Select Committee on European Communities Eighth Report



  37.    We share our witnesses' general welcome for the broad aims of the framework Directive: in principle it could serve as a model for other fields of Community environmental legislation. If satisfactorily implemented, it should help to bring order and coherence to the mass of Community water legislation which has built up somewhat piecemeal over the years. We also welcome (given our long-standing concerns about the transparency of Community legislative procedures) the new emphasis on public consultation and involvement in the planning process.

  38.    Much, however, depends on what is done both prior to adoption of the Directive and subsequently. We are seriously concerned over the ambiguities and uncertainties in the present text, particularly those relating to the definitions of environmental quality objectives and the recovery of costs through charges. As an example of what is likely to become a new generation of Community legislation based on a more strategic ("framework") approach, this will be an important Directive and deserves to be a model of clarity, written in plain language (apart from genuinely technical terms) which the citizen can understand. We have to say that the present draft falls short of that. We are also concerned that the proposals appear to play down the significance of measures to deal with floods and droughts (see paragraph 48 (ii) below).

  39.    We are content with the explanations given by DETR for the Commission's proposal to leave certain Directives free-standing, notably those on Bathing Water, Drinking Water and Urban Waste Water Treatment. But care is needed to ensure that there is full consistency between their provisions and the standards established under the framework Directive. We recommend that once a satisfactory framework Directive has been agreed there should be a thorough step-by-step review of the remaining water legislation, including the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.

  40.     In general we consider that the proposals apply the principles of subsidiarity satisfactorily, but we agree with the Government that there are some aspects-particularly the prescriptive proposals on cost recovery in Article 12-which will require careful examination.

  41.    Although we did not take evidence specifically on these points, we suspect that the proposals insufficiently address the management issues that arise where rivers cross international boundaries, especially those involving non­EU Member States. We note that certain important transboundary rivers (the Rhine, the Elbe and part of the Danube) come under the supervision of Commissions established under international conventions, and that there is a framework convention under which member countries of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe can cooperate multilaterally or bilaterally to prevent or control pollution of transboundary watercourses and to ensure rational use of water resources[16]. But it is not clear how far under these conventions it is possible systematically to tackle questions of quantity as well as quality. Apart from pollution control, the issues are not only ones of flood control (as evidenced by the serious floods earlier this year along the German-Polish border and in the Netherlands); they also involve questions of competing demands to control flows, impound, abstract or divert. These issues by definition have to be tackled at a level above that of Member States. There may be a need for the framework Directive to address them more explicitly, to ensure a consistent approach throughout the European Union.

  42.    We think that the Directive might place stronger emphasis on the "polluter pays" principle, although it is an issue which falls partly outside the scope of the proposals. Strategies to reduce pollution from diffuse sources must to some extent depend on the willingness of users of, say, pesticides to accept that they have a duty of care: so, to a degree, do the manufacturers. In principle both should be liable to pay for the polluting effects of products and their use. We agree with SEPA that the regulatory authorities may need to have stronger powers to ensure compliance with codes of good practice, particularly in agriculture.

  43.    We detect in places rather too strong an emphasis on water as a commodity. Where water is abstracted in unsustainable quantities, the user is not simply taking a finite resource, the price of which is determined by supply and demand: the impact of his consumption can be at least as damaging to the environment as pollution, and can impair the resource and restrict its availability to other users (or potential users) in a comparable manner. In other words, we would wish to see the principle of "polluter pays" extended to include "abstractor pays". However, in so far as domestic consumers are among the major polluters in this wider sense, application of the principle through water and sewerage charges has to have regard to questions of affordability, as we discuss in paragraph 57 below. Special problems may also arise where new development (especially for housing) is allowed to go ahead, on wider land use planning grounds, in areas where there is insufficient sustainable water capacity to meet potential demand.


  44.    We share the general support for the concept of management by river basin. As we have noted (paragraph 41), there are areas in the European Union which require an international approach, including some where non-Member States are involved (Rhine, Danube, etc). At a domestic level there is a practical question-on which we do not feel able to offer a firm view-of what should constitute river basins for the purposes of the Directive. In England and Wales it would in principle be possible to aggregate the Local Environment Agency Plans (which generally cover sub-basins) to form plans for larger catchment areas, equivalent to the present Environment Agency Areas. With further aggregation plans could be produced on the basis of the Environment Agency Regions, which (with one reduction) correspond to the old regional water authority areas. In Scotland the three water authorities could each produce a plan; but their areas could not strictly be said to represent single catchment areas: most river catchment areas in Scotland are quite small. We are concerned that aggregating the plans of unconnected river basins could be an artificial and bureaucratic process, and we see a need for flexibility. On the other hand we see a need for strategic overview of catchment management planning at Member State level, and note that the view has been expressed in Commission circles that the number of river basins across the European Union as a whole should be relatively small. The question is how to aggregate basin-based monitoring and management systems into units which are of significance at Community level.

  45.    The present arrangements in Scotland (and in Northern Ireland, on which we did not take evidence), which depend largely on co­operation between different official bodies, appear to work satisfactorily and we think it is right that there should be sufficient flexibility in the Directive to enable these arrangements to continue. Nevertheless we recommend that the Government gives serious consideration to the need to bring the powers of SEPA into line with those of the Environment Agency in England and Wales. As a minimum we recommend that SEPA should be given abstraction licensing powers and should be a statutory consultee on flood control plans.

  46.    We have considered whether the Directive, as currently drafted, provides sufficient scope and direction to ensure comprehensive catchment management planning which takes all relevant factors, including local environmental circumstances, into account. One view would be that, as this is a framework Directive, it is important not to be too detailed or prescriptive as to the means of achieving the aims or the contents of plans. We tend to take the opposite view that, provided Member States are allowed proper flexibility to implement the Directive in the way best suited to local environmental conditions and administrative structures, no harm would be done-and indeed there would be positive benefits-in offering fuller and more explicit guidance on the factors to be taken into account.

  47.    We have identified a number of aspects of the Directive which on this view would benefit from strengthening. Arguably all of them are implicit in the framework approach and would be taken into account by a conscientious planner; but it may be right here to anticipate a less than perfect approach on the part of some Member States or competent authorities and to make more explicit some of the topics that need to be addressed in catchment management planning. We support the RSPB's views on the usefulness of strategic environmental assessment (SEA) in this context. We have expressed disappointment to DETR over what we see as an unnecessarily negative attitude on the part of the Government towards the Commission's current proposals for applying environmental assessment to plans and programmes[17], not just to projects as required by the 1985 EIA Directive.

  48.    We recommend that particular attention is paid in Council negotiations to the following issues:

  (i)      Diffuse pollution from industry, agriculture and others

          Industry, including agriculture and many local government services, are major users, abstractors and polluters. It is important that river basin plans should include measures to tackle diffuse pollution from their activities. We note the views of the RSPB, SEPA and others on the particular significance of agriculture in this context.

  (ii)      Impact of human activities and other anthropogenic influences

          We agree with the RSPB and others that works such as drainage, river canalization and flood relief systems can have profound effects on the quantity and quality of surface and ground waters, and require explicit recognition in management plans. We disagree with the Commission's conclusion that such activities are not directly relevant to the Directive's principal objective of protecting the environment. Similarly we feel there should be an explicit requirement to take into account the environmental impacts of activities such as new road building or housing development. Of course we are not suggesting that the objective should necessarily be to reverse the effects of past urbanisation or long-standing industrial development, but they are factors that need to be taken into account in management plans. (We are aware of some instances of river restoration which have successfully undone the effects of past canalization.)

  (iii)      Wetlands, lakesides and riparian areas

          We do not believe that proper catchment planning is possible without fully taking into account the quality and capacity of associated wetlands and the water holding areas adjacent to rivers and lakes. We strongly agree with those witnesses who have argued that explicit references to Community policy on wetlands must be brought into the Directive.

  (iv)      Climate change

          Although forecasts of global warming and other aspects of climate change remain problematical, we think that all plans should include an account of what, if any, contingency plans are in place to deal with episodic drought or flooding and with permanent changes in water sources and resources.

  (v)      Biodiversity

          We accept the view of the Environment Agency and DETR that there is a satisfactory linkage between the requirements of the framework Directive and the specialist conventions and Directives relating to species and habitats. Nevertheless we see merit in the Directive making explicit reference to the protection and enhancement of biodiversity as an essential component of sustainable water policy.


  49.    In principle, like the Government, we see merit in the draft Directive's "combined approach" of reconciling emission limits with environmental quality objectives and standards, provided it is done with proper intellectual rigour. It is, however, clear from the evidence we received that a great deal of work remains to be done in defining and agreeing those objectives and standards, particularly in relation to the concept of "good status". The science is complex and still developing; it was not, however, part of the purpose of this enquiry to evaluate and offer views on the technical arguments. Indeed it might be said that the Commission was premature in submitting its proposals at this stage. On the other hand we recognise the value of maintaining momentum, and publication of the proposals now will have helped to cement the Community's determination to see greater coherence in this major area of environmental protection.

  50.    What we cannot accept-and we are pleased that the Government shares this view-is that detailed objectives fundamental to the success of the Directive and with profound implications for Member States should be decided by a Management Committee chaired by the Commission and appointed after adoption of the proposals. We consider that this would be an inappropriate application of the principle of "comitology": in our view it is essential that this task is carried out before the Council and the European Parliament reach any decisions on the Directive. In a previous Report[18] we offered a number of critical comments on the principle (which applies widely to Community legislation, not just in the environmental field). It is a subject which we believe would merit an enquiry by this Committee in its own right. We support the DETR's suggestion that what is needed in this case, given the draft Directive's present state of development, is an expert group to provide advice and assistance to the negotiations in the Council. In accordance with previous recommendations, we recommend that full transparency should attend the proceedings of such a group and that expert NGOs should be given opportunities to make an input. We also recommend that the group's membership should include, or at least have access to, the expertise of the relevant UK regulatory and statutory nature conservation bodies.

  51.    Without venturing into detailed technical areas, we nevertheless offer some comments which we recommend should be taken into account in the process of setting objectives and standards:

  (i)      Ecological status

          Although ecological status is perhaps the most difficult concept to define, the Environment Agency's work with WRc, and the system of biological assessment and classification known as RIVPACS[19], offer some encouragement that an acceptable definition is feasible, which we would expect to take into account quantity as well as quality.

  (ii)      "Good" status

          The meaning in this context of "good" is fundamental to the Directive but we find the definition in the text as drafted-which involves multiple cross-referring between Article 2 (definitions), Article 4 (environmental objectives) and two Annexes-wholly circular. The improved formulation suggested by the water industry (paragraph 30) has much to commend it.

  (iii)      Surface water status

          Any definition of the status of surface water is in our view meaningless if it does not (as with ground water) include quantity. Sustainable water policy requires the competent authorities to maximise the efficient use of water for its various purposes, to the benefit of present and future generations.

16   Convention on the protection of the Rhine against chemical pollution (Bonn 1976) (known as the Rhine Convention); Convention on the International Commission for the protection of the Elbe (Magdeburg 1990); Agreement on cooperation on management of water resources in the Danube Basin (Regensburg 1987); Convention on the protection and use of transboundary watercourses and international lakes (Helsinki 1995). For further details, see Institute for European Environmental Policy, op. cit., Footnote 7 above. Back

17   COM(96)511 final, 4 December 1996. The Select Committee's comments and the Government's reply will be published in a forthcoming Report, in the Correspondence with Ministers series. Back

18   2nd Report, 1997-98, Community Environmental Law: Making it Work, HL Paper 12, paragraphs 29-35. Back

19   River Invertebrate Prediction and Classification Scheme, developed by the Institute of Freshwater Ecology in collaboration with the water industry. For discussion of methodologies of water quality assessment, see the 17th Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Freshwater Quality, Cm 1966, HMSO 1992; a report on the Royal Commission's recent study of the basis for environmental standards is in preparation. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1997
Prepared 1 December 1997