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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. That does not bode well for the future, does it? This is a big Directive, it is going to take a lot of implementation and on day one, when we are getting ready, we do not have the resources to do it. What are your views on that?
  (Mr Oates) Absolutely correct. We believe the measures needed to implement the Directive do need to be piloted in specific areas—they need to be piloted using specific sectors who will be affected, the public and the water bill payers as we have just heard—and there need to be mechanisms to involve NGO's such as ourselves in that process. Because we have not had a pilot river basic project or pilot area offered from the UK, WWF itself, in conjunction with the other environmental NGO's, is proposing to use some of our own resources to develop a model river basin management plan which will include all the best practice and all the best possible means of implementing the Directive to be used as an information and practical tool by the Government and Environment Agency if they cannot do this themselves. But we would hope and we would like to invite DEFRA and the Environment Agency to work with us in partnership in producing this model river basin management plan.

  121. So, in a sense, Mr Oates, you are naming and shaming the EA and DEFRA today. Let me put it in a slightly different way. The EA and DEFRA are being named and shamed. They are not the only people in Europe not doing this work—they do not have the resources—and you two voluntary organisations, charitable organisations, are doing work on their behalf.
  (Mr Oates) I am naming them but I do not want to shame them because I do understand that it is not their fault they do not have sufficient resources dedicated. I think there is a general view in government that this is a very long term Directive, we do not need to get on with it quickly, there is plenty of time to work on these things, 2015 is decades away, three governments away, why worry about it now? But we believe we do need to start working now and developing good techniques involving all the necessary people and getting to the bottom of the key issues such as what will the cost be. You have just had a long discussion about costs which, unfortunately, overlooked the fact that we already spend billions in the UK each year on water management in different ways, often with very poor outputs in terms of flooding, water quality, and lack of water to farmers in certain areas. What we are saying is that all the affected people need to be involved in assessing those problems and looking at their root causes, tackling them at source. If we did that we might find that we actually save money through this Directive and not cost more.
  (Ms Lewin) Can I just add a point to that, that DEFRA and the Environment Agency have put huge effort into the Common Implementation Strategy Guidance document. We have not added up the resources, but it must be possibly hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of time. The fact that they are doing this work and then not actually going to have a pilot basin in the UK is quite worrying, I think. Much as we are big organisations, the RSPB is certainly not in a position to do a pilot catchment for DEFRA and the Agency. It is not possible and it is also not credible. Despite the work that is going to go on with the charitable organisations we would really encourage DEFRA to put one up, and it is still not too late.

  122. This does not bode well for the future, does it?
  (Ms Lewin) I think that DEFRA has had fairly severe resourcing problems even on the policy side. They have aq small team; they have had quite high staff turnovers; they have had difficulties with integration across the different departments (they have had their re-structuring during this).

  123. This all sounds like excuses.
  (Ms Lewin) I am not here to justify what DEFRA do or what they do not do; that is up to themselves. I think things are starting to change within DEFRA on a more positive note in terms of them starting to look at the links with agricultural policy, starting to look at the links with flood policy. It is starting to sound, at least from where we are sitting, more positive. But the resourcing issue is difficult, I think.


  124. Mr Oates in particular, do you regard it as being axiomatic where every single improvement in water quality which could be delivered should be delivered?
  (Mr Oates) No. There must be a balance between costs and benefits. That is absolutely right. But what we believe at the moment is that the current methods for assessing costs and benefits do not take adequate regard of the environmental needs and possible environmental damage these cost benefit measures must be adapted. There must be a balance in regard to the costs of improving the environment. The previous discussion—which mentioned the potential need to restore wetlands and the huge potential cost of doing this—did not get into a more positive area of wetlands, which is that not only do they have costs in terms of producing more birds, for example, but wetlands can perform multiple functions such as helping prevent flooding, storing water for future use, helping to filter pollution out of water. Investment in wetlands is not just for the birds, it is for wider human benefits.
  (Ms Davis) Can I add something to that. I think it was instructive to hear the conversation that went on earlier, an exchange on how wonderful the quality of our water is and why on earth should we need a Directive to do something about it.

  125. I think, with respect, that was not what our previous witness was saying. Our previous witness was saying that some of their customers might have that reaction but they were not themselves owning that reaction.
  (Ms Davis) Fair enough, but nonetheless it has obviously been a public perception because, as the previous witnesses pointed out, during the course of the last three weeks an enormous amount of data has been put out suggesting that the water environment has never been in a better condition. When you ask a perfectly reasonable question "Are we aiming to achieve absolutely every single part of water quality and improvement?" I think it is important that we should actually have a sense of the truth of what the water environment looks like at the moment. That is not reflected in those figures. For instance, I think it is worthwhile remembering that when we talk about water quality in the way the Environment Agency currently measures it, they do not include in those figures the single most powerful pollutant of the water environment, which is phosphorous. That is not monitored in the Environment Agency's figures in river quality. Phosphorous trends over the course of the last five years have increased and not decreased. Fifty-five per cent of the UK's rivers have high phosphorous levels. Somehow or another, the way we are describing the water environment does not actually reflect what we believe to be the true state of it to be in terms of its ecology and its health. For that reason, it is not a question of whether we want to gain every single outcome, every single tiny bit of improvement. What we do want to achieve is a basic standard of ecological health for the waters of this country.

  126. Can I again ask a question. Mr Oates mentioned that there were a number of aspects to consider and he quoted the wetlands as the example. He said it was not just for the birds (I think he was using that literally as well as metaphorically, perhaps). But do we have the tools of measurement? When you are looking at something which is quite broad, you can take in various increments in your assessment. Do we actually have a tool which would be commonly understood and commonly agreed which would give us some measure of a cost benefit analysis? Does it exist? And if it does not exist, are we going to find it difficult actually finding out where we are without it and who is going to invent it?
  (Mr Oates) I do not believe we have good measures yet in the UK. We have attempted to get some such measures through, for example, the EU Life Wise use of Flood Plains project which did some work specifically on the Somerset Levels which was trying to look at better methods of integrating all the different needs and demands, and their costs and the role that wetlands could play there. Unfortunately that work was not completed within the life time of that project. One of the reasons was because we found it difficult to join up all the various government departments that were needed, to get all the information out of all the different places where it was stored, and actually get the funding that was required to do the work. At the moment responsibility for water management is too scattered amongst too many government departments and agencies, local authorities, private operators, et cetera. It is very difficult to bring these organisations together and for them to contribute their necessary share of the funds to investigate joint solutions to what are common problems. We think the Water Framework Directive and its proposals for river basin management plans is a very positive step here because those river basin management authorities will be required to bring all the necessary people round the table, pool their resources, pool their data, pool their funding and, as I say, get to the common sources of the problems.

Mr Lepper

  127. This Committee has undertaken other inquiries during this year into the way in which the UK has responded to other European directives. We have found on occasion that perhaps we have not been as proactive as we should have been in dealing with those issues, for a variety of reasons. The RSPB, in your written evidence,draw attention to the deadlines for implementation of the Directive and you do say that in many cases it will be necessary to undertake the relevant activities before the deadline to ensure a cost effective approach to implementation and to reduce the likelihood of infraction proceedings. You add that this should not be mistaken for gold plating. Undertaking activities before the deadline, from what you have told us so about your perception of the resources in DEFRA, for instance, the likelihood of undertaking those activities before the deadline and avoiding some of the consequences that we have seen happen in relation to other directives, do not appear to be very great. Yet you suggest this is the most cost effective way of dealing with things. Could you just comment on that.
  (Ms Lewin) I think there are two parts of this. One of them is doing the work on the ground which we can talk about. The other bit is actually setting up some kind of efficient administrative structure in order for this work to happen. Because there are so many water issues, if you like, that are coming together in terms of water resources—water abstraction, flood management, water quality—at the moment (as you will be aware a lot of people have been referring to it in their evidence) we have a plethora of plans on different time scales, different geographical scales, et cetera. As we try to bring this together it makes sense to try to set up some kind of administrative body to manage things. As long as we do not have some kind of body which brings the players together at a catchment scale or the river basin scale, it is going to be really, really difficult to implement a lot of these things on time. I think, in terms of getting the administrative structure right, it is really, really important and at the moment we have not seen anything in the public domain—although DEFRA and the Agency may well be discussing this privately—which suggests what this is going to look like. That is one issue that I think is critical that they get moving on. The other issue is about actual practices on the ground which Ruth can talk about.
  (Ms Davis) I think what I might have to say about that connects to what Kirsty was saying in the sense of setting up an appropriate administrative structure. I think when we are talking about taking measures earlier than is required by the absolute explicit European deadline, what we are saying is that there are existing obligations which we could meet within the UK in an efficient way, if we were to take forward the implementation of the Directive in that proactive sense. For example, the kinds of things I am talking about are our obligations towards SSSI's and our obligations towards Biodiversity Action Plan targets, both of which should be delivered in the context of river basin planning. At present it is very difficult for us to deliver either of these sets of obligations towards nature conservation because we do not actually have the integrated tools at a river basin level to be able to make the changes in water quality or quantity that we need to meet those targets. If we were to start to put in those administrative processes now, it would give us a head start in meeting existing government obligations at dates which are earlier than those that are set up within the Directive. For instance you will be aware that there is a public service agreement target to achieve favourable conditions on 95 per cent of SSSI's by 2010. That obligation, I think, we can very safely say will not be met without actually having this kind of integrated approach to water management. I think in a sense we are not saying that more should be done than is required by existing obligations, but we are saying "Let's be smart about the way we use this tool".

  128. Is the timetable for implementation, as it stands at the moment, about right? Or is it over ambitious?
  (Ms Lewin) The timetable is set in the Directive and we have to go with it.

  129. Do you not have a view nevertheless?
  (Ms Lewin) I think that probably the UK is better placed than many other countries but then France may well be much ahead in terms of already having river basic management structures set up. I think we are going to run into a lot of difficulties with consultation and public participation. We may run into difficulties with agriculture on diffuse pollution if we cannot get the policies to meet. We may run into difficulties around flooding. A lot more resources are going to be needed for monitoring and that is something that has to be negotiated between DEFRA and the Agency. It is very tight, which is why we feel we need to be starting now. We really need this pilot basin in order to start looking at what actually is going to be done. I think most people still do not have a real sense of what it will actually look like on the ground.

  130. You have on offer what is called a public/private partnership today, you are suggesting, it so as to get that under way.
  (Mr Oates) The timetable is very closely linked to resources. If DEFRA and the Environment Agency are not given the resources to do the job, they will struggle to meet the timetable. In connection with resources, one of the things which is exercising us at the moment is that the Environment Agency is going through an internal efficiency study—or a cost cutting exercise—called BRITE (which, I understand, means Better Regulation In The Environment). I understand that this internal efficiency exercise has identified considerable resource savings to the Agency. It is actually difficult to find out what BRITE is doing and what it is coming up with. There is nothing made publicly available; it appears to be a kind of state secret. My informants within the Agency tell me that it is identifying considerable resources, and we would like to see those resources re-directed to implementing this Directive and not simply given back to Gordon Brown as a saving to make some minister look good.

  131. In your written evidence, Mr Oates from WWF, you say the governments seems to be taking an approach to implementation that is geared more towards minimum compliance than maximum gain. On this issue of resources we should not necessarily interpret the government there as meaning DEFRA but perhaps some other department of the government.
  (Mr Oates) Exactly. The implementation of this Directive will cut across many, many arms of government, both national and local. Many departments need to be more closely involved in the process. English Nature, for example, will need to be very closely involved in some of the definitions of what is good status and what the ecological requirements might need to be. And yet they also are saying, I understand from contacts there, that they are under-resourced to do that piece of work.

  132. Your impression of the mood within DEFRA itself, is the will there to do this work?
  (Mr Oates) Yes.

  133. And it is the resources which are lacking.
  (Mr Oates) Recently there has been a large improvement in the positive attitude from DEFRA and the Environment Agency. I think my colleagues from RSPB would agree there. For example, in the Common Implementation Strategy Working Groups in Europe recently there has been a large improvement in the positive attitude of DEFRA and the Environment Agency in those working groups. In relation to the paper which we jointly put forward on the role of wetlands in the Water Framework Directive that has now received a positive response. We think things are moving in the right direction, but, as we say, they could do better, they need to work faster, but they need the resources to do that.
  (Ms Lewin) Could I just add one final thing to that. I think that for this Directive to be implemented successfully it is going to go way, way beyond DEFRA and DEFRA are going to need a lot of support. At the moment there has been no public information or education about the Directive at all so nothing has come out of DEFRA to tell the average people in the street, water consumers, people like ourselves, what this is actually about. I think that DEFRA could really help themselves by putting out some kind of simple information about what the Directive will achieve for everyone. In our Birds magazine which goes out to our million members we have an article in the last one to try at least to get that information to our members. It would be very useful if DEFRA could do something similar.

Mr Mitchell

  134. Just in passing, I see your forecast for dire consequences of not doing this will be eutrophication of our rivers. Now what the hell does that mean? Europhication I would object to, but eutrophication is not in our glossary of terms. What is it?
  (Ms Davis) When I was talking about phosphorous earlier, the reason I was talking about phosphorous as being the major pollutant of fresh waters in the UK is because phosphorous is what causes eutrophication. The simplest way of thinking about that is if you have every seen an algal bloom on a fishpond or a river. Do you know what this looks like when you get the green slime floating to the surface of a river?

  135. Just like politics.
  (Ms Davis) That is the end consequence of eutrophication. What eutrophication does is that it fills water with very readily available plant nutrients and you then get an explosion of plant growth, which can result in both getting the unsightly algal blooms but in the long term also in depriving everything else in that water body of oxygen. This is something called anoxia where basically everything which breathes in that water body will choke to death because there is not enough oxygen to go round.

  136. I want to put a question to you which might appear somewhat cynical. You, collectively as bodies, really want a more perfect world, particularly for our furry and finny friends and it does not really matter at whose expense you achieve that. I think a cynical view would be that this is another piece of European sublime nonsense from the mystification sublime nonsense factory they have over there. The benefits have to be largely hypothetical and many of them unmeasurable and the potential costs are going to be enormous. Are we going to find ourselves in a situation as we did with Waste Water Directive in Grimsby when it was implemented, a huge increase in cost and water charges on the fish processors (some of them went bankrupt), a huge outcry, two years of argument and negotiation, and all too late to affect the issue. Are we are going to be in that situation when the costs hit the consumer?
  (Mr Oates) I hope we will not be in that situation and we will not be in that situation if, as we say, the responsible bodies in government do more, do it faster, and involve us more please, involve the public more through more direct participatory processes so that people like your constituents in Grimsby can be asked at some point of the process: "What do you actually like about your water bodies and your river and your landscape around you? What would you like to change? What would you be prepared to pay for? What risks are you prepared to accept in the quality of your flood defences? How much do you value your fisheries? Would you like to see them improved?" At the moment there is no process in place at all for going beyond consulting stakeholder organisations such as ourselves (which we value; we value our role in the process and want to do more). The Directive actually calls for the encouragement of active public participation and that means some means of getting down to the people on the street and asking them what they want, what the consumer wants and is prepared to pay for. If government, in the form of DEFRA and the Environment Agency, do not develop simple techniques to ask their customers what they want, they will get badly out of sync with what customers are prepared to do and pay and they will end up like Marks and Spencers.

  137. If customers were asked, for example in Grimsby, what they wanted they would have answered that they did not want this and they certainly did not want to pay for it. If they had been asked that at an early stage it might not have gone ahead.
  (Mr Oates) Exactly.
  (Ms Davis) Can I slightly take issue with the idea that water customers are not prepared to pay for environmental benefits. There was some useful discussion earlier on about the fact that actually water customers—a million of them—are members of the RSPB and are certainly prepared to pay for environmental improvements. There was some discussion about some work that had been done recently looking at how much a water customer was actually prepared to pay and I think the minimum figure was five pounds. Actually, five pounds on everybody's water bill, if they were all prepared to pay that, would pay for a vast amount of environmental improvement. On the whole, when you ask people what they are prepared to pay for in their water bills, actually the environment comes remarkably high up because they do not want to be on filthy beaches and the do not want to see dead fish. At the end of the day, it means something to them that they can send their kids down to potter around on the beach knowing that they are not going to be treading in raw sewage.

  138. But they do want charges which are low enough to stop them being uncompetitive in a market which is getting increasingly competitive. It seems to me that you criticise the government's position, saying it is taking an approach to implementation that is geared more towards minimum compliance than maximum gain, but surely that is a very sensible position to take. Why rush into this? We do not know where it is leading. We do not know what the costs are going to be. Let other people go ahead and make the mistakes and then we can learn the lessons from that.
  (Mr Oates) An example there of minimum compliance is this issue which we have already covered of not offering a pilot river basin. That would not have a large cost attached to it, but it could have very large benefits in allowing us all to test some of the programmes and measures, some of the costs, weigh up the benefits, look at the environmental improvements, look at the bills not only to the water customers who are paying, but other people who are paying: farmers are paying, businesses are paying, local council tax payers are paying. There are many costs involved in the different systems of water management and we need to look at those things much more holistically.

Mr Jack

  139. I was intrigued by Ms Davis' idea that there should be some new body to co-ordinate at river basin level all of the activities to which your previous remarks have referred. I have been having an extensive correspondence with both my county council and DEFRA over the implementation of the north west bio-diversity plan which was launched some three or four years ago. The RSPB were very instrumental in that. It has disappeared down a huge black hole. I am told that it is the county council, the county council tell me it is DEFRA and we go backwards and forwards and nothing happens. Then, flowing into this picture, are estuary plans for the Ribble. I could go on at length about this, but I will not. What daunts me in terms of your desire to set up this supra-organisation is given that what I have just described are very key ingredients to looking at what happens in a river basin, what kind of an organisation is going to burst through the current log jams in the environmental field, pool together all the water users, customers, and provide this supra-body that will achieve what you want. Who is the super person or the super body that is actually going to be able to do this? What does it look like?
  (Ms Davis) A watery superman. I do not think I was actually proposing a single body. I think we do actually have quite a clear idea of what the structure might look like. I will probably refer you to Kirsty at this point because she is a much more obsessive planner than I am so she may be able to give you a better answer to that.
  (Ms Lewin) This kind of river basin management administration does operate overseas. Such a thing is possible. There are some very nice examples in Australia. There are various bodies set up on the Danube in Europe, so it is not something that is impossible to achieve. I think, particularly, in England, we have a very, very complex history of administration so we have all sorts of extraordinary boards—the internal drainage boards that have been operating for hundreds of years—so actually trying to get from these very complex arrangements into something simple is not going to be easy. One opportunity we think that does exist is through Flood Defence Reform that is currently going through DEFRA at the moment. There has been some discussion round regional customer bodies which will replace flood defence committees. What we have been suggesting is that the role of that body could be extended out as part of the Water Framework Directive administration in a couple of pilot river basins, just to try it out. In a sense, you would be setting up some kind of water management board, if you like, that has the power to set strategies for the catchment and has the powers to get funding and would look at biodiversity flooding and water quality issues. But I think it has to be piloted first. We cannot just suddenly re-arrange these things because we are going to have all the same people there who were doing the other things before. It takes quite a long time to change minds and hearts.

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