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In view of the Prime Minister's recent statements about the importance of "subsidiarity", whether they intend to avail themselves of the discretion granted by the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC) to identify sensitive and less sensitive areas when they decide the level of treatment to be applied.[HL2853]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): The Government are committed to full implementation of their European obligations. They are reviewing a number of areas of policy on the quality of the water environment, including the approach to implementation of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. In particular the Government are considering the recommendations of the Environment Agency, following its reviews of both sensitive areas and less sensitive areas (called areas of high natural dispersion in the UK), carried out during 1997 in line with the directive's requirements. The Government are also reviewing the application of derogations to lower levels of treatment for certain coastal discharges, where justified by comprehensive studies which follow from the designation of less sensitive areas. They have asked the Environment Agency to take a rigorous approach to the assessment of these comprehensive studies and wish to consider carefully whether, notwithstanding the scientific evidence offered by these studies, a precautionary approach should dictate that all significant coastal discharges should receive secondary treatment.
The Government are considering all these issues in the context of the current periodic review of water company price limits. Our aim will be to strike an appropriate balance between securing environmental improvements and ensuring reasonable costs to consumers through their water bills. We intend to make announcements within the next few weeks which will establish our policy in relation to the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.
Baroness Hayman: The Government are committed to improving quality standards in the water environment wherever possible and consider that this directive makes an important contribution to this overall aim. The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive will ensure minimum standards of sewage treatment for all sewage discharges to inland, coastal and estuarial waters in the UK and other member states. It also provides for additional protection from enrichment of waters by excess nutrients in designated sensitive areas. The Government believe that the aims and requirements of the directive mirror the expectations of today's society for the treatment of sewage discharges to inland coastal waters.
At the 1994 determination of water company price limits, the cost of implementing the directive in the UK was estimated as £8 billion. The full cost will not be known until investment by water and sewerage undertakers in measures to implement the directive are complete. However, the Special Report No. 3/98 by the EC Court of Auditors to the Council of the European Union, concerning the implementation by the Commission of EU policy and action as regards water pollution, reported costs of implementation (in table 1 of the report) for member states for which information was available as follows:
What assessment they have made of the vote by the Environment Committee of the European Parliament not to require the European Commission to carry out a cost/benefit analysis before the draft Framework Directive on Water Policy is approved; and[HL2856]
Whether the Environment Agency has fulfilled its duty to carry out cost/benefit analyses of its environmental legislative proposals, with particular reference to policies affecting the quality and supply of water and the treatment and removal of sewage.[HL2858]
Baroness Hayman: The Government keep very carefully in mind the provisions of the Treaty of Rome to take account of the costs and benefits of action or lack of action in the preparation of Community policy on the environment. The Commission is committed to the principle that there should be proper economic analyses to support all proposals for legislation so that both the Council and the European Parliament can take account of assessments of the potential costs and benefits of such proposals in developing policy. The Government consider that there have been cases where the level of economic analysis prepared by the Commission has not in itself provided an adequate basis for the Council and the European Parliament to do so, and that this has occurred in respect of proposals on water policy.
The specific amendment to the Water Framework Directive recently considered by the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection of the European Parliament would have required the Commission to carry out by 31 December 1999 a study to establish the amount of investment necessary to implement the directive. This requirement would, however, have been part of the process of implementation of the directive once agreed. The vote against this amendment does not, of course, remove the requirement for the Parliament to take account of costs and benefits in considering the proposal.
As regards the duty of the Environment Agency under Section 39 of the Environmental Protection Act 1995, the Government acknowledge that the agency has been developing analytical techniques intended further to improve its ability to make assessments of the benefits of action which it wishes to see undertaken. The Government expect such assessments to be a central feature of the case put by the agency for improvements in sewage treatment, above and beyond the implementation of mandatory requirements, to be reflected in the current periodic review of price limits for the water and sewerage industry from 2000 to 2005.
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