Examination of witnesses (Questions 564
WEDNESDAY 28 FEBRUARY 2001
and MR STEWART
564. First of all, for the purposes of the record,
could you introduce yourselves to the Committee?
(Ms Henton) Good morning, Chairman. Thank you. My
name is Patricia Henton, I am the chief executive of the Scottish
Environment Protection Agency. I have my two colleagues, Dr James
Curran, who is head of science, and Mr Stewart Mitchell who is
the divisional manager for the north region.
565. At this stage in our proceedings, are there
any opening remarks that you would like to make to the Committee?
(Ms Henton) I thought, Chairman, I would make a very
short introductory comment about SEPA, just to place on record
who and what we are. First of all, I would like to thank you for
inviting us here. I hope that we are able to answer your questions.
Obviously, we will submit written answers if there is any information
that we can supply further. I would like to say a few brief words
on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. We were set up
in 1996 to provide an effective and integrated service in Scotland
which would both protect and enhance the environment and contribute
to the Government's goal of sustainable development. We are a
geographically dispersed service across Scotland. We have 22 offices
stretching from Shetland in the north to the Borders. Currently,
we have about 750 staff and a budget of £40 million approximately.
We are partly funded by grant-in-aid and partly funded from charges
levied on those who hold authorisations from us. We regulate discharges
of waste to air, land and water and we seek to improve the quality
of Scotland's environment through regulation, through the provision
of information and through specific action plans targeted on clearly
identified objectives. When it comes to the questions, Chairman,
I should like to share them amongst my colleagues, if that is
566. Thank you for those brief opening remarks
which were helpful. Can I begin by asking about abstraction control
and then move on to abstraction licences. What significance, if
any, does SEPA feel the decision by the Joint Conciliation Committee
of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers not to
force countries to adopt abstraction control systems will have
for environmental policy in Scotland?
(Ms Henton) Ever since SEPA came into existence and,
indeed, our predecessor bodies, the river purification boards
have been of a mind that abstraction controls and certainly knowledge
of where abstractions from both ground and surface waters take
place are a very important part of environmental protection. As
the Committee is probably aware, there is no control over abstraction
from either ground or surface water at present in Scotland and
there are parts of the country where this does cause problems.
It causes problems of dried up water courses, particularly in
the summer, and is causing problems increasing in some of the
aquifers which are now used for water abstraction.
(Dr Curran) I do not think I have got much to add
to that. SEPA has always held the line that selective abstraction
control is appropriate. It need not be every single abstraction,
however small or insignificant which needs to be authorised in
some way but there needs to be a selective procedure.
567. You would like to see this?
(Dr Curran) We would like to see selective control.
568. You have partly answered this but would
that decision make it harder for you to fulfil your environmental
(Ms Henton) In areas where there is no control over
abstractions, for example, in an aquifer, if you have a number
of people who have bore holes into that aquifer, the aquifer will
have a limited capacity for water being abstracted from it. If
you over-abstract, you can cause problems. You can pull polluted
water into the aquifer. If it is near the sea, you can pull salt
water into the aquifer. It takes a very long time to improve any
damage that is done to water quality and one of the purposes of
a licensing system for ground water would be to limit the amount
of water that could be taken out by any one party so that the
resource can be shared fairly between all those parties who want
to use that resource.
569. Are there many parts of Scotland where
these conditions apply?
(Ms Henton) Certainly in the south-west, in the Dumfries
aquifer, there are problems that we know in that area. There may
be localised problems in some other parts of Scotland, [in the
Moray Firth area]
and certainly, on surface waters there have been problems, particularly
on the east coast where water is extracted for irrigation. Also,
in the past, with hydro-electric abstractions from surface waters
where waters have been diverted from head waters of rivers, you
can actually see dried up stream beds, as you can up the A9 to
(Mr Mitchell) The whole philosophy of setting set
limits on discharges of effluent is based on the dilution which
is available. If a third party comes along and abstracts water
from that water course, then the whole licence conditions which
are being set to protect the water course, the whole structure
of that has been changed and the person who has the licence has
a right to maintain those conditions for four years without SEPA
being able to make any change to those. So there is a risk of
the environment being affected and also the person who has the
consent for the discharge having an impact on a third person.
570. You would like to see selective controls
in those areas. Would that, in effect, mean rationing the water
(Ms Henton) That is certainly a possibility, yes.
If there are more people wanting to take more water from either
a river or an aquifer than there is available to take, then there
would need to be a system whereby that water would be shared out
Chairman: There is a general feeling that we
have got more than enough water in Scotland but obviously that
is not the case. Robert, did you want to come in on that point?
Sir Robert Smith
571. I just wanted to clarify, if you had a
selective system, how would you select where to have the controls?
(Dr Curran) There are clearly a number of ways you
could achieve that but in our thinking on this issue, in respect
of the forthcoming Water Framework Directive, we have clearly
looked at the existing controls that the Environment Agency has
in England and Wales and we have reviewed their systems. One potential
way is that you set a de minimis extraction rate below which,
perhaps, whichever authority takes over responsibility for the
Water Framework Directive, is to be notified that abstraction
is taking place; then there is a presumption that it would not
need any sort of authorisation or licence. Above that threshold,
there would be a presumption that it would need some sort of authorisation.
Clearly, you would need options to be able to retract from both
of those positions if necessary. If a fairly large abstraction
was not doing any ecological damage, there would be little justification
for a licence and vice versa. That is one way of introducing a
fairly simple, straightforward procedure by which operators will
know whether they should be facing a licensing situation or not.
572. How does that deal with what seems to be
quite a geographical issue in the sense that you have got a couple
of small areas which are under stress and another area where there
is an abundance of water and one or two large extractions. Is
that really being very selective?
(Dr Curran) That is right. I was portraying, if you
like, a kind of national adoption of the threshold. You could
go to a more sophisticated level and set thresholds either by
catchment or a cluster of catchments if there is a sufficiency
of water or, indeed, if there is the reverse.
573. The fact that there is no European requirement
does not prevent it happening?
(Dr Curran) No.
574. Obviously, you made reference to the Dumfries
aquifer. Could you elaborate somewhat on that?
(Ms Henton) I can do it in generalities. If you would
like details, I can certainly supply written information for you.
But my basic understanding is that there are two or three people
who are abstracting from that aquifer; that over-pumping has taken
place; and there are certain problems caused by polluted water
entering the aquifer. I think also that there is some saline intrusion;
that sea water is getting into the aquifer.
575. Would any producers of bottled natural
mineral water be affected by your proposals? Would any system
of abstraction licences in Scotland be likely to accord special
status to natural mineral water bottlers or to abstractors who
manage resources well?
(Ms Henton) I will ask my colleague to answer that,
if I may, in a minute. But as they are abstracting water, it would
be anticipated that they would certainly need to be registered.
But if they are not causing any environmental impact, any deleterious
impact, then registration would be all that would be required.
(Dr Curran) I think that is absolutely right. I am
looking at Article 11 of the forthcoming Water Framework Directive
which is going to require some sort of abstraction control mechanism.
If I can read it out, it emphasises exactly that point: there
is a requirement for "controls over the abstraction of fresh
surface water and groundwater, including a register or registers
of water abstractions and a requirement of prior authorisation
for abstraction. These controls must be periodically reviewed
and, where necessary, updated. Member States can exempt from these
controls, abstractions which have no significant impact on water
status". If any current operator is managing their water
abstraction system exceptionally well and therefore to no detriment
of the ecological status associated with natural waters, then
they would have no problem complying with any sort of licence
that would be adopted in the future.
576. What, if any, are the likely consequences
of environmental policy differences between Scotland and elsewhere
in the UK? Can you point to any advantages or disadvantages this
might cause industrial water users in Scotland?
(Dr Curran) We are looking forward here, obviously,
to a time when a system of selective abstraction control might
be introduced. I have already said that we have worked quite closely
with the Environment Agency in England and Wales, which has an
existing system, looking at their approach to it. We have also
to a very limited extent reviewed the situation on mainland Europe
as it currently is. But it must be accepted that any schemes that
are in place in other countries at the moment are not specifically
adopted from the point of view of delivering the requirements
of the Water Framework Directive. So all of these schemes may
need to change in the future. But I think quite consistently in
SEPA, we have, at least within the UK context, always looked to
what is happening wider than Scotland and made every effort to
provide a level playing field of consistent regulation on a UK
basis, wherever that is appropriate. Sometimes our environmental
concerns in Scotland are slightly different and we have a need
to take different measures. But I would have thought it very likely
that the scheme introduced in Scotland would make every effort
to be consistent at the widest level.
577. Is there not an incentive for other industries
to move in, to take up that surplus, in view of the climate in
(Dr Curran) There is a general impression that we
have a sufficiency of water, yes and in general, clearly that
is true. But certainly there are occasions and as Patricia Henton
has already mentioned, in the eastern part of Scotland, as regards
agricultural irrigation, when there is not sufficient water and
irrigation can cause damage to surface water by over-abstraction.
If you look particularly at the possible scenarios under climate
change, it looks in Scotland as though the east coast, particularly
in summer, is perhaps going to face quite significantly more occasions
of drought. We need to bear those aspects in mind. But yes, if
the water resource is there, the industry may look at that as
a viable site to locate to. Having said that, the Water Framework
Directive emphasises that one of the requirements is to ensure
that there is an efficient use of water so I do not think that
anyone would want to be encouraging profligate or unnecessary
578. Mr Clarke: I have not seen much of a climate
change in the east of Scotland last year.
(Dr Curran) We are detecting it in our measurements,
yes. Over the past 30 years, we have seen consistent trends in
river flows. There has been an increase in the west in winter
and a slight decrease in the east in the summer, and that fits
with the climate change models.
Mr Clarke: I will get my sombrero out then!
(Dr Curran) I think that is wishful thinking.
Chairman: For every expert who gives an opinion
on climate change there is another expert who gives a counter
opinion. Whether that will happen or not, time will tell.
579. I think if my colleague, Eric Clarke, hangs
around for 40 or 50 years we might find out if it all comes true.
I want to look at the comments from several drinks companies,
the points they have made in their memoranda about any formal
control system because they have stated, to put it in simple terms,
that it is simply another layer of bureaucracy. The Scotch Whisky
Association actually argue that because Scotland is seen as a
water rich nation abstraction controls are really unnecessary,
bureaucratic and potentially very costly in their view. It comes
back to the point that one or two colleagues have made. Given
that water appears to be plentiful in Scotland, do you think that
the costs of any abstraction control system are likely to justify
(Ms Henton) We have touched on the whole question
of the perception of Scotland as a water rich country and, yes,
certainly in many cases, certainly compared with other countries,
we are blessed with a fairly plentiful supply of water, not always
in the right place and not always at the right time. We said earlier,
and we firmly are of the view, that it is important in the management
of any resource, and water is an important natural resource, you
have to know where it is, you have to know what it is that is
being taken. There are parts of Scotland where certainly it is
extremely important to have controls over abstraction from both
rivers and ground water. We are quite positive on the fact that
we need to have abstraction controls. We have also indicated,
in terms of the Water Framework Directive, where there is no measurable
environmental impact we will exercise as light a touch as we can
on that. I am speaking purely theoretically at the moment because
we do not know exactly how this will be exercised, it may simply
be to have a registration of where the abstractions are and what
the quantities of water are. In areas where there is some environmental
impact then it will be necessary to put conditions on such an
(Dr Curran) There are issues of equity, if you like,
because if there are no controls then anyone can move in subsequently
and abstract the water that you were previously abstracting. For
everyone's purpose some degree of control would be of benefit
in guaranteeing a long term supply. The other point is to protect
the Scottish environment, to maintain our high quality environment,
which is part of the image of Scotland, I think, particularly
perhaps for the food and drinks industry. The Water Framework
Directive again, to go back to that, does emphasise that water
use should be charged at the current economic rate, or some term
like that, but there is an exception. If there is a custom and
practice in any Member State of not doing that then you do not
need to apply, if you like, the going economic rate for water
abstraction. Whether that turns out to be the case in Scotland
I do not know, we wait to see what the legislation will be. Currently
there is no charge for abstracting water, so there is a custom
and practice of that in place. Having said that, any control regime
would obviously have an associated charging scheme to recover
the costs of that control scheme, but those are likely to be fairly
limited and, therefore, I do not imagine there would be a very
serious imposition of charges on those who have to have licences
1 Note by witness: The reference to the Moray
Firth area was inaccurate, in that whilst there is the potential
for over abstraction and pollution of the aquifer, it is not currently
a problem. Back
See evidence, p. 192. Back
See also evidence, p. 191. Back