Select Committee on European Communities Eighth Report


7531/97: Explanatory Memorandum by the Department of the Environment

Proposal for a Council Directive establishing a framework
for Community action in the field of water policy (COM (97)49 final)


1.  The document is the Commission's Proposal for a Directive establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy. The Proposal represents the development of the approach outlined in the Commission Communication to the Council and to the European Parliament on European Community water policy (Document 5939/96). The proposal for a framework Directive is intended to address the main objectives for water policy identified in the Communication (provision of drinking water; provision of water for other economic requirements; protection of the environment and alleviation of the impact of floods and droughts) and to provide a common framework for the protection of surface and ground water.

2.  The Commission proposes that the principal objectives of the framework Directive should be the protection of aquatic ecosystems (and the water needs of terrestrial ecosystems) and the promotion of sustainable use of water resources (contributing to the provision of adequate drinking water and water for other economic uses).

3.  The Commission envisages that the Proposal would:

    -  provide an overall framework within which Community, national and regional authorities can develop integrated and coherent water policies;

    -  develop a mechanism to identify further issues that require action;

    -  provide for collection and analysis of information on which to base action;

    -  ensure public "transparency" by requiring information to be provided and consultation to be undertaken.

4.  The Directive also rationalises the existing body of Community water legislation (established by a large number of directives since the mid 1970s) and provides a framework within which the remaining legislation (such as the Urban Waste Water Treatment and Nitrates Directives) fit. In particular, the Commission intend that implementation of the Directive should lead to the repeal of a number of older pieces of legislation: the Surface Water Abstraction Directives (75/440/EEC and 79/869/EEC; the Information Exchange Decision (77/795/EEC); the Fish Water Directive (78/659/EEC); the Shellfish Water Directive (79/923/EEC) and the Groundwater Directive (80/68/EEC) as well as the withdrawal of the Proposal for an Ecological Quality of Water Directive (COM(93) 680 final). The future of the Dangerous Substances Directive (76/464/EEC) is discussed further in paragraph 25 below.

5.  The Proposal envisages the establishment of river basin districts by the Member States. These districts (which could include more than one basin) would provide the primary administrative unit for the implementation of the Directive. Competent authorities would be designated for the purpose of the Directive. They would be required to coordinate and oversee action, including the undertaking of various analyses of the characteristics of the basin(s) and anthropogenic impacts, an economic analysis of water used and the establishment of monitoring systems. The Commission envisage that these various pieces of work would be completed by the end of 2001. The competent authorities would also be responsible for drawing up, consulting upon and then implementing Management Plans for each district containing programmes of measures designed to achieve the environmental objectives for the waters in each basin. Such plans would be in force by the end of 2004 with all the measures operational by the end of 2007. At this point the repeals of earlier legislation envisaged under the Directive would occur.

6.  Fundamental to the Directive is the prevention of deterioration in water quality and the establishment of environmental objectives for all surface waters and ground waters across the Community which should be achieved by 2010. Derogations are permitted for bodies of water where "natural conditions" do not allow rapid improvements in the quality of water (for which lower objectives can be specified) and for those that are severely impacted by human activity (for which longer timescales can be established). The Commission propose that all waters should, as appropriate, achieve good surface or ground water status. The former is defined by reference to good "chemical" and "ecological" status and the latter by good "chemical" and "quantitative" status. In both cases, overall status would reflect the poorer of the two measures. The Directive contains some broad definitions of these terms, but the Commission proposes that the elaboration of various statuses would be undertaken by the Management Committee set up under Article 25 once the Proposal had been agreed.

7.  The Proposal also contains a provision for charging mechanisms to be introduced for water use. It is intended that these would improve the efficiency of water use and provide a stimulus for environmental improvement by requiring a fuller reflection of the costs of activities affecting the water environment to be borne by those responsible. The Proposal would require cost recovery charges to be implemented by 2010 in respect of abstraction and consumption of water, discharges and some in situ uses. There is also provision for environmental and resource costs to be covered by charges "where appropriate" although no timetable is given for such action. Exemptions from these provisions can be made, inter alia, to allow for basic household uses to be met at an "affordable" price. The Commission identify the UK as one of the Member States which has already given effect to the cost recovery principle.

8.  The Commission also propose that the Management Committee established under the Directive would meet annually to consider plans for further measures to take forward Community water policy. Plans presented to the Committee in this way would be drawn up by the Commission. This is intended to ensure that the development of Community water policy is in line with technical and scientific progress. The Commission also propose that it would allow the Community to take action to address issues of concern in a coherent manner, utilising all the relevant measures available under existing legislation and adopting additional measures, where necessary.

9.  The Proposal also contains provisions relating to public information and consultation. As described above, all river basin management plans are to be subject to public consultation in draft. Reporting requirements to the Commission are to be simplified compared to current legislation so that the copies of the management plans-which are required to provide a summary of all the actions and measures that have been or are to be taken-are sent to the Commission and the European Environment Agency (rather than individual reporting arrangements for each piece of legislation).


10.  The Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has the main responsibility for the Directive. The Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern ireland also have responsibility.


11.  (i)    Legal base-the proposed legal base is Article 130s(1) of the Treaty of Rome.

    (ii)  European Parliament procedure-the cooperation procedure will apply.

    (iii)  Voting procedure-voting will be by qualified majority voting.

    (iv)  Impact on UK law-measures will be required to transpose into UK law any provisions of the Directive which go beyond the requirements of existing Community water legislation.


12.  A large body of Community water legislation is already in place, reflecting the provisions of Article 130r of the Treaty. The Proposal reflects the balance of responsibilities between authorities at a regional, national and Community level covering the range of subjects set out in the framework Directive. The Commission also acknowledges the need both to reflect the impact of activities in transboundary catchments and the diverse conditions and needs of different parts of the Community.

13.  In general, the Commission intends that the Proposal should set common principles and an overall framework for action whilst leaving Member States to determine how best to carry out their responsibilities under the terms of the Directive. The Government will seek full clarification during negotiations as to how these provisions should be interpreted. The Government will continue carefully to examine whether the emerging detail of the Proposal-and in particular the provisions of Article 12 of the Directive (dealing with full cost recovery)-are consistent with the Commission's own legislative commitments and with the provisions of Article 3B of the Treaty.


14.  The Government welcomes the Proposal to give better shape and effectiveness to Community water policy and to rationalise the corpus of water legislation that has developed over the last 25 years. However, the Government has a number of concerns with the Proposal as currently drafted. These relate in particular to the lack of any clear definition of the nature of the environmental objectives to be achieved by 2010 and to the implications of Article 12.

15.  The Government welcomes the use of river basins as the basic unit for the implementation of the Directive provided that there is due flexibility for Member States to determine the appropriate administrative arrangements to give effect to these requirements. This is largely consistent with practice in the UK.

16.  The Government also welcomes the emphasis in the Proposal on the use of quality objectives for water bodies. This is consistent with the approach to water quality management that has been adopted in the UK. The Government notes the Commission's statement that the framework Directive confirms that the "combined approach" to pollution control-the complementary use of environmental quality standards and emission limit values for discharges-is fundamental to Community water policy. The Government supports the combined approach. The environmental quality objectives to be established under the framework Directive will complement the requirements to apply specific pollution control techniques to certain discharges (which are already in place under other legislation). The latter will form important elements of the programmes of measures to be included within river basin management plans.

17.  The Government also notes that the precise definition of the various statuses to be achieved by 2010 (which will constitute the quality objectives) are not specified in the body of the Directive. The Government considers that these objectives are fundamental to the proposals and must therefore be considered by the Member States prior to agreement of the Proposal rather than being left to the Management Committee to be established by the Directive. The Government will therefore argue strongly for greater certainty about the definition of these objectives during the process of negotiation. This additional clarity is required in order to allow Member States properly to assess the benefits which may accrue from higher standards as well as the additional efforts that will be required and their associated costs. This is particularly significant given that the Proposal envisages that Member States be required to implement measures to ensure that these objectives are attained in all waters covered by the Directive by 2010. The Government notes in this context the views expressed by the Commission in the earlier Communication (referred to in paragraph 1 above) that there should be proportionality between the measures proposed and their impact on the environment.

18.  The Government agrees with the Commission's assessment that the introduction of charges for full cost recovery for water use would contribute to the integration of the polluter-pays principle into Community legislation and could assist in the achievement of more sustainable use of water across the Community. The Government also notes that in the view of the Commission cost recovery charging is already underway in the UK. However, the Government considers that charges for water use have a significance well outside strict environmental and economic considerations. Accordingly, it will be important to probe further the precise intentions of these provisions and the pace of their implementation. The Government will in particular wish to consider the effects of removal of possible cross subsidies within the sectors identified by the Commission, how the proposal might affect the future development of pricing structures and the distributional impact of any such changes. It is also important that provisions in this area are properly gauged to ensure that they are fully consistent with the principles of subsidiarity.

19.  The Government considers that there is a need for more effective monitoring and enforcement of water policy, and welcomes the Proposal that the framework Directive should rationalise the existing monitoring requirements of Community legislation. However, the Government will also seek to ensure that the monitoring requirements are properly targeted and that the information provided to the Commission and the EEA reflects their legitimate interests (including the development of better pan-European data on water quality to enable proper comparisons to be made).

20.  The Government welcomes the provisions for greater transparency in decision making through consultation on maagement plans and the encouragement of public participation


21.  The Government considers that there must be proper scientific justification for the definitions of the various statuses which will be given effect by the environmental objectives established under the Directive. These must be capable of proper assessment in the current state of technical knowledge. It may be necessary to adopt different approaches for different types of water body and to reflect different climatic and geographical circumstances across the Community. The Government therefore welcomes the emphasis on comparability rather than uniformity in setting these objectives that is contained within the Proposal.

22.  The Government considers that it will be particularly important for a realistic view to be taken of the elements to be included within the definition of "good ecological status" and "good quantitative status" and for there to be proper evaluation of the substances for which objectives should be set for the purposes of "chemical status". It will also be important to ensure that proper account is taken of the potential costs and benefits of establishing these objectives at different levels. Consideration should be given to the potential for a more flexible approach to setting objectives reflecting priorities for improvement.


23.  Greater rationalisation of Community water legislation should bring about a more targeted approach to improving water quality. However, the Commission has stated that the necessary information is not currently available to undertake a full economic analysis of the potential impact of the measures necessary to implement the Proposal. There may be additional monitoring and assessment costs and some administrative costs in establishing the full coordination of competent authorities and the development of management plans. However, the main financial implications of the Proposal will arise from the measures that are necessary to achieve the environmental objectives set for 2010. These could be significant. The potential impact of provisions for charges for water use have been discussed above. The Government intends to undertake work on the potential costs and benefits of the Proposal and the implications for industry, customers and for public expenditure in order to inform the negotiations.


24.  The framework Directive was presented at the Environment Council on 3 March 1997. General discussion of the main issues within the proposal will take place at the Environment Council on 19/20 June. The Luxembourg Presidency have indicated that they will give priority to negotiation of the Proposal, and more substantive discussions can be expected at Environment Council later this year. However, given the detailed provisions of the Directive, and the need to ensure that its environmental objectives are set out in the appropriate detail, political agreement of the Proposal is not likely until 1998.


25.  The Commission have noted that the proposed framework Directive is the most important of the proposals for further water legislation that are currently under consideration by the Council of Ministers. The Commission have been considering the development of a proposal in respect of emissions from installations which fall outside the ambit of the integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive. This could offer an opportunity to take forward the revision of the current Directive on emissions of dangerous substances to water (76/464/EEC) (the quality standards established under its daughter Directives having been included in the provisions of this Proposal for a framework Directive). The Government considers that there are important interactions between the framework Directive and any proposal in respect of smaller installations and these will be kept closely under review.

26.  The Government will also ensure during negotiations that the role of the proposed Management Committee within the framework Directive is considered carefully. The Government has some concerns about the proposed role for the Committee, which would include some functions that may have major policy implications. The Government will raise this issue in negotiation, and will attempt to ensure that there is proper consideration amongst the Member States of the basis on which the Committee is to operate.

Angela Eagle
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State
Department of the Environment.

20 May 1977

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