Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2002
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
areasthey need to be piloted using specific sectors who
will be affected, the public and the water bill payers as we have
just heardand 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
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 workthey
do not have the resourcesand 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,
(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 discussionwhich
mentioned the potential need to restore wetlands and the huge
potential cost of doing thisdid 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
(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.
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
(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 resourceswater abstraction, flood management,
water qualityat 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 domainalthough
DEFRA and the Agency may well be discussing this privatelywhich
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
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
(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 studyor a cost cutting exercisecalled
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.
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
(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 customersa million of themare
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.
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 boardsthe internal drainage boards that have
been operating for hundreds of yearsso 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.