance with the requirements of the WFD; and

    —  Member States have been under a duty to refrain from taking any measures liable seriously to compromise the result prescribed by the WFD.


  14.  The WFD includes a series of complex and technical tasks that must be undertaken as we strive collectively to achieve its objectives on time. However, the UK must not delay through fear of not getting the technicalities exactly right in the first phases. We must practice adaptive management—"learning by doing". While a definition of what good status is has yet to be reached, we do understand in many cases what it is not, and we know some level of restoration will be required in many water bodies.


  15.  The RSPB has been disappointed by DEFRA's response to public involvement on WFD issues. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, seminars were held early in the transposition process to engage the main stakeholders on big issues. France has been holding meetings with stakeholders over the past two years in each proposed river basin to discuss in detail the implementation process and get farming, industrial and NGO partners on board. However, DEFRA has done nothing outside its Stakeholder Sounding Board process—and has not even produced a public leaflet.

  16.  Everybody has an impact on the water cycle, and the Directive recognises this through the obligation in Article 14 to actively involve interested stakeholders through the River Basin Management Planning process. The RSPB believes there is an urgent need to raise public awareness of the requirements of the Directive before this process commences. DEFRA should lead a public awareness programme for water and wetlands, with the cooperation of organisations such as English Nature, the Environment Agency, NGOs and water companies. People will not change their behaviour without understanding the water cycle and the impacts of their activities on water and wetlands.


  17.  Article 1 (a) of the Directive demonstrates an unambiguous intention to protect and enhance the water needs of wetlands, which should be reflected during the process of transposition and implementation. Article 1 (e) also states that the WFD should contribute to achieving the objectives of relevant international agreements. This includes the Ramsar Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Directive provides an opportunity to integrate all water management objectives, including those encompassing wildlife.

  18.  The RSPB has taken legal advice on the Protected Areas aspect of the Directive (Article 6). The Protected Areas Register, in relation to nature conservation sites (for example wetlands), must include sites designated under the Natura 2000 network (eg Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation under the Birds and Habitats Directives) where the status of water is an important factor in their protection. It must also include sites designated under national and local legislation (such as SSSIs) where status of water is an important factor in their protection. This duty on Member States allows protected areas to be taken into account in relation to other duties in the Directive.

  19.  The Government is committed to achieving favourable condition on 95 per cent of SSSIs by 2010. English Nature's figures on the current state of aquatic and wetland SSSIs make it clear this will be impossible without urgent action on water management. Government has also signed up to targets for water-dependent species and habitats under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, the majority of which require action to tackle drainage, abstraction, pollution and flood management at a catchment scale. The extent of the policy changes needed to meet these targets is outlined in the draft England Biodiversity Strategy, which reiterates the urgent need for integration within Government if these public commitments to the natural environment are to be met.

  20.  These nature conservation targets cannot be delivered efficiently or cost-effectively outside the WFD River Basin Management Planning process. We will have to take the same kinds of action to support SSSIs and biodiversity priorities as we will to achieve ecological good status under the WFD, even if the standards we set in relation to these different targets may vary. For example, to prevent damage to wetland and aquatic SSSIs from water abstractions, we will need to assess their ecological water needs, compare these with the amount of water available within a catchment, and adjust our abstraction activity accordingly. This is precisely the same process required by the WFD to meet the water resource requirements of water bodies. Any search for added value would lead squarely to one plan and one assessment method for them all.

  21.  The Common Implementation Strategy (CIS) is developing guidance documents to help Member States implement the WFD consistently across Europe. The RSPB draws the committee's attention to one discussion document (currently in draft) in this process—The Role of Wetlands in the WFD. The RSPB is urging the UK to adopt the precepts of the wetlands paper in implementation as it provides valuable guidance to Member States on how to interpret the Directive in relation to wetlands.


  22.  Article 1 in the Directive requires Member States to undertake measures that contribute to the mitigation of the effects of floods and droughts as part of their water management activities. Despite this obligation, DEFRA and the Environment Agency appear reluctant to draw together flood policy with the Directive's objectives. This has been illustrated recently in two consultation documents on Annexes II and V of the Directive. The reference to the use of wetlands to help with flood management in the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency's technical consultation was removed when virtually the same document was issued by the Environment Agency a month later. The RSPB was informed by the Environment Agency that this was due to "a precautionary approach regarding the proactive creation of wetlands following discussion with DEFRA during the development of the consultation". This approach, which we feel misses the point in terms of the benefits of floodplain restoration, undermines stated commitments towards integrated catchment planning. This is explained in more detail below.

  23.  Fluvial (river) flooding results from complex interactions between duration, intensity and timing of rainfall, the type of land it falls on and runs off, and the type and size of channels (such as rivers) within catchments. The prevention of flood damage must therefore be considered across the entire catchment—not just at a town where floods are likely to cause damage. This has been recognised by DEFRA and the Environment Agency in the recent piloting of Catchment Flood Management Strategies, although progress to date has been disappointing. While more research is needed, a sustainable flood management scheme will often include optimising land use throughout the catchment to reduce run-off, particularly on rivers prone to flash flooding. This can include the use of restored or created wetlands in many instances—in the upper catchment and on floodplains. Such wetland restoration not only delivers flood mitigation but can also help the Government meet UK Biodiversity Action Plan targets for wetland habitat (eg wet grassland).

  24.  The Directive requires Member States to go through a series of tests when assessing possible impacts on water status of both existing activities and new modifications. In both cases, there must be consideration of whether the benefits provided by the activity or modification could be delivered by other means which are "a significantly better environmental option". For example, in the case of a proposed new engineering modification for flood defence, where this would result in deterioration of water status by affecting the habitat (morphology) and dependent biology, Member States must ensure there are no significantly better environmental options before permitting it to go ahead. These options may include the restoration of floodplains for flood storage, and the enhancement of catchment floodwater and run-off retention capacities in upstream areas. In the case of an existing human activity which is preventing the achievement of good ecological status (eg a flood defence wall on a river), Member States must ensure there are no significantly better environmental options (such as the creation and restoration of wetlands) before they can designate a water body as "heavily modified" under Article 4.3, or set less stringent objectives under article 4.5.

  25.  Sustainable coastal flood defence options can also contribute to meeting good status requirements for coastal waters. Coastal wetlands such as saltmarsh operate as natural flood defences by dissipating wave power, particularly during storms. Intertidal habitats can also improve water quality in estuaries through entrapment and accretion of sediment. Such habitats, including saltmarsh, are being "squeezed" between rising sea levels and hard artificial barriers such as sea walls, resulting in major loss of important wildlife habitats and increasing likelihood of the seawalls being damaged, threatening low-lying land. One sustainable solution is "managed realignment"—a soft engineering technique involving the recreation of coastal habitat which then provides a home for wildlife, contributes to WFD requirements and helps to mitigate flood impacts. Coastal flood defence schemes such as these must be integrated into the River Basin Management process where appropriate.


  26.  Agriculture is the most powerful influence on the water environment in England today, and therefore has a central role to play in WFD implementation. Land drainage and flood defence regimes, largely driven by policies to maximise agricultural production, have resulted in radical changes to the hydro-morphology of rivers and the loss and degradation of wetland habitats. Water quality is also heavily influenced by modern agriculture, with estimates that 40 per cent of phosphates and 80 per cent of nitrates entering UK waters come from agriculture. 46 per cent of English freshwater SSSIs are adversely affected by nutrient enrichment.

  27.  However, the scale of these environmental problems must also be seen against the backdrop of the recent crises in farming, and tempered with an understanding that the solutions lie in supporting, not scape-goating, the agricultural sector. Most farmers conduct their business in the manner demanded of them by the market. They will not be able to respond to altered expectations unless doing so does not threaten their livelihoods. Opportunities exist now to make the necessary changes. The Mid Term Review of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is being driven, in part, by recognition of the need to make the CAP more compatible with EU environmental regulations. Nationally, the Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food is an opportunity to implement measures to ensure farmers are better equipped to meet environmental challenges. However, it is imperative that these reforms are integrated with parallel proposals to address the impacts of farming on the water environment. In particular, the DEFRA Diffuse Pollution Review must be linked to major agricultural reform initiatives if it is to have any significant impact.

  28.  Understandably, farmers have expressed concern about the costs the agricultural sector may incur as a result of WFD standards. This concern is in part based on an initial Regulatory Impact Assessment, which research (Hanley & Fundingsland, 2001) has since shown was flawed and partial. Crucially, the RSPB feels little effort has been made to look in combination at the economic effects on farming of the forthcoming reforms at European and national level and the improved environmental standards of the Directive. Such an analysis should reveal where the current reforms will help to reduce the costs of implementation for farmers, and where further action is needed to ensure those meeting the highest standards are rewarded rather than penalised.


  29.  The Directive requires detailed analysis of the economic costs and benefits of water management and use. The costs of water companies in England and Wales are currently regulated by Ofwat. However, the economic analysis required by the WFD must include environmental and resource costs, as well as business and consumer costs.

  30.  The RSPB believes that if Ofwat is responsible for the economic analysis required by the Directive, it must have statutory duties to liaise with other agencies (such as the Environment Agency and English Nature) and to achieve sustainable development. Ofwat would need significant extra resources and expertise in environmental economics to fulfil the Directive's economic requirements.

  31.  The RSPB believes the economic guidance provided by WATECO (the Common Implementation Strategy Working Group on economics) provides adequate definitions from which to develop implementation of the Directive. However, DEFRA's recent approach of interpreting the articles of the Directive individually, rather than through their collective purpose, is a potential source of confusion. For example, they sought to interpret Annex III separately from Article 9, even though both are linked to the analysis of environmental and resource costs. Such inconsistencies may also result in unfair treatment of companies (as described above).

  32.  The RSPB has commissioned work on the costs of the WFD (Hanley & Fundingsland, 2001). This makes it clear that the costs of implementing the Directive may fall within a very wide range and that previous studies had underestimated the ratio of benefits to costs. We believe that, if the provisions in the Directive are properly implemented, its costs will be effectively targeted toward environmental problems and fairly apportioned across society, penalising polluters while taking social needs into account. Over the long term, the Directive can ensure water prices reflect environmental needs and provide appropriate incentives for efficient water use.

  33.  In particular, the requirement of the Directive to examine the environmental and resource costs of water services should provide a clear basis from which to assess the incidence of water management costs across society. However, the RSPB is concerned that the UK Government's narrow interpretation of the Directive on these definitions will not result in a level playing field for all UK companies.

  34.  Much of the recent debate around the costs of the WFD has used the term "gold plating", referring to costs that are incurred earlier or in excess of those necessary, and that do not yield net benefits. The RSPB believes this term has been misused in relation to current proposals to implement the Directive, such as for the register of protected areas.

  35.  Whatever the costs are, they will be minimised by early planning and timely implementation. However, the RSPB believes the UK has already fallen behind on the path towards implementation and could risk infraction proceedings.


  36.  The RSPB supports the role of the Environment Agency as Competent Authority in implementing the WFD. However, although leading much of the thinking about integration, the Agency does not have the resources or policy frameworks required for genuine integrated catchment management or the public participatory processes required by Article 14. Water issues are not currently managed by the Agency in an integrated way. This is illustrated by the lack of initiatives on floodplain restoration, which could not only provide flood mitigation but also contribute to improved wetland habitat for birds, aquifer recharge, and improvements in in-stream water quality. The various policy catchment initiatives undertaken by the Agency, for example Catchment Abstraction Management Strategies and Catchment Flood Management Plans, are not linked either spatially or temporally—nor do they contain active commitments to wetland UK Biodiversity Action Plan targets.

  37.  The Environment Agency will be unable to meet the environmental objectives of the WFD alone. Current problems with agricultural diffuse pollution, the poor state of designated wetlands and recent flood damage illustrate this. One way of improving this situation is to institute a key recommendation of the partnership-based EU Life Environment funded Wise Use of Floodplains Project (WUF). The WUF recommended that catchment bodies be set up to manage water and wetlands at the catchment scale. These bodies would include key agencies and stakeholders, who would make, in consultation with local communities, the strategic decisions for water issues such as flood management and water resource demands. Such bodies would need the powers and resources to achieve real integrated catchment management. The management bodies should be aligned along geographical boundaries, to reflect the environmental processes being managed and reduce bureaucracy.

  38.  An opportunity to start developing this approach exists with the current proposed reforms of flood defence by DEFRA, whereby regional customer bodies could have their duties expanded to integrated catchment management—ie all water issues. However, for such an initiative to work more needs to be done nationally to ensure agricultural, water, biodiversity and planning policies are consistent and coherent. The RSPB would like to see this option piloted in a number of catchments.

  39.  The RSPB believes the transposition regulations must explicitly refer to sub-plans under River Basin Management Plans. Ideally, these would include integrated catchment plans developed by catchment bodies.


  40.  The RSPB believes the voluntary Common Implementation Strategy guidance documents being developed by the European Commission and Member States are designed to provide the necessary common understanding of definitions and concepts within the WFD to support smooth and equitable transposition. However, DEFRA officials have not always grasped the opportunities these guidance documents offer to promote integrated, cost effective and sustainable approaches to implementation. They have insisted on a minimalist approach which we believe will, in the long run, increase the risk of infraction proceedings and minimise rather than maximise the benefits the WFD offers the UK. Officials have justified this approach by a fear of "gold plating", but we believe such an approach will stifle innovation, which will be in neither the best interests of the water environment nor stakeholders. The RSPB is also disappointed that the UK is not participating in piloting the CIS guidance documents. This is a lost opportunity and suggests a lack of commitment to the process.

  41.  The RSPB believes the most undeveloped part of the WFD transposition process lies in the links between the River Basin Management Planning process and current and proposed land use planning regimes. Many land use planning decisions affect the good status of waters (eg water requirements for new housing developments, water run-off from developments which exacerbate flooding and cause pollution). Local Authorities will play a key role in achieving WFD objectives. Decisions must be made about how River Basin Management Plans will influence land use plans such as Structural and Community plans. Decisions also need to be made about how the River Basin Management Plans will operate in terms of right of appeal.


  42.  The RSPB is disappointed that benefits are the last item on the Committee's list, are not considered alongside costs, and are restricted to tangible benefits. Many intangible environmental benefits are important to quality of life and are also a source of economic competitiveness. For example, populations of wild birds are a Government Quality of Life indicator, and policies to conserve populations of geese—birds that depend on wetlands—were recently valued at over £10 million in Scotland. Full implementation of the Directive will result in a range of benefits. The fact that some are difficult to quantify in monetary terms does not reduce their importance, and they should count in any cost-benefit analysis. Tangible and intangible benefits include:

    —  safer and more secure water supplies;

    —  healthier rivers, lakes, coasts and streams for recreation, relaxation and job security (for example in fisheries and tourism);

    —  reduced pollution clean-up costs for water companies by tackling pollution at source. Many water consumers are effectively paying for water twice, with their taxes going towards subsidising intensive practices on farms, which result in pollution that water companies subsequently need to clean up. These clean-up costs are passed on to consumers;

    —  assisting in achieving objectives for our designated wetlands, eg Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas under the Habitats and Birds Directives, and favourable conditions for our SSSIs; and

    —  improvement of our management and mitigation of floods and droughts. Flood damage is expensive and generates fear and uncertainty. It is important to recognise the social benefits, such as avoiding the distress of flooding, that sustainable water management can bring.

  43.  The Directive can also contribute to sustainable development by initiating better use of land and water resources. The RSPB has worked to develop more sustainable flood management practices on the Somerset Levels and Moors. A recent study examining the opportunities for flood management washlands stated that: "it would appear in the public interest to redirect funding, both from agricultural support and flood defence for agriculture, into flood storage and washland creation." (Morris, 2001) This locally commissioned report points the way towards efficient flood management. Redirecting budgets from hard flood defence towards soft flood management options, such as washlands, allows strategic management of floodwaters, thereby giving better flood protection for settlements; enhances the environment; contributes to nature conservation; and results in better use of public money.

  44.  The potential benefits of Water Framework Directive implementation are substantial, and cover a wide range of areas. The RSPB hopes the Committee's Inquiry will help to shift the terms of debate away from what all too often appears to have been a climate of fear about costs, and encourage the Government to be innovative in espousing the Directive's benefits.


20 September 2002


  Hanley & Fundingsland (2001) An assessment of WRc's cost-benefit analysis of implementing the WFD. University of Glasgow report to RSPB.

  Morris (2001) Economic of Washland Creation, Cranfield University at Silsoe.

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