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

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)



Mr Jack

  1. Why are we not taking part in the pilot river basin exercise?
  (Mr Murphy) I don't know.

  2. When you say you do not know, was it a question where somebody said, "We don't want one", were we offered one, but have not given a decision?

  (Mr Murphy) I am sorry, I did not mean to be flippant with my answer there. For all Member States, there was an invitation period where we asked for requests or proposals from them with regard to the identification of pilot river basins. That period for proposals was a three-month period and it closed about six weeks ago. The UK was the only country which did not avail itself of that opportunity.

  3. Does that mean then, and you used the words `tested to destruction', that these pilots will enable all the tools to decide on water quality and all the other associated issues that achieve that by means of experimenting with the proposals, the concepts, the tools in the Directive and we will not be able to do that?
  (Mr Murphy) I do not know what alternative mechanisms will be in place in the UK. In terms of the pooled activity of pilot river basins and common discussions on experiences and testing in pilot river basins, the UK will not be part of that.


  4. Is it too late to add ourselves?
  (Mr Murphy) No.

  5. So if the Government came up with a proposal, that would still be entertained?
  (Mr Murphy) We would very much appreciate it.

Mr Lepper

  6. I think you mentioned, Mr Murphy, and I think one at least of our two previous speakers earlier mentioned this question of derogation for water bodies which already had a certain modified status. Could you tell us a bit more about how that will be defined?
  (Mr Murphy) One of the ten working groups, its sole objective is to address this issue of heavily modified water bodies to try and develop some common understanding of what this term means because it is very difficult to find any body of water in Europe which has not been modified in some form or other, either by changing the banks or by agriculture. For example, the one big issue at the moment in Spain is the big Ebro Delta at the base of the Ebro River. That delta would not be there but for manmade intervention, so if you were to return it to its natural state, there would not be a delta there and nobody wants that to happen, so we are at the moment working very hard to try and identify exactly what heavily modified water bodies mean because the heavily modified water bodies allow a certain derogation and flexibility. The answer is quite complicated. I am very happy to send you documents. Yes, it is an issue and yes, we are trying to tackle it with some technical guidance.

  7. So there will be reasonably clear criteria eventually?
  (Mr Murphy) Yes. That is one of the documents we will adopt and the Member States will agree on in Copenhagen in six weeks' time.


  8. Could I just ask you to clarify something about what we mean actually by `river basins'? If we take south-west France where you have the Garonne and the Gironde as the two major rivers, there is a whole series of micro-rivers flowing into the Bassin d'Arcachon and into the Atlantic there. Now, all of that region there—and I declare an interest in that I have a house on the Bassin d'Arcachon—is heavily polluted with all the fertilizer from the maize which is now growing in that part of France and you notice a decline in things like crab populations as a matter of fact. Which is the river basin there which covers that sort of area of Aquitaine?
  (Mr Murphy) The geographical definition is that you start from where the river flows into the sea and work backwards, so whatever tributaries come in, that is your river basin. Clearly as you get down towards the coast, and it is particularly coasts which have quite a mountainous topography coming into the coast, you have a number of quite short rivers, sometimes only 30 or 40 kilometres long, flowing straight into the sea. According to the definition in the Directive, that is also a river basin, that short 30 or 40-kilometre river. What Member States will do, what they are allowed to do under the Directive, recognising that within quite a small geographical area you may have a number of separate river basins, is they can create what is called a `river basin district' and manage that collectively under one river basin district. In France they have, I think it is, seven or eight agents d'eaux and they have also had a system of managing water on essentially the river basin basis for them for the last 40 or 50 years, so in that particular case they will have all been managed by the same river basin district.

  9. The Directive, when it was put together, was a result, as many things are, of a lot of late-night haggling and consultation with the parties. A criticism is often levelled at these instruments that in the course of that sort of last-minute haggling, all sorts of things get added or subtracted which affect the coherence of the ultimate proposal and even people engaged in that in this Directive have sort of criticised what happened at the last minute and the incoherence. It gives a target of course to businesses affected who have said, "Well, of course if this had been done more coherently, we would not have to face the difficulties". Are you satisfied that there is a complete coherence in what is now being proposed? There are the sort of rough edges and inconsistencies and problems, so if you started again, would it look like this?
  (Mr Murphy) I was not involved at that time and there are certain things when I look at the Directive where I think and I have asked the question, "Why do we have these arrangements in the Directive that we have?" First of all, for example, the discussion on groundwater and the groundwater issue was so controversial that instead of dealing with groundwater as an integrated part of the Water Framework Directive, the issue was postponed and the Commission was asked to come back with a proposal for a daughter Directive on groundwater which we will do in early 2003. It would have been better, if we are looking for an integrated package, if everything had been developed in one integrated whole. My hope is that when we come forward to the proposal, it will clearly fit in comfortably with the structure of the Directive. One issue which I think has been brought to light very clearly in recent months is the question of the quantitative aspects of water management. The Water Framework Directive essentially deals with the qualitative aspects, which is the ecological quality of the water, what flora, what fauna you have in the river, and also what the chemical quality is. Now, apart from the fact that you need to make sure that the abstraction and refilling of groundwater is more or less balanced, quantitative aspects were excluded from the scope of the Directive and that means that in relation to flood events, when you are doing your integrated management plan under the Water Framework Directive, you do not consider flooding. I think the recent events in Europe have demonstrated that to separate the issue of flooding from an overall integrated management of water resources in a river basin does not really make any sense. I think there is a danger that with that type of separation what you will have is two communities of experts and officials and interested parties, one looking after the civil protection aspects of the flooding issues and, in my experience, they tend to be engineers and experts in concrete, and the people looking after the water quality side who will perhaps be more interested in softer approaches towards management of the river basin. If you look at the Rhine between Strasbourg and Koblenz, this is what the Germans and the French have done very effectively, where in order to mitigate the effects in the event of a potential flood or a high river flow they have water meadows and flood plains where they let the water out to flow into the fields. That has an impact on the value of the agricultural land, but compared to the potential economic damage of a major flood event on the Rhine, it is peanuts. To return to your first question, I think the fact that planning for flood events and flood prevention is not part of the Water Framework Directive is unfortunate.

  10. Can I ask you about the relationships with other policies. We have talked about diffuse pollution and of course there is the sort of ghost hanging over the CAP. We know that there is some tendency for policies to be conducted in silos in Brussels as they are in national governments and perhaps the biggest, widest and most resistant silo of all is the Agricultural Directorate. Just to what extent are we going to get joined-up government? We have already seen that the proposals for mid-term review of the CAP are being mugged by a number of Member States pretty competently at the moment. CAP reform always falls short of one's hopes, though not expectations because we are rather cynical in this field, but do you really think that when Member States have got to bite the bullet of doing something which their agricultural lobbies do not like and which might depress yields and might change the patterns of agriculture that they are really going to bite that bullet?
  (Mr Murphy) First of all, the Water Framework Directive provides a mechanism for that to happen because you work back from the water quality you want to achieve both in ecological terms and in chemical terms and you need to do whatever is necessary in that river basin to achieve that, so if agricultural practices compromise on achieving that objective, then the primary objective is the achievement of the requirements of the Water Framework Directive. Secondly, one of the major thrusts of the reform process and the review process under the Common Agricultural Policy is the shift of money from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 away from the market support structures to rural development. From the environment side we have been pushing, and it is now part of the proposals, to see a more significant shift and, allied to that, there has got to be a better definition of what good farming practice is because if you look at the relationship between the farming practice and water quality, there has to be a clear understanding among the Member States and in the farming community of what is actually appropriate and necessary to protect water resources. I do not think there is a clear definition or a clear understanding. For example, in some Member States they will define good agricultural practice as having a one-metre or a half-metre buffer strip between the field and the river. Others will say that it is five metres and others will say that it is ten and they will plant trees in the buffer strip. They cannot all be right, so I think there is significant potential for building conditionality into the payment mechanisms under Pillar 2 of the CAP in order to make stronger linkages between the environmental requirements and the payments particularly in relation to agri-environment schemes and less favoured areas.

Phil Sawford

  11. The UK Environmental Law Association says that the Directive provides a window of opportunity to set foundations for delivering sustainable development because of its integrated approach towards water management and conservation. Now, I would want to be convinced that we were likely to make the most of that window of opportunity. You referred earlier to the huge cost involved, the need to forge partnerships with agriculture, with industry and with other stakeholders and I am not entirely sure that we will seize that opportunity. There may be huge pressures to avoid the opportunity as it arises and to export dirty industries, so how would I be convinced that we will make the most of this opportunity and use that window?
  (Mr Murphy) When you say "we", you mean the UK?

  12. Well, the problem, as I see it, is that it is a global issue and whatever Directives we observe in Europe and throughout all the river basins of Europe, then there is that global perspective. Part of that global perspective is an opportunity to shift the dirty industries somewhere else and rather than seize the opportunities to get that integrated approach and that conservation, the sheer cost pressures might mean that we miss that window. That is what really bothers me.
  (Mr Murphy) There are two parts to my answer. First of all, I think in terms of the cost, the Water Framework Directive does not represent a significant additional cost to industry or to farmers, but I will come back to that in a second. In most of the heavy investment in relation to water quality, a lot of it is in terms of end-of-pipe solutions of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive in terms of reducing emissions from hazardous substances, and a lot of that investment has been made or it is being made. Secondly, the fact that what we are proposing is an integrated approach towards river basin management, what that in fact is trying to do is have a more effective mechanism for achieving water quality, so what we are saying is that if we want to achieve good ecological standards, you look at all the pressures in a river basin and in some cases it may be that emission standards or regulatory measures may have been too severe in the past and in others we may actually be achieving the minimum requirements foreseen under the European legislation, but the actual water quality in the river is still below what it should be because cumulatively and together, the synergistic effects mean that you are still not getting good ecological quality. I think what I would argue is that the Water Framework Directive is also a step towards greater efficiency in the way that we target money for achieving good water quality. Secondly, in relation to exporting our problems elsewhere, that is a far wider issue and it is related to what went on in Johannesburg and it is related to WTO, et cetera. What I can say is that in relation to the Water Framework Directive, the implementation of the Directive is, first of all, the EU15 plus 10 plus all the countries in the Danube Basin. In Johannesburg, the EU launched the Water Initiative with the intention of developing the integrated river basin management approach and fully integrating that into the EU's development programme, but that was a joint activity, not only the EU, but the EU with its development budget, plus the development budgets of all the Member States, so it was a joint action. I am not saying that everybody is combining their funds, but it is an integrated action to develop an integrated approach to river basin management starting with Africa, then in the Mediterranean, then in the NIS countries and then South America and Asia. I am not sufficiently naive to think that that is going to stop people exporting their industries to places where they can get cheaper labour and less severe environmental standards, but it is at least a step in the right direction.

  13. Well, we have to start somewhere through this Directive through the EU. It is a necessity and we have to do it in the long-term intention of sustainable development, and we may seize the opportunity, but others might seek to avoid it. I live in Northamptonshire and we used to have lots of leather tanneries. Where are they now and what does the water in the rivers look like? There are those whole global issues, though, as you say, that is not something that the EU could directly address, but I think we have to keep one eye on that because we do need to build partnerships with industry, particularly those industries that could easily relocate and just take the pollution somewhere else. That is not the global solution to the water issue, is it?
  (Mr Murphy) It certainly is not.

Paddy Tipping

  14. I would like to take you back to some land management issues, the discussion you were having with the Chairman. I am not convinced that land managers are going to respond to the Directive in the way you say. It is clear to me that land managers are major polluters in a diffuse kind of way. The Directive is going to come in, there are going to be targets set, but in reality they are not going to change farming practices because you tell them, are they?
  (Mr Murphy) I would like to say definitely yes and pretend that the world is very rosy. The bottom line is that you can get people's attention until once it hits their pocket. Just as one example, in recent years we have had major challenges, many Member States have had major challenges in relation to the Nitrates Directive. Nevertheless, throughout that period the Member States continued to submit their rural development plans and they were approved by the Commission and the money was paid out under agri-environment schemes and less favoured areas, yet there obviously has to be a disconnect. If Member States are in infringement against the Nitrates Directive, they cannot be receiving money for rural development plans under agri-environment and less-favoured-area schemes, so Commissioner Fischler four months ago sent out a letter to all Member States, saying, "Two years ago you promised us as a condition for release of payments under the rural development plans that you were going to do X, Y and Z in relation to the Nitrates Directive. Well, we have not yet received any clear indication that you have respected that commitment and we would like to receive clarification and, in the process, I remind you of Article [blah, blah, blah] of the [appropriate] Regulation", and that Article is the Article which brings in penalty procedures for blocking payment. The response has been phenomenal, surprise, surprise, and suddenly there is an interest being taken because we have made a clear linkage between respect of environmental legislation and payments under the Common Agricultural Policy. I have had people in my office saying, "This is not fair. This is playing by the back door", but I am sorry, for me I think it is entirely fair and that is how it should work.

  15. But what you are implying though and what you were implying to the Chairman is that there is going to be a switch in payments to land managers with subsidies on production to environmental payments and in a sense this is outside the remit of the Directive. It is a wider discussion and I am not confident that it is going to happen on the kind of timescale that we are talking about.
  (Mr Murphy) I can only say that inside the Commission we have just finalised a paper inside DG Environment on the relationship between the Common Agricultural Policy and the Water Framework Directive to try and move towards a better definition of what the basic requirements are in terms of how we see good agricultural practice and how that relates to the Common Agricultural Policy and the relationship between the CAP and water resources. We have to do that in a far more systematic manner. Those linkages have to be far more transparent and it used to be clear to the different regions that when they submit their own development plans, there is a minimum requirement in terms of good farming practice and that good requirement, as far as the environment is concerned, has to be, as a very basic minimum, to respect legislation and if you want to receive agri-environment payments, you have to go even further with that. I think that process is starting, but I think it is also necessary that even in the current situation under the CAP it is possible for the Member States through modulation to shift money from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 and most Member States do not get anywhere near the percentage they are allowed to shift.

  16. I agree with that part, but I think it is the timetable, the pace of change that is far more difficult. I think the other difficult area, and perhaps you would take us through this, is that here in England and Wales the Environment Agency is going to become the player. The Environment Agency has no remit, it has an advisory role, on land planning issues, on structure plans, development plans and all the rest. Clearly the built environment is a major effect upon water quality and I am not entirely sure how the two processes of the Directive and the land planning issues are going to link together.
  (Mr Murphy) The way they should link together is through the requirements of these river basin management plans which should be developed over a period of three or four years. Then there are river basin management plans and then there is a programme of measures associated with them. The point I made earlier, and I think it was also a point made by the previous speakers, is that there is a major institutional challenge here because not only can you, okay, devise mechanisms for getting the public involved, but there are paper walls between the municipalities, between the land-use planners outside the municipalities, the Environment Agency and they all need to be brought together in some form of institutional arrangement which allows them to develop an integrated river basin management plan and those institutional arrangements have to be finalised by the end of 2003.

  17. Yes, I can see that. I know a little bit about the Lower Trent Valley and they are doing a study on flooding down there at the moment, a major piece of work with some of the different players. It is difficult, but if we are now going to say to planning authorities, "You have got to be part of the discussion about implementing the framework with all the district councils", this is going to be a major cultural change. It is going to bring about major changes in protocols. It is a tremendous task and I cannot see it happening very easily.
  (Mr Murphy) I can only agree with you. I have to say that I started in this job about 18 months ago and when I read the Directive, I was impressed by the scale of the challenge both from a biological perspective because I am a biologist, and the question of the ecological water quality and how you achieve that is, from a scientific point of view, a major challenge, but from an institutional point of view, it represents a major challenge. My observation is that many of the Member States are only just waking up to how big an institutional challenge that is. What I have heard many Member States say is, "Oh, we have these arrangements and we have always worked on the basis of river basins for many years and we know what we are doing", but then they actually start to look at it in practice and they say, "Oh, that means we have to talk to these guys now and these guys", and on and on and on. One of the reasons why I think the pilot river basin exercise is going to be useful is that not only will it demonstrate how effective the technical guidance document will be, but by trying to implement them in practice, the institutional barriers and institutional problems will be highlighted, so I do not underestimate the institutional challenges, they are enormous, but I am not sure that all the Member States realise that.

  18. So who is going to crack the whip here in the UK? Who is going to drive this forward? Clearly it cannot be the Environment Agency, can it?
  (Mr Murphy) I cannot speak authoritatively on the arrangements in the UK, but my understanding is that it would be DEFRA that would have to drive that process and make it happen.

  19. Can we turn quickly to two perhaps easier areas. The Directive will affect the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, but what is the linkage there? How do they fit together?
  (Mr Murphy) Essentially the linkage is through Natura and particularly in relation to the preservation of wetlands. Again I think it is devolved down to the technical level, but the relationships between the designation of Natura sites and the Water Framework Directive is built into the development of this technical guidance document we are working on with the Member States. Also it is linked to what we discussed earlier, that under the reform and review of the Common Agricultural Policy, the shift from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2, we also have to look there at the fact that the funding of the management of Natura sites has to come from somewhere and we are talking about huge amounts of money here, so I think there are two linkages. There is a linkage between the Water Framework Directive and Natura and there is a link between both of them and CAP and the funding of a Natura site.


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