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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. If I may say so, given that our duty as a Committee is to make recommendations and observations, and if you genuinely believe that there is a better way of doing it, it might be useful if you could submit perhaps a paper giving us some indications and examples of this so that when we come to talk to the powers that be we can challenge them about this. Can I just pick you up on one other thing about consultation. There is this latest, second consultation paper which DEFRA has issued—no doubt you will have read it all—which seems to be more concerned on posing questions to other people than it does about presenting some kind of menu to all the potential people who will be involved in this. We have had some discussions over things like GM crops, over the disposal of radio-active material, about consultation, and the hopes of these exercises are heroic in terms of involving the citizen in these matters. Have you actually got any idea how you would set out the kind of consultation that you have described so that water users would actually have, on the one hand what it is like now, what it would be like with the implementation of this and how much it would cost for the following menu of benefits? Is there anything as simple as that that you have looked at and you think could work, and, if so, what would it look like?
  (Ms Lewin) We have just spent the last three years doing a Wise Use of Flood Plains projects; the RSPB was the lead partner with WWF, the Environment Agency and DEFRA sitting on the board. We had catchments across the UK, Ireland and France. This is exactly what we were looking at. Essentially the project was around how you might manage a flood plain more wisely under the auspices of the Water Framework Directive. But what became a very large component of this project was how you involve local people in decision making. What came out of that was that there is no specific technique. You look at your catchment and you look at your problems and the drivers that might be water quality, it might be flooding, and you adapt to the culture of that community, if you like, which is not as difficult as it sounds. We would be very cautious about saying to the Agency "This is how you are going to do consultation right across the UK" because it will not work. People have different drivers and they are interested in different thing. There were a set of principles that came out of that work in terms of how you might do this kind of consultation. I think very importantly is that you have to keep it quite narrow, so if it is about the Water Framework Directive you would tell people that these are the objectives that need to be achieved and this is how we will operate within that and that the decisions are not about having a new Disneyland or a new supermarket; it is how we are going to get from A to B in terms of water quality. That was one of the main principles. Another is not to raise too many expectations. Once you start a consultation process or a participation process you must stick with it; you must come back to people and tell them what happened with their participation, and if you cannot do what they wanted, why is that not possible. We have a lot of information in quite accessible guidance notes that we could give to the Committee if you would like to see that. That was very useful work and that is now feeding into a common implementation strategy guidance note on public participation at the European level.
  (Mr Oates) Can I add that WWF has done some work across other countries of Europe in looking at what mechanisms might be used to involve the public and other ways of implementing a directive. We have a report here of best practice which we developed with the Commission itself which I am happy to leave with the Committee to have a look at if that would be useful.

Mrs Shephard

  141. One of the things that we seem to be describing without actually naming it is the lack of accountability which is built into the whole of this system. In other words, there are a large number of bodies which have some input into the process—both the consultation and delivering improvements—but we do not have any one body—as you pointed out yourselves—who is responsible. You sneer at the internal drainage boards, but they actually do contain people who are elected and have a responsibility and are accountable which, of course, is more than one can say for NGO's, no matter how valuable they may be. Is there any way that you can advise how there should be some accountability in the system? The Environment Agency in a way has accountability because it is at least responsible—one assumes—or has an accountability to government. Government ministers can be questioned about its performance. What advice do you have? It is no good saying that it is difficult to consult people, it is difficult to involve people if there is not one body which can be questioned? What is your view?
  (Ms Lewin) We can share this, I think. With this Wise Use of Flood Plains project we were looking at a catchment in France and there the river basic managers are the mayors, essentially, or the elected representatives.

  142. You are drawing an example, if I may say so, as you also did with your Australian example, from a completely different administrative and political structure. It is no good saying "Let's have a mayor and make him responsible".
  (Ms Lewin) I was not going to say that. What we saw there is that they had many, many problems trying to implement their laws because the democratic process was also driving problems within that. It is not a model I think we should follow at all.

  143. We could not; we do not have mayors.
  (Mr Oates) Can I just point out the second DEFRA consultation document which was published only yesterday, I believe, and I looked at it last night, all one hundred pages and slightly glazed over. One of the things I did pick up was that it does confirm that DEFRA's intention—the government's intention—is to appoint the Environment Agency as the competent authority in England and Wales for implementing the Water Framework Directive. So we know who will be this body that has this super task, who will be charged with trying to pull this all together, involve all the stakeholders, get the right measures in place, make them effective, be accountable afterwards, et cetera. It is a very tall job and we now know it is going to fall on the Environment Agency. So in a couple of weeks' time when you have Baroness Young here she will be the super person that you are looking for, who has to deliver all this. But we would say to the Agency that of course they cannot deliver it all by themselves. To be accountable they must set up local river basic management structures on which stakeholders, customers, people like farmers and fishermen et cetera, are represented and who can question that body; who can hold that body to account for the decisions which it takes and the money which it spends. Therefore, that body must have some kind of legal status; it must not be just an advisory council which meets in another building down the road on a completely different day of the week. It must be an integral part of the legal process so that it can be held accountable for these very important decisions and these very big spends.

  144. So your advice—and this is useful because we can indeed confront Baroness Young with your view—would be that there should be some sort of legal strengthening of the position of the Environment Agency so that it can be held accountable for what goes wrong. Some people here will have had trouble with flooding in the recent past. The most interesting point about this is that nobody is responsible; there is nobody responsible for flooding so that is that. Are we going to be able, when we record your evidence, to be able to say to Baroness Young that we think that the path should be strengthened, that you should be, as it were, politically accountable, that you should enable ministers to stand up and justify their actions and, indeed, that the remit should be strengthened and enlarged to include a number of things which are not included at the moment.
  (Mr Oates) That would be the view of WWF. It must be matched by the Agency being given the resources to do the job. At the moment they have one hand tied behind their back. They do not have enough resources and they do not have all the legal powers they need to address all river basin issues and be able to control them and affect them. They need more power and they need more money.

Mr Borrow

  145. I was going to raise a question about Article 4 of the Directive which I think both of you made comments on. Article 4 places a duty on Member States to prevent the deterioration of the status of surface and groundwaters. I think there is confusion as to when the implementation date is. I think there is an argument that DEFRA are looking to implement in 2012 and other Member States are looking to implement as early as next year. On the face of it, if it is a directive which is geared to preventing things getting worse, then the resource implication should not be a major factor in an implementation date because we are not asking people to spend a lot of money bringing things up to a standard; we are just asking them not to let things get any worse. That brings me back to the question that I was still a bit confused about over the discussion of the last 15 or 20 minutes, which is when the criticism of DEFRA and the Environment Agency about lack of resources is made, is that lack of resources to administer and organise and manage the system rather than lack of resources to actually deal with construction and actual details on the ground in terms of changing the environment? I think my understanding is that a large part of the costs of the policy in general is likely to fall through council tax payers, through water bills, et cetera. Is the main resource problem that you have been touching on one of the need to give capacity to the Environment Agency and DEFRA to manage and organise and administer change and prepare for that. I would like some clarification on that. If that is the case, in terms of Article 4—which is simply saying that things should not get any worse—what difference is it going to make if we do not actually make sure we can monitor and check that that is the case by doing that in 2012 rather than doing it in 2003.
  (Ms Davis) Can I clarify the environmental objectives a little bit. There are two core parts of those environmental objectives in Article 4. One relates to preventing deterioration of the status of waters and the other relates to restoring the status of waters to good (which is not pristine, but good). Therefore there is a component which says that we must not let things get any worse, but there is also a component which sets a standard and which we believe is higher than we currently have. In terms of no deterioration, there is a debate about the point at which that becomes the legal environmental objective of the Directive. I think it is probably useful to refer to some existing case work between the Commission and Ireland at the moment where they are looking at deterioration in the context of the Dangerous Substances Directive. What the interpretation seems to say is that actually any action which could potentially prevent you achieving the environmental objectives of a directive in future is considered to be infraction. Therefore we would think that we were risking infraction proceedings—and we would advise the Committee and potentially DEFRA to have a look at this—by allowing any deterioration of the water environment to take place during the period of transposition right up until 2015. I do not know if that helps, but I think it is an important issue because not getting some legal clarification over that could actually put us at substantial risk. It is probably not true to say that there is no current deterioration in the water environment. For instance, as I pointed out earlier, there are rising phosphorous levels in large parts of the country which would, in my opinion, constitute deterioration of the water environment and therefore would require some immediate action to deal with that. Moving to the second part of your question, the costs of that action—in terms of the actual on the ground work—are probably going to fall in the majority of cases on the farming sector and on the water industry. I think you know that. The administrative costs will largely fall upon the Environment Agency and a range of other competent authorities. When we get to look at costs, perhaps it is useful to break down this issue of lack of resources for the Environment Agency now and to get the implementation right and then to think what the actual delivery costs mean for the two crucial sectors who are really going to be the most influenced by that. Does that help? I hope.

  146. I am clearer than I was before. We are talking about capacity building within public organisations to ensure that they have then got the capacity to administer and monitor and manage. The work is actually done largely by private interests rather than public interests.
  (Mr Oates) And that capacity could pay for itself. WWF has funded a study in the west country which involved giving better advice to farmers about how much chemicals and nutrients—fertilizers—they put on their land and which ultimately gets washed into their river. That work resulted in advice to farmers which reduced the amount of chemicals that went from farmland into their river, reduced the clean-up cost down the river and also saved the farmers on average £2,700 per year. So by increasing the capacity within a government department—in that case DEFRA—to give better agricultural advice to the farmers, it paid for itself further down the supply chain, as it were. At the moment it is difficult to get schemes like that working because of the lack of joined-upness in government. That is why we are calling for these river basin bodies with legal powers to pull these things together and make the different parts of government talk to each other and devise cost-saving schemes.

Mr Todd

  147. You have already referred to the vagueness of the cost element of this and I do not want to explore that again; I think we have thrashed already the fact that it is pretty hard to define how much this is going to cost to do. What I would expect you to have done, though, is to define more clearly the benefits. The advice that we have had is that by defining an outcome—which is to produce fairly near pristine water conditions—does not necessarily indicate precisely what ecology you will achieve as a result of that in terms of the kind of things that people will then be able to see for themselves: birds, fish, et cetera. What steps have you taken so far to define those outcomes in terms that consumers and other interested parties could understand?
  (Ms Davis) If I could take maybe the ecological side of that and I think my colleagues might have something to say about what that means in terms of actually putting a figure on the outcomes. I am not quite sure where you have been getting your advice that suggests that what we are trying to do is restore waters to pristine conditions.

  148. No. Near pristine.
  (Ms Davis) Near pristine, in a way that will not necessarily deliver any ecological outcome. I think it is really important to remember that actually the way you monitor outcomes in the Directive is through their ecology and through nothing else. What you are looking at is biological outcomes. Unlike any other European directives—

  149. But those are not actually defined.
  (Ms Davis) They are beginning to be defined relatively clearly now, I think. For instance, if I can go back to the issue of eutrophication that we were discussing earlier, I am not an ornithologist, I am a botanist, and probably the reason why I get so passionate about phosphorous is because I can see the results of phosphorous pollution on the flora of the UK. If you go and look at the recently published atlas of the UK's plants, you will see that everything which is sensitive to high phosphorous and nitrogen levels is taking a crash and everything which can deal with high phosphorous and nitrogen levels is rising. This is producing a profound change in the flora of the British Isles and is resulting in local extinctions at a really quite alarming scale. I do care passionately about that, that is fair enough, and what I expect to see in terms of the outcomes of the Directive is a stabilisation and then an improvement in the situation of those—at the moment—fairly endangered biota.

  150. Would you feel, then, that it would be wise to quantify those likely outcomes? At the moment, as I said, the goal is set in terms of the water quality, not in terms of the ecological outcomes that may occur as a result of those water quality changes. Is that not so?
  (Ms Davis) That has been the case in the past and profoundly the reason why we care about the Water Framework Directive so much is because it will not be the case in the future. This is the single piece of European legislation that deals with water which focusses on outcomes rather than focussing on a set of potentially relatively arbitrary targets which might relate to the per centage above background levels or whatever. That is not what we are looking for. What we are looking for is a water quality which will support a functioning ecosystem. But I do think you are right, that it is very difficult at the moment to be able to talk about that in terms which make sense to somebody standing and looking at their river and looking at their pond. That means enough to us. Internally, within the RSPB, we are taking some steps now to try to describe what good status might look like, and describe it in a way which means something to our members. We are saying that good status means a river which does not have such high levels of nutrients that you get persistent algal blooms and where you can see clear water, fish, plants, the kind of things that actually make sense to people. On the whole, my conviction is that when you describe those things people are prepared to make a huge effort and put their hands in their pockets to pay for it.

  151. But the advice we have had so far is that much of river ecology can be quite robust. Indeed, you referred to some species which coped—if you like—with increased levels of phosphorous and nitrogen, even in quite extreme quantities. What we need, I think—and you are suggesting this is so—is something which says, "But we can see beyond this" in quantifiable terms so that people can say, "We are going to see this kind of species which we do not currently see; we are going to see rather less of this than we do". Would it not be helpful to define that?
  (Ms Davis) Yes. I do think it is really important to be able to describe a picture of what it is we are actually trying to achieve.

  152. And I would have thought that is definitely an NGO role.
  (Ms Davis) That is precisely why we are engaged in trying to do that at the moment, to draw a picture of good status, to have a vision for it, to say that this is pretty much what we think our membership and the public in the UK might want to go for. I do have to keep pulling you back in a way when you have been advised that river ecosystems and lake ecosystems are rather robust. I cannot give you a huge description of those declines in British plants and insects that I was talking about; it is not an appropriate place to do that. What I can do, for instance, is give you a report that was produced last year demonstrating precisely the fragility of our aquatic flora in the face of the kinds of pressures that we are currently putting on it. You were talking about sound science; sound science is only the science that resonates with your own particular prejudices on the whole and I think it would maybe be useful for us to give you some balancing information about it.

  153. You rightly referred—I am not sure if it was you, but the group of you—to the fact that there has been quite a lot of publicity about the apparent water quality we have now and the ecological outcome of that, which is that you can see fish of certain kinds all over the place where you previously did not see them. What is required is a qualitative definition of the change that is expected, because people would say, "Well, we see fish in water now". There may be rather different varieties that we expect with the changes you are talking about.
  (Ms Davis) Absolutely so.

  154. Right. The other outcome you have touched on is potentially on flood plain management and possibly flood protection. The impression that we have had is that a significant part of flood protection will not really be touched by this Directive and that is land use planning and how we decide what can or cannot be constructed within the flood plain. Is that your perception, too?
  (Ms Lewin) I think that as we speak minds are changing on this within DEFRA and there has been quite a lot of controversy because flood mitigation is mentioned right up in Article 1 of the Directive but it is never mentioned anywhere else. There has been a lot of discussion about whether flooding should or should not come within the auspices of the Directive. Our feeling from the very beginning was that it should because it is part of the water cycle; flooding has a direct impact on water quality as described by the Water Framework Directive, and to try to manage water as a holistic whole without considering flooding is insane, dangerous and inefficient. There had been some problems within DEFRA in terms of the flood management division and the water quality division keeping the Directive separate from flooding, but yesterday there was an extremely positive meeting in terms of discussion around what we call wetwashland creation; storage areas on flood plains close to rivers that deliver both some flood storage and biodiversity, specifically birds in our cases, and contribute to this good status as we have been talking about before. So the links are very clearly there. The tricky bit is about how we bring our flood policy together with the Water Framework Directive. As I am sure you are aware, flood policy is extraordinarily complex, extraordinarily so. One of the issues around the Wise Use of Flood Plains Project is going to be to decipher those flood policies to reduce risks to householders and to have a more sustainable approach.

  155. Turning to a different kind of benefit that might be perceived by consumers, lower flood risk is definitely in that category. And if we are looking for something to touch a button with a significant number of consumers in my area, for example, that would be one. If you could demonstrate some ways in which this Directive would be implemented would benefit them in terms of lower risks of their homes being inundated, then I think they would be very prepared to listen.
  (Ms Lewin) The Scottish Parliament have recently had their inquiry—the Transport and Environment Committee have held an inquiry—into the Water Environment and Water Services Bill (Scotland) which will transpose the Water Framework Directive and they talked quite a lot about flooding. Their final report has come out over the last couple of weeks. In the report the committee have said that one of the most obvious ways in which it would be possible to judge whether the Water Framework Directive has made a difference to their livelihoods is directly in relation to Scotland's ability to take preventative measures to reduce the incidents of flooding. So there is a very clear link their in the committee's minds and we were really, really pleased to see that.

Paddy Tipping

  156. We have talked throughout the morning about the importance of agriculture on the water courses. It does seem to be the case that it may be necessary to change the CAP. This is very topical. How far do you think the Directive itself is a driver for change within the CAP?
  (Ms Davis) In the context of the Commission it rather depends on who you talk to.

  157. Who have you been talking to? Who have you been arguing with?
  (Ms Davis) Pretty much everybody. I think there is a perception that it is possible that the Water Framework Directive will be the tug that turns round the super tanker of the CAP. In my more optimistic moments I would like to believe that that would be the case. But we have had an awful lot of other environmental objectives over a long period of time which have not necessarily resulted in that. However, I do think there is an acceptance—certainly on a European level—that without change in agriculture and the structure of agricultural support collectively we will not achieve the environmental objectives of the Directive. You have got two pieces of European policy and legislation in a direct head-on collision course. What the outcome will be is anybody's guess I think at the moment.

  158. Clearly one would try and encourage good agricultural practice, however that is defined. Good agricultural practice will change in different regions.
  (Ms Davis) Yes.

  159. Have you got a vision of how things are going to change?
  (Ms Davis) I think it is really interesting when we talk about agriculture. Listening to the debates last week and a little bit this morning, I think it is important to try to distinguish those things which we can do in terms of agricultural reform which are low-cost or no-cost. Robert was talking about the potential savings which farmers can actually make from putting in place a whole range of relatively simple options. But at the same time we also need to be aware of the fact that there are certain intractable problems in the agricultural system at the moment which will need us to go beyond those low-cost no-cost options, and particularly in the dairy sector I think there will be an acceptance that actually if we are going to continue the stocking levels which are necessary even for dairy farmers to keep their heads above water given the current economic structures, either that is going to result in huge transport costs, shipping manure round the country, eventually creating a kind of manure mountain (I was going to use a slightly coarser word, but I will not) which who knows what we are going to do with. Or we are going to find ourselves in a situation where farmers are going out of business. I think it is a very important message that the dairy sector may be the single most significant one in terms of trying to deliver the sorts of improvements we need in the context of the Directive, and yet it is the most intractable and the proposals at a European level for reform of the dairy sector—as I understand it—are kind of put off quite far down the line. In the short term that may mean that what we have to do is think really clearly about whether we need some kind of agro-environment measure—a higher tier of agro-environment measure—which is going to help dairy farmers out of that problem because we have to be realistic about the fact that we have created a situation now where a certain part of our agricultural sector—through no fault of its own—is incapable of meeting the environmental standards which we all expect of it.

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