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

Examination of witnesses (Questions 316-339)




  316. Can I welcome you to the last session this morning and could I ask you to identify yourselves for the record?

  (Mr Marsden) I am James Marsden. I am General Manager with English Nature with specific responsibility for sustainable development and freshwater policy.
  (Ms Giacomelli) I am Alison Giacomelli. I am Freshwater Policy Officer in English Nature.

  317. Do either of you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight into questions?
  (Mr Marsden) By all means go straight into questions.

Christine Butler

  318. Does the Bill represent a good deal for the environment at the expense of water users?
  (Mr Marsden) We feel that there are ways in which the Bill could be improved to better reflect the impact on the environment. There are some duties that could be placed on some of the proposed new bodies, that is, the Panel and the Council, that would help. We feel also that attention to licences of right would help, particularly where they have been operating since prior to 1963.

  319. What about the balance? Do you think that is right between the social and environmental aspects?
  (Mr Marsden) We would say that the true environmental cost of water is still not being paid by the consumer and that we need to be very careful in bringing in the Bill to ensure that there is adequate safeguard for the environment while at the same time addressing the issue of price in a way that is fair and reasonable to the consumer.

  320. If we only concentrate—and it is vitally important that we do concentrate—on environmental aspects, and do not pay sufficient regard to, say, social concerns and the bills of customers, what problems do you then envisage?
  (Mr Marsden) Very specifically there are, we estimate, 358[2] sites of special scientific interest affected by abstraction and a considerable number of those were picked up under AMP 3, the Asset Management Programme 3, but equally a large number were not. Forty six[3] were not included in AMP 3. We will certainly be addressing that in the AMP 4 process with the Director General of Ofwat. We need to be very clear also that the drive on price does not impact on water authorities' ability to implement those existing agreed schemes and investigations because there is a risk that it might.

  321. Can you put a little bit of detail on that last sentence?
  (Mr Marsden) Yes. The potential we think is there that we have got an agreed asset management programme, a number of special designated sites within it. A number of the schemes and investigations are already later than we would wish to have seen. The longer we wait for those schemes to be implemented the greater the damage that will take place to these special sites. Therefore, if there is an impact or price pressure on water companies we might find that those schemes are further delayed.

  322. Why do you fear the long term impact of competition on the water environment?
  (Mr Marsden) It is not so much competition per se.

  323. What is it?
  (Mr Marsden) It is the impact that that may have, again on the point I have just been making. We are not just talking about designated sites, the SSSIs and the Natura 2000 series of international sites. We are talking about water companies' ability to deliver across the range of biodiversity action plan targets. There are five key priority habitats that are particularly affected. Those are raised bogs, fens, reed beds, wet woodland and grazing marsh, all of which potentially are affected by water deficit quite seriously. Water companies have large land holdings. On the whole they have been doing a good job in helping to deliver the United Kingdom's biodiversity action plan targets, but we may see their ability to do so affected if they come under increased competition which affects their ability to spend money in those ways. There are some specific examples of that.

  324. Have you got any ideas about management of their assets? Could they be split between the catchment areas, looking at what the assets are for water companies?
  (Mr Marsden) Indeed. As far as the land holdings are concerned, water companies now are statutory undertakers[4] within the meaning of the recently enacted Countryside and Rights of Way Act, and therefore have a very specific duty of care which they must undertake; it is not an option, they have to do it. We will work with them to ensure that they can. It is beyond the designated sites that we might feel that there could be an impact on what they can do beyond compliance.

  325. Where do you see your role in this? You would like to step in and say something. Would you like greater powers or would you like your voices to be that little bit louder?
  (Mr Marsden) We are an enabler, we are a facilitator, we are also a regulator. I think we are acting in all of those roles with the water companies.

  326. Are there any changes that you would like to make, any statement you would like to make today, to safeguard that interest?
  (Mr Marsden) As far as the water companies per se are concerned, no, but in relation to the wider roles of the Director General and the new proposals for the Council and powers, certainly we would, yes.

  327. Do you support those?
  (Mr Marsden) We are happy with those proposals subject to them having a cross-cutting duty.

  328. Would you rather the Director General had some powers of discretion because it would always have to be a discretionary regime, would it not, if he had to balance various interests? Do you think that is best left with him or do you think there should be powers of intervention for the Secretary of State and it should not be with the regulator?
  (Mr Marsden) That is a tough one. the Director General already has quite specific powers and I think that the ministerial guidance that is proposed in the Bill could further direct that and bring some of the strands together. Those powers are quite dispersed in a number of existing Acts. It would be useful if the ministerial guidance brought those together in a specific way, yes.

  329. The guidance would be through further regulation or by order? Do you think some degree of flexibility within the Bill should be there?
  (Mr Marsden) I think the degree of flexibility in the Bill would be okay.


  330. On this question of environmental protection, cannot you have a pretty good drought in terms of the environment? Is it not good occasionally to have droughts and presumably occasionally to have floods?
  (Mr Marsden) On a chalk downland quite possibly, but not in some of the biodiversity action plan priority habitats I mentioned earlier. Yes, a drought can help in some habitats. It can be a good thing. Some things thrive on it.

  331. But have not most natural habitats in the past been subject to these substantial fluctuations?
  (Mr Marsden) Periodically, yes.

  332. So when we are looking at environmental protection should it be to make sure that a reed bed has water all the time for a hundred years or merely that it most of the time has water?
  (Mr Marsden) There is another factor I would like to bring into play beyond the effect of climate and that is management. If you combine lack of water with lack of management then you have a problem because succession takes hold and it moves faster than it would otherwise do.

  333. So do you think that abstraction licences should be revoked where they can say that there is serious damage on occasions? How do you measure damage?
  (Mr Marsden) We have a specific monitoring protocol which our conservation officers carry out and it forms the basis of our reports to government for the core indicator on sustainable development: condition of special sites. We have a monitoring protocol in place which affects both SSSIs and the Natura 2000 series. We can pick up changes in condition whether or not the management condition of a site is favourable or unfavourable, whether it is stable or declining. That is what the monitoring protocol and the common standard with our sister agencies is designed to do.

  334. Would it not be reasonable on some of these sites for the number of indicator species to drop dramatically every so often because of drought?
  (Mr Marsden) I think not, no. The reason for that is that many of these sites now are islands and the wider environment has been so drastically changed and a biodiversity action plan is about putting something back, that we need to do everything we can to underpin these jewels. Indeed, government has set a very specific target for our sponsor department, DETR, in this respect, to achieve favourable condition by 2010. That is going to be a very tough call, particularly when, as I said earlier, there are 358[5] of the 4,300-odd SSSIs that are currently adversely affected.

  335. I can understand the argument about continual damage but I am saying that in extreme circumstances I would have thought it was just a natural feature that occasionally habitats were going to be threatened.
  (Mr Marsden) It is an occasional feature but it is one which we should seek where possible to mitigate.

  336. So you should not have a drought on some of these areas?
  (Mr Marsden) On some of these habitats certainly, yes, but a fen that dries out will result in loss of species diversity and species richness. Given the number of fens that are in good condition which are supporting some of these plants, or indeed animals which are confined to single sites, a drought would be catastrophic in terms of losses.

  337. So you are quite happy to see the abstraction licences revoked where it is just serious damage?
  (Mr Marsden) Serious damage is very important. As far as the wider abstraction licences are concerned, we would ideally like all of the licences to fall within the Environment Agency's ability to call in so that we can effectively implement catchment management strategies. That needs to be the driver. We have got this new tool. We need the Environment Agency to be able to use it effectively and without the ability to call in other licences they will not be able to do that as effectively as they might.

  338. Do you think the Environment Agency is doing a good job in protecting water resources?
  (Mr Marsden) It is doing its best.

  339. I did not ask you whether it is doing its best. Is it doing a good job?
  (Mr Marsden) It could do a better job with better powers is the honest answer.

2   Witness correction: 197. Back

3   Witness correction: 151. Back

4   Witness correction: Section 28G authorities. Back

5   Witness correction: 197. Back

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