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16 Mar 2004 : Column 31WHcontinued
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I like to think ahead and plan what I am going to say in my speeches, and today I thought that I would start by saying that the title of today's debate is dull and uninformative. I look around at the empty seats and I see that that is all too true. How prescient I was. The words "water framework directive conceal legislation, admittedly secondary legislation, that is both highly complex and hugely significant for the environment. It is therefore important that the subject reaches a wider audience, and this debate is my contribution to getting the message across to the wider world.
In a sense, I do not need to apologise for the subject being dull, because that is a problem for the Minister for the Environment, who will want to take people along with him. Eventually the legislation will have enormous effects. It will touch the livelihoods of many and the lives of everyone in this country. When people wake up to find the great influence that the legislation has on them they will want to know why they were not involved. It is a few years before it takes full effect, but I want the Minister to be able to tell those people that they had every opportunity to contribute to the debate and to make their voices heard in the decision making, and that it is their fault, not the Government's, that they did not.
I know that the Minister has worked hard with the devolved Administrations because some of the responsibility for implementing the directive lies with devolved authorities. River networks tend not to respect borders. One set of regulations deals with Northumberland jointly with the Scottish Parliament, precisely because the network crosses from one jurisdiction to another. It is particularly important to liaise with the devolved Administrations because there are joint responsibilities on the ground.
Water is in the title of the directive, but the framework will have much wider impacts than just on water. I want to start by dealing with the issue of water alone. Heaven knows, it is vital enough. I was struck by the newspaper reports of the Pentagon's assessment of the threats faced by the United States. While threats of terrorism remain and in the US they still talk of rogue states that they must regard as enemies, it was striking how one of the Pentagon's top worries is future conflicts over scarce water resources around the world. If wars are to be fought over water, clearly it is time to think ahead and carry out the work that will prevent such conflicts.
I hope that countries such as ours in the developed world can help developing countries to manage their future water supplies. This is why the framework is so important. When we start to help others, when we start to advise them and to lecture them about how to manage their water sustainably, it behoves us to get our own house in order first. This is where the directive is so significant. We want to be able to tell the rest of the world that here in Europe we have done everything possible to manage our water suppliers responsibly, sustainably and in line with good environmental practice, and to urge them to do the same. I want us to be able to lead by example and speak with authority when we do that work overseas.
The water framework directive requires all European member states to draw up plans to protect and enhance the quality of rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwaters, and by 2015 to have in place river basin management plans that will be reviewed every six years thereafter. It is an enormously complex task. It is very challenging, even with a timetable that seems so lengthy. There is plenty to be done. The Government have already been criticised for not doing enough fast enough, and I shall come to that.
I want, however, to start in my usual reasonable, good-natured way by giving the Minister credit for the things that the United Kingdom has done well. Drinking water quality in England and Wales is something of which we can be genuinely proud. In 2002, there was 99.87 per cent. compliance with quality standards. It is pretty difficult to get better than that, although that statistic hides the fact that there has been a considerable improvement during the past seven years. Since 1997, leakages from the water pipe network have been reduced by 20 per cent.
Our beaches, rivers and drinking water are the cleanest that they have been for a centurya pretty creditable record. Last year, a record 332 UK beaches won seaside awards from clean-up campaigners. The same year, 105 UK beaches were awarded the prestigious blue flag, compared with just 17 in 1992. Some 94 per cent. of UK river networks are of good or fair biological and chemical qualityan all-time high. However, that statistic hides another from English Nature, which says that less than one third of rivers in sites of special scientific interest are of a satisfactory standard.
While I am in the mood for giving the Minister credit for the good things, let me also mention the Water Act 2003, which is to be warmly welcomed. We now have in place a system for the comprehensive management of future water abstractions. Abstractors have a duty to use water efficiently, public bodies must make water conservation an aim of their operations and the Consumer Council for Water has a sustainability duty. Those are all good achievements on the part of the Government.
I congratulate the Government on one more thingtheir principal guidance to the water regular Ofwat. There was speculation in the newspapers a couple of weeks ago that No. 10 had spiked DEFRA's guns and was going to insist on lowering environmental standards in the next round of water charging to keep consumers' bills at reasonable levels. In the end, however, last week's guidance made it clear that the Government have taken a sensible approach that balances further environmental improvements against reasonable price controls between 2005 and 2010.
The current price review, or asset management plan 4, highlights an issue that often arises when I talk to people about the water framework directivethe relationship between the directive's requirements and everything else that we do as regards our water environment. How does the framework legislation relate to the periodic review of water price limits, the "polluter pays principle, land use planning, flood management, economic and social regeneration, biodiversity issues, fisheries and marine conservation, health and amenities? Those are enormously important issues, but we do not always see
Some say that the Government's approach is unambitious and that they are technically and narrowly implementing the directive at the last minute. The subject is so important and so exciting, and it has so great an influence on so many areas of life, that the Government would be missing a trick if they did not do something far more ambitious. It is as though they were a painter who had been presented with a great canvas, a superb subject and a vast array of colours, but who chose to do a little drawing in one colour at the corner of the canvas. It is important that we inject into people the feeling that this is an opportunity that no one should miss. I say to the Minister: let us be bold, let us have a vivid, unforgettable masterpiece as a result of his work at the canvas.
When it comes to the progress that we have made, the original directive gave us until the end of last year to transpose its provisions into domestic legislation. I am not sure whether the Minister will say that he just made it or that he just missed it, because the regulations were laid before the House in December 2003 and came into force at the beginning of 2004, but in fairness to him, several member states have not yet managed to achieve that, so we are ahead of some members of the European Union.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee considered the framework, and wrote an excellent report. The Committee criticised the Government, saying that they did not seem seized of the urgency of the task; and it called on them to adopt a more positive and more active approach. Among those wanting to urge their views upon me for today's debate was Water UK, which still has a list of concerns on matters that it says are not clear enough.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for missing the first couple minutes of my hon. Friend's speech. I am a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, so I bear some responsibility for that report. We said that the Government had an awful lot to do, but that we would need to see how resources were to be locked in or it would be a bit of a wish list. We were apprised of how serious an issue it was, which is why we linked it in with the Water Act. We wanted cause and effect to be locked into one. Would my hon. Friend like to comment on that?
Mr. Kidney : Frankly, that clarification is all of a piece with people saying, "Let's be ambitious in how we implement this. Let's make sure that we have firm links to other issues that we think important, such as biodiversity, the management of wetlands and flood prevention. Let us build those things in and plan it from the beginning, so that we get there in the end rather than leave things to the last minute in a rush to be compliant with the directive timetable. That will lead to greater cost rather than less. Being able to plan ahead should enable us to gain the maximum benefits, but without the costs that might come with slow, tardy implementation.
I turn to the question of linkages and inter-relationships. Diffuse pollution gives a good illustration of the scale and difficulty of trying to make decisions that please everyone. Many respondents to previous consultations said that such pollution was a matter of concern and demanded to know the Government's answer. In a debate pack prepared by the House of Commons Librarythey are marvellous documentsI saw that a Plymouth newspaper had quoted a DEFRA spokesperson as saying last December that the Department intended to consult on diffuse pollution and its effect on agriculture by the end of March 2004. I have not seen that consultation yet, and it is already the middle of the month. Where is it?
Farmers are sensitive about the subject, although I hasten to stress that there are many sources of diffuse pollution. Indeed, some sources are urban. The National Farmers Union branch in Stafford urged that point on me this morning. It is ironic that 42 members of that branch had arranged many months ago to visit Parliament today; they urged me to pass the message on to the Minister that an awful lot of diffuse pollution does not come from farms.
At one end of the range of options for dealing with the subject is fresh regulation. However, the burden of complying would be borne by the so-called polluters, including farmers; it has been estimated that it could cost as much as £400 million. That might stamp out the problem, but the cost would be so high as to drive many farmers and others out of business. I hope that the Minister would find that outcome unacceptable. At the other end of the scale is the light-touch approach, seeking voluntary co-operation with those responsible for the pollution, but ending up with no or little improvement. I hope that the Minister would rule out that outcome.
What choice does the Minister have between those two extremes? What resources does he have at his disposal to help make his approach work? We have just been through a round of common agricultural policy reform and declared how we will apply single payments and insist on cross-compliance in this country. Are resources available through that policy that could be used to address diffuse pollution? That would be a good example of the inter-relationship between two different subjects. If that funding is all accounted for, where will we find the money for incentives for farmers to co-operate? We also need to consider the "polluter pays penalties for those who do not co-operate. Would there be pressure for further CAP reform in the European Union's common implementation policy for the directive, which would come in time to provide public funding for the incentives that I mentioned for people such as farmers?
Tackling pollution brings not only environmental and social benefits, but economic ones. The water companies spend £120 million a year removing pesticides from water courses. By acting firmly, decisively and in good time, we can save money for the future.
We can achieve those objectives if we want to. The Government have the right words. To those who have not seen it, I commend the document "Directing the Flow, published in November 2002. Pages 28 and 29 discuss the directive, and it is a superb statement of the Government's approach. The Government's response to the Select Committee report was also thorough. Those are good signs, but some explicit links are missing that we might have expected to see. The Water Act has been passed and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is about to become law, but we did not do what was necessary about flood management and land use planning when we had the opportunity. Worries are still being expressed by people about the future tackling of diffuse pollution and the treatment of wetlands. I noticed that the second newsletter from the European Union directors of the water framework directive states that they have issued new guidance on wetlands. What does the Minister think of that guidance? However, there are challenging targets. There were challenging targets last year to get the law in place, and there are challenging targets this yearfor example, for the Environment Agency to consult on its draft strategy for drawing up river basin management plans, and how to include public participation.
I am excited by this subject, and there are prospects that should excite us. There is potential to enhance all three legs of sustainable development. Environmentally, we can have cleaner, more adequate water supplies, improved biodiversity and better protection for sites of special scientific interest, wetlands and local wildlife sites. Economically, we can have lower clean-up costs in future, improved tourism and leisure opportunities and regeneration opportunities along the way. Socially, we can challenge the problem of flood management and stop it at source in river areas before it reaches urban developments downstream. We can have greater access to the countryside and healthier living standards as people use the opportunity to take exercise as well as eat healthily. Rural businesses such as farming can carry out their work in a more socially responsible way.
There are good prospects under this directive and the relevant legislation for us all to achieve some good objectives. They must be achieved with the active involvement of all the relevant stakeholders, not favouring businesses over environmental groups, nor vice versa. They will be led by the Environment Agency as the Government's champion on the subject, although people have questioned whether the Environment Agency has sufficient skills and resources to do its work properly, and those are points for the Minister to bear in mind.
I hope that the Minister agrees that education will be key. DEFRA is working on a communications strategy as one element that will ensure success in the future. Other elements involve Parliament. I admit that today is a bad example, as not many hon. Members have turned up for the debate, but there is interest in the issue, and we should ensure that people understand how important it is. I should like regular reports to be made
Will DEFRA have a champion of its own? I am sure that the Minister is a fine champion of his Department on many subjects, and does not have as much time to devote to this matter as the stakeholdersthe public and Members of Parliamentmight want. Will he consider whether someone could be the focus of contact with the public and the production of the news as it comes in, and involve people in future debates and discussions? We should keep working with stakeholders, and should not believe that three consultations were good enough simply because the legislation was passed. There must be many more consultations like those. I have not checked the full list of who has been consulted. Does it include local government planners and the regional development agencies, which are so important to the regeneration of the areas that are affected? I know that a pilot is being run in the Ribble basin. Perhaps regular news, updates on progress and any findings that are emerging would be helpful to Members of Parliament and to others with an interest in this subject. Surely that pilot would make a good case study?
Mr. Drew : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the more interesting aspects of the water framework directive is not only its impact in this country and in Europe, but the ideas that it may produce for the wider world? I am very interested in recent discussions on the Nile basin. Several of our water companies have visited the region to advise countries that lie alongside the Nile. Surely the directive should stimulate such activities, because the whole world has to be careful about the use of water, not just the western world?
Mr. Kidney : My hon. Friend confessed that he had missed the beginning of my great speech today. He sat down behind me, so I do not know precisely when he came into the Room, and he may have missed the significant point that I made at the beginning of my speech about how important it is to be able to speak with authority and lead the world by example when we ask others to do in their countries what we have shown that we can do at home. My hon. Friend makes a very good point, because it agrees with the point that I made earlier.
At the beginning, I said that the title of the debate masked something of great significance. I am sure that many will find the regulations and the regulatory impact assessment dry and lifeless, but so much good can come from a positive approach that the Minister has the power to see to it that the words jump off the page and splash some colour into all our lives. I was trying to think of suitable alliterations to liven up this part of my speech. Let us see more babbling brooks, sweet springs and rippling rivers. These are things that the Minister has it in his power to achieve. Few issues are more important to our communities, our country and our world than water management. I hope that the debate, sluggish though it was at the beginning, will start a sustained and serious campaign of support for what our country and all the countries of the EU seek to achieve.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on introducing this very important debate. I also congratulate the Minister, even before I say a word about what he has achieved, precisely because he has achieved so much. He has fought and won a notable battle with the forces of No. 10 and Ofwat in ameliorating the decisions that have been taken about the future care of this country's water resources. The water framework directive preamble says:
I do not always go overboard in my support for European directives, but on the present occasion I want literally to go overboard and splash in the shallows of the Hampshire Avon. Every weekend, in Salisbury, I look over the parapet of the Ayleswade bridge, which was built in 1247, and consider the depth and quality of the water; I observe the bottom and whether the river appears healthy. I reflect on what we are doing to that river.
I have known the river since I was a child. I paddled in it when I was two years old. I fell into it when I was four years old, and was rescued by the Bishop of Bombay. I have rowed on it and watched birds and flowers there. I am a keen supporter of the water meadows trust. As the Member of Parliament for what is a wonderful constituency, that river means a lot to me.
It is a short step from the general words of my preamble to the principle that the price of water must reflect the full cost of protecting water heritage. That is the issue that I want to discuss. The cost must reflect the full cost of finding alternatives to damaging abstractions and pollution. The long campaigning20 years, in my caseto protect the quality of the Hampshire Avon from abstraction and effluents is a vivid illustration of what the water framework directive is about.
Thus the directive is about protecting water qualitatively and quantitatively, and therefore its objectives overlap with the ecological objectives of the habitats directive. That is what is at stake in the argument that has been raging for years in my constituency about abstraction by Wessex Watera fine company with lots of dedicated personnel who are in constant conflict with Ofwat about their investment plans. In the middle is the Minister.
The price review process gives far too much influence to Ofwat. Back in 1999, Ofwat succeeded in reducing prices substantially by eliminating many environmental programmes in the Wessex Water area, such as the Blashford lakes programme. That was an irony, since I recall an occasion when I had to stand in unexpectedly for the then Secretary of State for the Environment, who had just been sacked, the day before he was due to open the new Blashford lakes complex. I was sent there instead, as a Parliamentary Private Secretary. I still have
This year Ofwat wanted to cut another £5 billion from the programme and it was only a courageous fight by the Minister that prevented that. The River Wylye in my constituency has been a particular victim of what I am describing. The structure of the price review programme should be reviewed in the light of the water framework directive and the habitats directive, to ensure that it gives sufficient weight to environmental protection.
Locally, Wessex Water's draft plan for 2005 to 2010 included virtually no investment in reducing abstraction or removing phosphates from sewage treatment works. There was an allocation of £8 million, compared with a £90 million minimum request from the Environment Agency and English Nature. I understand that after a lot of pressure, Wessex Water has verbally agreed to put £10 or £12 million in its final plan, to cover investigating an alternative to the 1 billion litres a month taken from the little chalk stream of the upper Wylye and exported to Somerset. It is madness. We have massive leakage in the area, yet we are abstracting the headwaters of one of our most precious river systems to fulfil the needs of quite another part of England. The earliest that even the present scheme could have any effect on the river flows would be about 2014 or 2015. That assumes agreement by Ofwat to let Wessex Water finance it in the 2005 price review period.
There is no funding for a solution such as an agreed building programme in a Wessex Water plan, because Ofwat forced the so-called statement of intent on the Environment Agency and English Nature. The statement of intent must be reviewed every year. January is usually the month, so I expect the review to be published shortly. The plan said that Chitterne abstraction would be used as a last resort. As so many of us predicted, however, there was a failure to protect the Wylye. The abstraction at Chitterne for five months was five times the target level. The flow in the River Wylye dropped to 40 per cent. of the average. The agreement nevertheless has to run until 2007, and allows Ofwat to delay the programme and the price increases to find a solution to the low flow problem for another five years.
In spite of all that, Wessex Water last yearlast summer was quite warm and dry, as I am sure hon. Members recallfailed to apply for a drought order or introduce any restrictions on supply. Of course, the issue of prices lies behind all that. In retrospect, the policy of 2000 to reduce prices by 12 per cent. was idiotic. Wessex Water bills went down by 5 per cent. in real terms in the period 2000 to 2005. Even from that artificially low base, however, prices in Wessex Water's plan increased by only 12 per cent. for 2005 to 2010, compared with 31 per cent. nationally.
The key issues on which we are fighting locally are to ensure that the £12 million really is there to investigate alternatives to the Wylye abstraction and to ensure that the investigations result in a project agreed by all the parties to eliminate abstraction from the Wylye. Eliminating the abstraction must be the answer. We must also ensure that the full Environment Agency and
The argument has been going on since 1990, when the Wiltshire fisheries association starting fighting its corner, although I started fighting back in 1983. We shall not get an answer until 2014 at the earliest. It is not acceptable that we have had to wait for a quarter of a century to remedy serious environmental damage to a special area of conservation site, which is supposedly the most important designation.
It is a lose-lose for all concerned. The environment will lose and there will not even be any long-term benefit for consumers, because the other problems will become greater if, for instance, phosphorous and other chemicals are not tackled.
having been recorded. There were populations of Atlantic salmon, bullhead, brook and sea lamprey, as well as flowing water vegetation, including water crowfoot. The river and adjoining areas also provided a habitat for populations of Desmoulins whorl snail, with which I am sure we all familiar.
The key issue was that the discharge of substances, including hormone-disrupting substances, mostly as a result of the pill, discharged from sewage treatment works was affecting much of the sensitive environment. Discharges of phosphorous chemicalsdetergents, in other wordsfrom point sources were being reduced, but there was a long way to go. This country must decide what it wants to do. Are we going to go down the route of cheap water for everybody, with no regard for leakage or the consequences for the environment? The leakage levels are still enormous. Paragraph 6.7 of Wessex Water's first annual report to the Minister on progress, published in January 2003, says:
Who says that that is an economic level? What sort of economics of the madhouse is it that assumes that it is all right to lose 75 million litres a day, at the same time as 1 billion litres are being taken out of the headwaters of a sensitive chalk stream on Salisbury plain? It does not add up.
The Minister will be familiar with me banging on about this, but I am convinced that the answer must be water metering. There is no way that people will realise how much water they are wasting unless they can see a little dial going round that tells them, before a bill flops on the doormat to remind them every now and then. There are plenty of ways in which we can reduce water consumptionbut we are not. Planning authorities are nearly always reluctant to go for grey water schemes and to operate sustainable urban drainage systems in their areas. Planners are put under huge pressure to build more and more housing, as is Salisbury district council. Water companies are not statutory consultees. The whole thing is completely mad.
All power to the Minister if he can persuade No. 10 to take a more enlightened view. Will he please get Ofwat and Water Voice under control, and talk to them about the consequences of their fighting for the consumer? In the long run, apart from the fact that we shall all be dead, we shall not have any decent rivers in this country. I hope that in my few minutes, I have been able to instil some passion into the debate, which was so ably introduced by the hon. Member for Stafford. I am grateful to him, and wish that we could convince our constituents of the importance of the work going on in this area. It is not just about people flopping around looking for things with long Latin names, but about one of the most precious parts of the heritage of this country. If we do not take care of it, we shall lose it.
Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing the debate and introducing it in the way that he did. He painted a picturea glowing canvasand rightly identified lots of areas that are beginning to shine out here and there as little corners of hope. We must integrate the whole picture: when we talk about waste management, we usually grumble about having a jigsaw with no picture and only some of the pieces. Here, too, there is a vision for the future, and we must find out how to fill it in and move forward.
The subject of this debate should not be as dull as ditchwater. The directive should not be portrayed in that way, because it is one of the most exciting environmental measures that we in Parliament shall see. It sets the scene not only for this country but across Europe, and goes a long way to recognising the stress that our environment is under. It will start to put right some problems and set the scene for the future, where the climate is changing and rainfall is different, andas the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) saidour growing population is making huge demands on water usage within a very small island. It is a matter of urgency, although I accept that we cannot implement it instantly. There must be a lot of careful planning to ensure the outcomes that will deliver the directive's huge benefits.
It was most interesting yesterday to see Folkestone and Dover Water Services Ltd. proposing metered water supply, recognising that we cannot continue to take water without understanding the impact of that. We are looking at the benefits of the water framework directive, which will require rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters to achieve good ecological status by 2015. It is interesting that that is the date when
I share the views of the hon. Gentleman that we must do much more to manage leakage and water usage, and to recognise their huge threat to the environment. As we always say, our countryside needs to be there not only for our use, but for our children and their children. The work we do now will preserve the heritage for them, start to reverse some of the damage that we and our forebears have done, and start to bring in improvements. That will not be simple, because there is huge pressure on the countryside. We talk about the uses that we make of the countrysidewhether we are concerned not to build on it, or whether we want it for leisure access, such as water sports. Those uses have an impact on the countryside, and we must ensure that people get the benefit of the countryside, while understanding that we need to preserve it and that we cannot take a chance on biodiversity.
I had the pleasure of going out with English Nature to look at a site in my constituencyit was almost literally in my backyard, because my home is in the River Wey basin. It was an eye-opener for me to see the diversity of the species on that site, which is being managed to preserve different areas and species such as kingfishers and other birdlife, and deer. It was interesting to see all the different aspects by which we measure the quality of the environment.
There is much work to do. We need to put programmes and measures in place by 2012, and the mechanism for delivery is the river basin management plans. As we have heard, the Government brought the regulations for the transposition of the directive before a Delegated Legislation Committee very late and, as a result, we had little time to debate that important measure. We have concerns about integration of the programme. There are good intentions, but there must also be the means for delivering the environmental improvements that the directive is intended to bring about. We have concerns about the Government's interpretation of the directive and their approach to its implementation. We want to know that the Environment Agency will have the support that it needs to implement the directive, because implementation will not happen without that support. We fear that the Government may take a timidly minimal approach to the directive, both in relation to the environmental improvements and to the public participation that is needed. There must be more flesh on the bones.
The bulk of the duties of regulation are to be carried out by the Environment Agency, and the Minister stated in a Standing Committee that the agency is satisfied with the outcome of its negotiation for the funding settlement. However, he continued:
Mr. Kidney : I have every confidence that the Environment Agency does its job well. The resources that it requires are not just financial; what matters is the skills set and the suite of powers and carrots and sticks that it has to do the job. We need to hear details of those from the Minister.
Having said that, I reinforce my praise for last week's announcement. Liberal Democrats will always support the Government when they take a strong line on the environment. We heard about several schemes, and the plan to reduce the input of the nutrient phosphorus, which can upset the ecological balance of rivers, into the River Axe in Devon by removing phosphate at local sewage treatment works is just one example of the good work that can be done to bring about a benefit.
However, the Environment Agency wanted the Government to go further, and I should like to know about future plans because we must recognise and protect our heritage. We must consider the problems of diffuse pollutionthe nitrates and pesticides that wash into the rivers through farmlands. We sit on committees and it is our responsibility to keep in touch with farmers, so that we all know about the huge problems that they face and the demands that we are putting on them to change how they work through reform of the common agricultural policy and changes to the rural environment. However, we have to find a way for farmers to reduce nitrate use while passing the cost to others so that they can stay in business as conservers of the countryside as well as producers of excellent food and rural products.
We have some concerns about public participation. If we are saying to people that, because of the environment, they cannot do this, cannot build here or must look after that, and that they will have to pay the price in their water bill, we must negotiate with them and explain why we are saying that. Such a dialogue is missing, and consultation is not always the same as involvement. Regulation 12 of the Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) (England and Wales) Regulations 2003 deals with consultation, but we need to know how it will take place. How do the Government envisage the process developing when we want to spend money? How will we have that conversation? I do not want to use the phrase "big conversation because I feel a little scarred following the recent public debate on genetically modified crops and the subsequent announcement.
We need to ensure that the public can do more. We should be able to tell them our environmental objectives and ask them how they would prioritise and fund them. Could we put out information with water bills to tell the
The same is true with the NFU, as we are asking the farmers to make changes. I have mentioned the costs, but most farmers want to look after the countryside and do the right thing. Consultation should be a two-way process, so that farmers can explain the implications of what we are asking of them and make their own suggestions about how changes can be delivered. We have a problem with regulation 12, as it does not seem to provide a way for farmers to appeal, perhaps in challenging a river basin management plan. The current requirement is only that the Environment Agency should take representations into account. We need a fairer deal with farmers, so that their voice is properly heard. They need to know, point by point, what the problems are.
There were earlier discussions about accountability to Members of Parliament, and some good suggestions were made. I listened to the hon. Member for Salisbury, who has taken time to look at how the plans affect his constituency. We need to do that so that we understand not only the problem as a whole but how it affects our different regions and river basin management plans. We must listen and talk to our constituents, so that we can bring their views into the debate.
In considering how the directive will be implemented, we have one query about bodies of water. The Environment Agency will be responsible for identifying bodies of water with areas of 50 hectares and over, thus excluding all but 12 per cent. of lakes. We cannot include all the smaller bodies of water, but could we do a representative sample of some of them, as with the pilot in the Ribble valley, so that we get a better understanding of the interrelationship of ponds? I learned yesterday from one of the scientists at the marvellous exhibition in the Terrace marquee that there is a huge interrelationship between small lakes and ponds. There is a large regional diversity in the ecology of ponds, almost more than in large lakes and rivers. Pockets of rare species are found in small areas, which is why small water areas are so important. Networkswhether ponds, streams or marshesmust have proximity if they are related ecologies. It would be interesting to see whether we can investigate that further.
We also need to consider further integrating what we are already doing. We need to integrate the water framework directive with the Government's existing commitments to conserve biodiversity through the UK biodiversity action plan. Wetland biodiversity is under pressure. We need that integration, so that we are not picking off one opportunity at a time. We need to do much more. If the biodiversity action plans were to go into the river basin management plans, it would take us a long way forward and give us a much stronger information base.
I know that other Members will have quite a bit to say on this subject, and I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say. I am especially looking forward to hearing his response to several integration points, and to
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing the debate. I regret, on his behalf, that it has not been better attended, although the quality of the contributions more than compensates for that. It has been a stimulating debate, of which the image that I shall take away will be that of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) making a passionate speech in which he told us about paddling in the Avon waters as a youth. I shall remember that fondly.
I should like to impress upon the Minister that things have moved on a little since we last met, when the Opposition prayed against the implementation of certain regulations. I want to tell him how I started off as an early eco-warrior. Hon. Members may have heard a recent Saturday morning Radio 4 programme about green pioneers in a part of the country that I have kept fairly secret until nowalthough, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said, we know that whatever we say in the confines of Westminster Hall will go no furtherwhere I was brought up in the north of England. On one side of the River Tees, there is County Durham and on the other side is North Yorkshire, which is not far from my present stomping ground.
There was a proposal to strip some water from the River Tees and carry it across to industry in Teesside, making what is now Cow Green reservoir. The reason why I was so interested in that, my first environmental issue, was because it would flood an area that had the only known blue gentians outside the alpine countries of Austria and Switzerland. In spite of huge local opposition, the project went ahead to no purpose whatever. By the time that it was finished and Cow Green reservoir was completed, the industry had secured its water supply from another source, and the project had flooded an area of outstanding natural beauty. Of course, it proved impossible to grow blue gentians outside that area in the north of England, so we no longer have fields of blue gentians. That was the start of my eco-warrior campaigning and the setting of our blue-green agenda several years ago. I was delighted that BBC Radio 4 paid tribute to those early green pioneers in that regard.
When we prayed against regulations made under the directive, the Minister asked how the Government could be both early and late in the transposition process. As I was not allowed to answer back on that occasion, may I say that, as the hon. Member for Stafford has suggested, one can be both early and late? One might be one of the first European Union countries to transpose the directive, but the Minister almost missed the deadline. The Minister could be said to have been both early and late on that occasion.
in the way that the regulations are transposed and applied in this country. Precisely how does that proportionality apply, in the Minister's view, to the massive costs that will be inflicted on the farming community through the process, as a number of us have already claimed? Indeed, the Select Committee also argued that point.
The hon. Member for Stafford, in opening the debate, referred to my second point. There is scope for more joined-up government, particularly in land use and land-use planning. I want to place on record my gratitudeI think that the Minister knows of thisfor the discussions that I have had with the Environment Agency office in York. Its headquarters are in Clifton moor, but it covers the whole of the region of Yorkshire and the Humber right up to the Scottish border.
I make an urgent plea to the Minister to use the moneysthe rural development moneys in particularthat will become available through reform of the CAP for imaginative flood defence schemes. If he has difficulty thinking of any, perhaps I could have a quiet word with him after the debate this afternoon, as we have identified one in our area. The Ings at Milby island in Boroughbridge are currently flooded because of the lack of compensation. If we can use those funds in an imaginative way to compensate the farmers for the good that they are doing for the rest of the community by shoring up and repairing flood defences, that would be most welcome.
We established the costs when we prayed against the regulations made under the directive. The costs to farm businesses alone are estimated at between £500 million and £3 billion. I have also seen a figure that suggests that the total costs will be much higher. It is estimated in one report in the pressthe Minister can reject this figure this afternoon if it is not accuratethat the total cost of implementation has been priced at £9.2 billion.
I also urge the Minister to look favourably at the official Opposition's two early-day motions, and also all who have contributed this afternoon, including the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) who clearly had a pressing engagement, which was perhaps related to the subject matter, and who is not here with usI shall speak to him later. We have tabled early-day motion 511 on the water framework directive and early-day motion 631 on the groundwater directive, which go over these points. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on them.
How can DEFRA argue and how can the Minister say hand on heart that they are applying the principle of proportionality to the farming community when not only are farmers being asked to pay the costs from the directive, which could be as high as £3 billion, but the regulatory burden of most EU directives falls directly on those farmers? There is the integrated pollution prevention and control directive, the nitrates directive, the groundwater directive that will probably cost £1.2 million to apply, the water framework directive and the fallen stock directive. There is also the proposed pesticides directiveI could go on but time prevents me.
A number of hon. Members have already referred to the huge costs of the administrative burden falling on the Environment Agency. I did not get a convincing response from the Minister when we raised that point in the Delegated Legislation Committee that considered the transposing regulations, but enormous burdens are being imposed on the Environment Agency. He will confirm whether those burdens are on top of the other work that the agency is being asked to do. Does he expect the agency to juggle the resources? Will water companies be asked to reimburse the agency direct? How does he imagine that that will be paid for?
Water companies will, as we know, pass the charges on to consumers. I know that that will alarm my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, who is becoming known as a champion of his constituents in his discussions with Ofwat. It does not seem fair that one categorywater companiescan pass on the costs to their customers, who are all of us. That seems particularly unfair on the most vulnerable people, who use water just as the rest of us do. I am thinking particularly of pensioner households and single parent households in which there is only one income earner, bringing up children on their own. How can we ask those people to meet the sizeable increases in their bills? How does the Minister expect farmers to cope when they cannot pass on their costs?
Obviously, the Minister will respond in his own inimitable way to my hon. Friend's question about slicing water off one water source to run it into another watercourse. What are the environmental disbenefits and the costs of that? I should also like to use this opportunity to bring another matter to the Minister's attention. I do not know whether he or the Secretary of State will be asked to rule on this, but the European Commission has apparently been requested, and may agree, to co-fund a highly controversial Spanish hydrological plan, the aim of which is an annual transfer of 1,050 cubic hectolitres of water from Ebro, in Catalunya in the north of the country, to the southern regions. There is deemed to be a mass tourism and intensive agriculture problem, and anyone holidaying in the south of Spain and particularly its islands will be aware of the problems of light rainfall and of getting water to those places. Now that there has been a change of Government in Spain, albeit in highly regrettable circumstances, can the Minister really expect British taxpayers' money to be used to co-fund a hugely expensive hydrological project that will bring no benefits whatever to this country?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford on securing the debate and, in particular, on its timing. I am disappointed that he was unable to join us on and contribute to the Delegated Legislation Committee that considered the transposition and implementation regulations, but there is still time for him and other hon. Members to join us in supporting early-day motions 511 and 631.
Mr. Kidney : The hon. Lady invites us to join her on those early-day motions. Will she join the rest of us who have praised the Minister for the settlement on the guidance in respect of the price review for 200510?
The Minister, and indeed the hon. Gentleman, would probably join me in paying tribute to the previous Conservative Government, who were the first to apply the EU drinking water and bathing water directives. I have a little anecdote about that, which I shall save for the next Adjournment debate on this subject. For now, I hope that the Minister will, wherever possible, build on the partnership approachI prefer the term "partner to "stakeholder, on which the Government insistand look to a voluntary approach, particularly with the farming community, to ensure that the principle of proportionality espoused by his Department applies on this issue as it does everywhere else. I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to say that they will move away from what can appear to be a heavy-handed, regulatory and burdensome approach to the transposition, and that they will apply a lighter touch, rather than imposing highly expensive, costly and ineffective burdens on businesses such as farming and water companies, as the Department has done in the past.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I join hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on the way in which he presented his case. I support the main thrust of his argument that these are complex and significant issues and that it is necessary to raise awareness about them. I will respond to some of his thoughts on the subject, which were quite good.
I endorse his point that we should lead by example and speak with authority on water management issues. Hon. Members have shown great interest in the matter, especially the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who has a long-standing interest in water management matters and has spoken about them many times, with a great deal of sense. I do not doubt his enthusiasm and commitment, and I shall say something about the points that he raised in a moment.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned AMP4the price guidanceand the Minister's recent guidance to the regulator, which was a fair outcome. There are anxieties about costs and we cannot escape that. We have to bear in mind the costs to consumers, but the hon. Gentleman is right: there will be costs if we want improvements. Although consumers want water prices to be kept down, they are very interested in the quality of the water that they receive and in the management of the aquatic environment. Biodiversity in that environment and the improvement of rivers and coasts are popular with the public. It is a matter of getting the balance right.
My hon. Friend asked how the water framework directive fitted into AMP4. In terms of major commitments under that directive, the bulk are likely to fall within the next round of price guidance, AMP5. Nevertheless, there are several aspects of AMP4 that will contribute to the objectives of the water framework directive. They include the freshwater fish directive, for which there is support, and continued improvement in
I accept that agriculture is not responsible for all diffuse pollution and I absolutely accept my hon. Friend's point about the farmers in his constituency. However, we cannot ignore the fact that farms are the biggest contributor in that respect, although there are others, such as the run-off from roads and other point-source pollution that we need to tackle. We need a range of measures involving incentives to deal with diffuse pollution, as my hon. Friend said. Our agri-environment programmes are substantial and the objectives of the review now contain some resource protection, which may involve regulation or financial instruments. They will form part of the consultation on our proposals for tackling diffuse pollution, which will be published towards the end of this month or the beginning of April. My hon. Friend will have the opportunity of seeing those proposals and he may wish to contribute to them.
My hon. Friend talked about involving MPs in consultation in its broader sense, and I agree with that. I like the idea of his proposal of a seminar for hon. Members on the water framework directive; I know that there is a lot of interest in the issue in the House, so I will give his proposal serious thought and consult within the Department to see what we can do about it. I am certainly sympathetic to his case.
The hon. Member for Salisbury made a very good speech. He said that he would speak with some passion, and indeed he did. As a matter of fact, the issue deserves some passion. The hon. Gentleman represents an area that has some wonderful chalk streams and some very delicate biodiversity. He has long championed water extraction issues and long campaigned for the kind of measures that we have now introduced in the Water Act. On the issue of management, he strongly argued that environmental aspects must be part of the price review process. That must be recognised, and we are trying to ensure that that happens.
As regards the abstraction problems in his part of the country, it is inevitable that a serious look will have to be taken at the abstraction licences of some of those involved, and some may have to be withdrawn under the new powers in the Water Act. There are facilities to do that, and the hon. Gentleman, who served on the Committee that considered the Bill, will know how they can be applied.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Wessex Water's low-flow agreement, and I am in the process of responding to Wessex Water on the issue. Its statement of intent allows for a five-year programme of work and research to assess the effectiveness of measures to restore low flows. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, Wessex Water is only part way through the programme, and some measures are still to be fully implemented, so it is a bit early to reach conclusions about the programme's overall effectiveness. However, the second annual report to Ministers has shown that overall progress is being made in accordance with the statement of intent. The signatories to the statementthe Environment Agency, English Nature, Wessex Water and Ofwatare
Mr. Key : Will the Minister take care to notice whether Wessex Water has any plans to rebuild inadequate infrastructure? Such infrastructure is a major problem in terms of the flooding of sewerage systems in remote rural areas, which often leads to overflowing at sewage treatment works. Will he also consider the issue of phosphorus? As far as I am aware, there is no intention to upgrade sewage treatment works to filter it out.
Mr. Morley : I will certainly be happy to consider those points. I can tell the hon. Gentleman in general terms that the ministerial guidance to the regulator deals with issues such as sewer flooding and asset maintenance. I know from my regular meetings with him that he thinks that those issues are important, and I am sure that they will feature in the Wessex Water plan.
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the ministerial guidance covers consultation on research programmes on endocrine disruptors. The problem is important, and its effect on freshwater fish should be taken as a biological indicator of potential problems with pollution in our watercourses. We must understand the problem better and find ways to tackle it. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government absolutely agree with him on the point.
I also agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments on water metering, which, as he will know from my comments in Committee, is our ultimate aim. As far as we are concerned, the more people who move on to water metering, the better. That movement is taking place, and I suspect that it will continue, particularly in the light of the forthcoming price guidance.
I also very much support the hon. Gentleman's comments about the planning considerations involved in sustainable urban drainage and grey water systems. Again, we are giving great thought to the issue, particularly in relation to large new developments such as Thames gateway, which offers the prospect of building in sustainable water and energy management from the beginning. Some good examples of building regulations, development and design are in prospect. We are giving careful consideration to that.
I also listened to the hon. Gentleman's very blunt statements about Ofwat and Water Voice. They have a job to do. I have a great deal of confidence in the regulator. I also meet with Water Voice. Its job is to protect and promote the interests of consumers, so it will pay a great deal of attention to prices. But groups such as Water Voice would also agree that there must be an element of environmental improvement and sustainable management of water resources. That is also in the interests of consumers.
There is common ground. It is a question of striking the right balance, but it is difficult. There are these pressures. I heard the hon. Gentleman's comments about the price reductions last time, and I understand the point that he was making. Nevertheless, we must try to achieve a balance, minimising the cost to consumers while recognising that there are still improvements to be made. That is what we are doing. The final decision on prices is a matter for the regulator, as the hon. Gentleman knows.
The hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) talked about the implementation of the directive. It is a major directive and it is being implemented over a number of years. The Environment Agency's budget has increased and it decides how it allocates its resources. It has about 40 staff who are dedicated to working on the water framework directive, and that number is likely to increase in due course as we begin to develop the implementation programme. The Environment Agency has done a very good job with the Ribble valley pilot scheme, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford referred.
I have been up to the Ribble valley myself to talk to the Environment Agency, English Nature and other stakeholders who are working in partnership on this programme. It is one of the aspects of the water framework that I like. I like the partnership approach, the public consultation and the involvement of people and the various interest groups in river basin planning. That is a strength of the directive. There is scope for integrating the points that she mentioned such as planning and biodiversity action plans. It is certainly being done in the Ribble basin. That is a useful lesson for us in how we extend this to other river basin catchment plans.
The hon. Member for Guildford also mentioned the important "polluter pays principle, which the Government accept. We have to apply it in a proportionate way when considering who bears responsibility for some of the pollution problems that we face. She also mentioned public information and explanation, perhaps extending that to information on water bills. That is a sensible suggestion. It is a matter for the water companies, but I shall certainly bear it in mind.
It would be good to explain to the public how some of the budget has been spent on improvements, which was a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. We have a good record in this country of improvements in water and coastal quality and in reducing pollution. We should point out the increase in the number of blue flags awarded, as my hon. Friend stated, the improvements in our rivers, which in some cases have been dramatic, and the further steps that have been taken in water management. It is important to stress the desirability of this. I am confident that the public support such issues. Indeed, some of what they pay goes towards that. I emphasise that it is not the largest part of the bill, although I note that some press coverage of the recent ministerial guidance suggested that sticking to green issues was the cause of higher bills.
The environmental programme is about 15 per cent. of the spending programme in relation to the overall price review. The bulk of the money goes to pay for the operation of the companies, and it is divided in various wayscapital assets, maintenance, caps on investment programmes and the other important aspects of delivering quality water. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that water bills will increase simply as a result of further environmental improvements. That is not the case. Although it is a part of the reason, it is entirely defensible.
The hon. Member for Guildford asked about extending the provisions of the water framework directive to smaller areas of water. We can do that, particularly under article 5, whereby we can in due course embrace smaller areas of water. I should like to see that done. The hon. Lady will understand that we want to concentrate on the important wetland areasthey are a priority. However, I do not disagree with her about smaller areas of still water. We can address that under the water framework directive.
Mr. Kidney : I seek clarification on article 5. In a briefing note, English Nature says that this year's Environment Agency review of what waters will be affected will be binding on the review of river basin management plans in 2009. The agency says that if 88 per cent. of our lakes are left out this year, they will be left out for good. That is not what the Minister is saying.
Mr. Morley : That is not quite my understanding. However, although my hon. Friend is not wrong, we cannot both be right. He is right about the process, but we are using European guidance on small wetlands and biodiversity. The question is how the catchments will protect wetlands both large and small. There is no reason why we cannot consider the matter generally under the article 5 guidance. I should like to go further in due course; the directive has a review period, which will give us the opportunity to consider doing so. I believe that we can deal with small water courses, but the most important thing is to address the river basin catchment plan, taking account of its effect on water in the entire area.
The hon. Lady knows that I am keen on imaginative flood schemes. We have come a long way in recent years in our approach to flood management. We now take a much more integrated and sustainable approach, although we are keen to have soft and hard options for flood defence, or sometimes a combination of the two, and that may involve flooding upland areas. However, I do not rule out compensation if a case can be made for it. Various models of compensation can be provided for landowners. However, landowners who farm on washlands that have traditionally flooded every year because that is the nature of the habitat, and landowners whose land is deliberately flooded as part of a flood management or alleviation scheme, are compensated differently. There is a difference in approach, but we have an open mind and are keen to discuss the matter.
The hon. Lady talked about costings and mentioned a figure of £9 billion. That was a very early figure. The impact assessment is being constantly refined, and we have come a long way from the figure that she gave. Current thinking is that the global figure will be about £450 million to £630 million per annum. Of that figure, the effect on agriculture is estimated as being between £30 million and £210 million. At the moment, these figures should be seen as indicative, not absolute, because I believe that we will refine them further.
Mr. Morley : Not necessarily, although the hon. Lady may have been referring to some of the schemes mentioned in the price review, which relate to schemes that were proposed by United Utilities Water. They are upland management schemes, but they are fairly worthy, and I would like them to have the necessary financial backing, because they might add to our knowledge of water management and catchment management and make it more holistic. The benefits of the scheme have been costed at about £560 million a year, so the scheme should not be viewed simply as a cost that falls on consumers, companies or farmers. It is worth emphasising that the directive will provide a range of benefits.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the Ebro water scheme, with which I am familiar. I have followed the controversy surrounding it, and sympathise with her remarks. She will know that UK taxpayers are contributing to it, as regional funds are being used, but as a former MEP she will also know that the same applies when we receive regional funding through the contributions made by European taxpayers. Contributions should not be presented as a one-way process.
The hon. Lady may be interested to know that our latest information is that the incoming Spanish Government have announced that they do not propose to go ahead with the Ebro scheme, which is interesting. It is also encouraging, in a way, as Spain has several water resource management schemes in places, such as the Cota Doñana national park, which is an area that I know very well and have taken a close interest in for many years. I understand that the impetus behind the park came from a group of English people who were working with local Spanish people and were very involved in the area. There has therefore been a long involvement in this area of international importance.
Mr. Kidney : If the consultation with farmers on diffuse pollution is delayed beyond the end of March, the Minister's Department gave the Plymouth Western Morning News the wrong date. Will the Minister say whether farmers will be pleasantly surprised by the consultation, or will it be another shocking story of cost?
Mr. Morley : There will be a range of measures under the water framework directive. I cannot guarantee that there will not be costs, but costs are not the only way of dealing with diffuse pollution. It is very important that we consider all the options, some of which may be incentives. We should be imaginative, and take a holistic and integrated approach. That is certainly the view of the House, and I very much welcome the very thoughtful and detailed contributions that have been made today. They add to the Government's commitment to making the directive work effectively.