Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness(Questions 180-199)



Mr Mitchell

  180. It is good to have such animation. What is the role of the Environment Agency in this process?
  (Ms Cuff) It is pivotal because basically they have been given responsibility for actually running the process. Obviously they have got to be resourced to do that. It is not fair to expect the Environment Agency with already stretched resources to spend a huge amount of money on a participation process unless they are going to get either extra resources through DEFRA or they are going to somehow be able to reapply their existing resources given that it is such a high priority. I gather they are doing an internal reassessment called BRITE of how they spend their money. This has to be given top priority. It is the biggest opportunity, the most significant piece of water legislation for over 20 years.

  Mr Mitchell: I must say I am looking forward to the next couple of years when we are going to be consulting the public and informing them on the euro, on the European constitution, on the Water Framework Directive, MPs can just sit back with a kind of bemused grin on their faces and watch it all going on.

  Chairman: You have forgotten nuclear waste disposal.

Mr Jack

  181. I was just going to observe that we have had many evidence sessions with DEFRA on important consultation, nuclear waste was one of them, GM crops was another, and you have raised some interesting issues. I want to just come to paragraph 14.5 in this new glossy which came out last week. It says here "These regulations will, amongst other matters, introduce new requirements for the proactive dissemination of information". If you were designing a programme of proactive dissemination of information what would you actually disseminate to the public in order to stimulate the process that we are discussing? What should they know about?
  (Ms Cuff) I think there is a misunderstanding that the Water Framework Directive is an onerous burden rather than an opportunity, so the big message has to be that this is a big exciting opportunity for individual members of the public and the community to have a say about their local patch if they are concerned about flooding, environmental quality, recreational use, etc. The very first thing is to tell them that this opportunity exists and then later, because we are a bit early with this, tell them how they can then influence that. For example, the Environment Agency do have experience of very effective leafleting and Floodline, for example, has been extremely effectively disseminated. You hear Barbara Young, for example, on Radio 4 talking about people logging on and whatever. It is not impossible to start getting the message out that this opportunity exists.

  182. Let me ask you this because one of the discussions with our advisers before you came in was over the whole question of how you deal with some quite complex science which underpins the way that the Water Framework Directive in reality is going to operate. How do we deal with the question of communicating to the public some of the complex science which is central to the way that this thing works so that you can have a genuinely informed consultation about what the public would like to see and also to a degree manage their expectations as well as advise them of what is involved?
  (Ms Cuff) That is a dilemma and you do not have to go straight into the science. The most important thing first of all is to find out where they are coming from and what they want to assess how the science then matches up. If you start that way around then they might better understand later why decisions have been made scientifically that have been made or why decisions have been made on cost benefit analysis or economic reasons and at least they will feel that they have had an influence. The concept of good ecological status, which is the bottom line, more wildlife in your rivers, someone like Chris Baines could easily explain to people in simple language. You could get bogged down with eutrophication and over-enrichment of rivers but there are some basic messages about improving the quality, having more salmon in your rivers, etc, key indicators. Government is very effective at disseminating sustainable development indicators, for example people seeing more skylarks on the farmlands, so the science can be made simple, if you like, and you can see more salmon in your rivers.

Diana Organ

  183. Following on from that, you have said that DEFRA is the best we have got and the Environment Agency are under-resourced to be able to do this job properly. We have touched on the fact that this is a very complicated, complex issue with a lot of necessary information going to the public beforehand so that they can make an informed response. It is so easy to ask people "what would you like from the Water Framework Directive?" and you get a knee-jerk reaction, "we all want clean water, lots of salmon in it", but that may not be what we are talking about. It is a bit like "do you want less sin and less crime?", yes of course they want less sin and less crime, they want a cleaner environment. Given all that, do you think that if we all get our act together starting out of this room today we are going to have sufficient time to actually do what Article 14 is asking us to do?
  (Ms Cuff) Yes, if we start now. Yes, I do. Just to go back to what you said about people wanting motherhood and apple pie, saying they want the whole thing, we did test participation in the Wise Use Project and we were conscious of this problem. We had a blank sheet of paper. We just said "What do you like about your river? What do you not like about your river? How would you like your river managed in the future?" We did start with very open questions and we refined those down and ended up with some concrete management proposals for either flood defence or restoration. We did also make it clear—the point was made to my right—about the expectations, that we would not be able to deliver everything, some of it might not be possible or feasible. I think sometimes you do have to have a blank sheet start and then narrow it down and explain what is possible, what is feasible, look for the consensus. I think if we start now we have got a chance.

  184. The constraints on it are greater than you have said because you start with a blank sheet of paper on what to say to the public. I know that the Environment Agency in my area has done very good and very effective low level consultation about flooding, it is an area that does flood because of the Severn Valley, and it has been extremely effective in that way. It is very easy to go through a village that has suffered from flooding and say "What would you like to see? How much are you prepared to pay for it? What kind of work do you want? How much will you tolerate of, if you like, some flooding once every 50 years of your field?" That is an easy single issue to go for, the Water Framework Directive is not one little bit, it is a very, very complicated large body in the Directive, it has very complicated science behind it. Surely this is a very tremendous constraint to real participation and consultation? We almost need to say to the public "Please go out now and start enrolling with the Open University to do ecology and water science" and after three years we can then have an informed consultation on this. The constraints, rather than just the normal suspects, are on the general populace. It is not a case of "Would you like to have lots of salmon going up and down your stream and, while you are up there, would you like an otter?" They are all going to want an otter and salmon but that is not what the Water Framework Directive is about, it is about phosphorous levels that will improve the ecosystem, it is about how much it is going to cost, what are we going to do with that industry, what are we going to do with man's activity on water. It is far more complicated. Do you not think that the constraints are too great to have real effective consultation and participation?
  (Ms Cuff) I am much more optimistic that you can use specific issues to go in to talk to people. I keep referring to Wise Use because that is part of my experience but we might use flooding as a vehicle to go in to talk to people because that is what is concerning them at the moment. It is very important to pitch participation in on a context that bothers people or pitch it on agriculture or pollution, or whatever it is that is bothering people in a particular locality, and then you can broaden the discussion out. That is one way of tackling what you are saying. It is big and complex but you can go in on a particular issue and then broaden it out. It is a bit like the point made about science, you do not have to bombard them with the whole thing, you find out what is their particular preoccupation. Although the Water Framework is big and sprawling, different parts within a river basin will concentrate on different issues. Obviously they have to have an integrated River Basin Management Plan but the components of that plan will not be all and everything for everywhere, there will be priorities in different parts, whether it is agriculture or flooding or whatever it might be.

Mr Lepper

  185. Does the fact that the UK will not have a pilot River Basin Management Plan mean that we have already missed out on one aspect of this consultation and public participation?
  (Ms Cuff) Yes, it does. It is very disappointing that we did not decide to offer a pilot in the UK. There is one in Ireland on the Shannon, which hopefully we will be able to learn from, and I have been working with them on the Shannon and hopefully they will be trialing some participation techniques. It is not too late for the Sounding Board to maybe think about commissioning some sort of pilot but they have not offered a pilot to Europe and that is disappointing.

  186. We talked about some of the agencies that have a pivotal role: DEFRA and the Environment Agency. In their written evidence to us, WaterVoice talked about their possible role in this exercise and they said "In England and Wales we are well placed compared to other Member States in having, for example, in WaterVoice's regional committees well established customer representative bodies to play a full and active part in responding to public consultation on the draft Plans." Would you agree that they have an important role to play?
  (Ms Cuff) WaterVoice does have an important role but they are not the whole picture by any means. They only have a committee of 20 members in every single river basin and that does not encompass the whole public and more face-to-face, focus group and one-to-one exercise which would be in the spirit of the Water Framework Directive. Also they have a particular angle on things from the consumer lobby and equally important will be other angles, whether it is the fishermen or the farmers or whatever. They do have an important role to play but they are not the whole picture by any means.

  187. Is it an angle that is likely to resolve issues down to how much is it going to cost?
  (Ms Cuff) Yes.

  188. That might be the danger of too much emphasis being placed on WaterVoice's role.
  (Ms Cuff) This is not my particular area of expertise but in the cost benefit analysis that is recommended for the Water Framework Directive it is recommended that we try to take more account of environmental and social costs and benefits.

  189. So they have a role to play but within certain limits and amongst many others?
  (Ms Cuff) Yes.

  190. You were involved in advising on, or maybe even writing, parts of the Common Implementation Strategy. Are there issues arising from that now that we can learn from in terms of participation which you have not already pointed us towards?
  (Ms Cuff) I have covered a lot of it but the main thing to stress from the EU Guidance, which has got to be approved by the Water Directors in Copenhagen at the end of this month so we will see, it start now. There is no blueprinte for participation. That document contains lots of really, really useful examples for the UK to learn from across Central and Eastern Europe from participation exercises that have happened. It also contains costings, which I have not been asked about yet. It does have examples of what participation might cost. It basically says that we have aim for active involvement, which is an early process which allows people to influence from an early stage rather than consultation on pre-prepared document. There is a lot of really useful stuff in there which I hope the UK will follow. Indeed representatives of the Environment Agency have been involved in assisting to draft that document.

  191. You have not been asked about costings, you invited the question.
  (Ms Cuff) I am surprised that I have not been.

  192. Can you give us some examples?
  (Ms Cuff) The main point to make about the costings is participation is an investment for the long-term. If you do not lay the ground rules and if people do not understand and have ownership of why a River Basin Management Plan is there and have broad agreement to it then you are going to have troubles down the line which could end up costing you money. That is the first point. The European Guidance makes it very clear that it is an investment. Depending on which participation exercise I chose to sample I could give you figures for what it costs to run a focus group, what it costs to train community facilitators, what it costs to do a questionnaire. The main message is that the costs are relatively small percentage wise to the costs of the big end product, such as flood defence or restoration. We are talking tens of thousands of pounds for some of these participation exercises, not hundreds of thousands of pounds. There are always ways of saving money to do with sampling views within a river basin and not doing it everywhere. There are lots of ways that costs can be cut and costs can be relatively small in the context of the bigger picture.

Mr Borrow

  193. You mentioned a couple of times the stakeholder Sounding Board.
  (Ms Cuff) Yes.

  194. I think it was welcomed by the World Wildlife Fund UK as a good initiative by DEFRA but I understand from them that it has only met three times. I wonder if you have any comment as to why it has only met three times and whether that is any indication of a lack of interest in consultation?
  (Ms Cuff) It does seem to reflect the poor and disappointing nature of the chapter on participation which is within the second consultation document. I think the Sounding Board really has to gather momentum now, not only in terms of how frequently it meets but in terms of what things it puts in place. I have mentioned that it would be good if it considered urgently testing some participation methods and piloting some methods.

Paddy Tipping

  195. Article 14 of the Directive is a fairly clear clarion call of intent, is it not?
  (Ms Cuff) Yes.

  196. If the Government or DEFRA were perfunctory and shallow in its approach to consultation, is there a possibility of a legal challenge?
  (Ms Cuff) Yes. I am a lawyer by training so I look forward to the case.

  197. How much is this costing us?
  (Ms Cuff) This is free. Basically, to be honest, if you were to ask me why is participation important the absolutely simplistic response is because Article 14 requires it and if the UK does not do it there is a breach of the Directive. What is fulfilling the commitments of Article 14 will be interpreted as and when cases are brought. If we do not require it and if a case is brought then this will all be up for analysis. I should say that it encourages active involvement and it specifically requires consultation and this is the sort of slippage and get-out clause for some Member States. What Europe would like in its Guidance, and what I would recommend to the Committee, is that we enter the spirit of the Directive which says that active involvement and participation are essential for the Directive's delivery and we do go further than classic consultation.

  198. Would you be able to define what needs to be done to make sure that a legal challenge does not take place?
  (Ms Cuff) For a legal challenge they only have to do consultation in 2006. What I am asking for is going beyond that, which would mean they would definitely, definitely be free of the worry of a court case.

  199. You have referred to this document, the second consultation paper, and there is a phrase in it, and I do not understand it or even know how to pronounce it properly, the notion of the Aarhus Convention. Tell me what that is and how that impinges on this?
  (Ms Cuff) Basically it is all to do with public information and access to information and we are signatories to that. Article 14 has taken its tune from the Aarhus Convention and it is all to do with freedom of information, particularly environmental information, and access and involvement.

  Chairman: Ms Cuff, you have been very helpful to us, thank you very much indeed. If there is anything that you wish you had said let us know and if you said something you wish you had not, it is a bit late. Thank you very much indeed.

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