Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 564 - 579)




  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 all right.

  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 responsibilities?
  (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[1]] 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 Drumochter.
  (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 available?
  (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 fairly.

  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.

Mr Brown

  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[2]. 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.

Mr Clarke

  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[3].

  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 Scotland?
  (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 water usage.

  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.

Mr Brown

  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 the benefits?
  (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 authorisation.
  (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 for abstraction.

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

2   See evidence, p. 192. Back

3   See also evidence, p. 191. Back

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