Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 228-239)




  228. Can I welcome you and would you introduce yourselves for the record?

  (Dr Mance) I am Director of Water Management for the Environment Agency.
  (Mr Griffiths) I am Head of Water Quality.
  (Mr Williams) My role is to manage the implementation of the abstraction licensing review.

  229. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction?
  (Dr Mance) If I may just take one minute, the Committee will recall its Report in 1996 on Water Conservation and Supply which made a set of forward-looking recommendations. These were welcomed by the Agency, and I wanted to update you on three of those, and flag a fourth. One is that each water company should have a drought contingency plan approved by the Agency; these are in place. Second was that there should be water resources plans covering 25 years for every water company. These are in place and we are in the first year of update and review of those, and they have a 25-year horizon. Third was that there should be a national water resources strategy developed and that is being published in March of this year—again, with a 25-year horizon. The fourth was the clear recommendation that the 1963 legislation on abstraction licensing needed major overhaul and updating. We would suggest that climate change and the accumulating evidence of it happening makes it ever more essential that the legislation is updated so we have the flexibility to respond to changing rainfall, river flows and groundwater patterns. The other issue for comment is that nowhere has it been suggested that the existing framework of duties on the Agency in relation to water resources would be changed, which includes the duty to have regard to the needs or the duties of the water undertakers.

Mrs Ellman

  230. What would the effects of the new regulatory structures be on your ability to fulfil your duties?
  (Dr Mance) We are very relaxed about this. We do not see them impinging upon our own responsibilities or duties at all. We think they are quite helpful and, if anything, build on the lessons of the recent periodic review of water pricing and, in part, start to pick up on the recommendations of the Environment Audit Select Committee.

  231. So you do not see any impact on your responsibility for environmental issues?
  (Dr Mance) No. They remain very clear as laid out in the original legislation that created the Agency.

  232. Would you say that the proposals put more stress on consumers and prices rather than on the environment?
  (Dr Mance) In relation to the Director General they seek to clarify his responsibilities in relation to consumers and, in that sense, they clearly do and that is why we have consistently suggested that the Director General, as with other public bodies, should have a duty to assist in the achievement of sustainable development—just as the Agency does.

  233. Do you see any conflict between the responsibilities of the Environment Agency and Ofwat in the new proposals?
  (Dr Mance) No. The legislative framework set up in 1989 when water was privatised provides clear separation of roles: we believe that they got obscured in the first price review in 1993/4; we believe that in the most recent price review they were clearly separated and we received very clear guidance from the Secretary of State as to the environmental obligations they believed were necessary—ie, pace of change and its affordability were traded-off by the Secretary of State, with clear guidance to the Agency which we requested as the legislative framework provides for. Nothing in this draft Bill changes that.

  234. So does that mean you are satisfied with the proposals in the draft Bill?
  (Dr Mance) In relation to Ofwat, yes. We are very relaxed about them. They do not have much impact on us at all.

  235. And in relation to your responsibilities to the Environment Agency?
  (Dr Mance) In as much as there is a change of balance of role between ourselves and the Director General and the Secretary of State, again we are very relaxed. The Secretary of State already has a power of direction over us in the original legislation creating the Agency, and there is nothing in this draft legislation which changes that balance or approach, as far as we can see.

  236. And you feel there is sufficient emphasis on environmental issues?
  (Dr Mance) I do not think the legislation changes the balance. We were comfortable with the balance during the periodic review and I believe that the Environment Audit Select Committee when it reviewed the periodic review came to that conclusion as well. As long as we continue to operate the framework in a way which recognises the distinctive roles, then we see no need for further change and we do not believe the proposals here in relation to the Director General change that balance.

Mr Olner

  237. Are you happy with the proposed powers that the Bill will give you in relation to abstraction licensing?
  (Mr Williams) Yes. In general we support the proposals in the Bill. I would just make two comments: some of the proposals that were in Taking Water Responsibly have not yet appeared in the Bill and we do look to the Department to make sure those are included in the Bill.


  238. They are?
  (Mr Williams) There are several proposals.
  (Dr Mance) There is quite a long list which we can provide to you. There are about ten or twelve items.

  239. We would be happy to have it as a note.
  (Mr Williams) We have included it in our main submission to the Department. The other area I would comment on is the problem that we foresee with the aspiration of the government to secure conversion of permanent licences to time-limited status. The government seem to be relying either on the voluntary approach, which we consider is perhaps unrealistic, or the use of the Agency's existing powers which rely on us making proposals to vary licences with potential for appeal and potential for Lands Tribunal hearings to do with compensation. If you think we might want to convert about 20,000 licences, then that mechanism is clearly going to clog up the system very quickly, and we think it would be unworkable.

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