Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Second Report




COM(02) 179

Commission Communication: "Towards a thematic strategy for soil protection".

Legal base:
Document originated:16 April 2002
Deposited in Parliament:9 May 2002
Department:Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Basis of consideration:EM of 27 May 2002
Previous Committee Report:None
To be discussed in Council:25 June 2002
Committee's assessment:Politically important
Committee's decision:Cleared


  10.1  The importance of soil protection has long been recognised both internationally and within the Community, most recently in the latter case in the Sixth Environmental Action Programme[30] and the Sustainable Development Strategy[31]. The stated purpose of this Communication from the Commission is to build upon the existing political commitment in order to enable soil protection to be achieved in future more fully and systematically.

The current document

  10.2  The Communication begins by noting that soil performs a variety of vital functions (including the production of food and other biomass, the storage, filtration and transformation of minerals, water and energy, and as a source of raw materials), and has certain distinctive characteristics, notably its variety, potential for rapid degradation, and role as a living medium with abundant biodiversity.

  10.3  It then goes on to identify the main threats to soil within the Community as being erosion (which it describes as generally irreversible, and as being a particular problem within the Mediterranean basin); a decline in organic content (due to changes in cropping patterns, and the increasing separation of livestock from arable production); contamination, either from clearly defined local sources (such as mining, industrial facilities and waste landfills) or for diffuse reasons (such as atmospheric deposition of acids, heavy metals and pesticides, and inadequate waste and waste water recycling and treatment), leading to a breakdown in its capacity to act as a buffer; the covering ("sealing") of soil by housing, roads and other developments, which reduces the available area and affects other properties, such as water flow and biodiversity patterns; compaction, due to overgrazing or the use of heavy machinery, which affects root growth, water storage capacity and fertility; loss of biodiversity; salinisation; and floods and landslides. The Communication suggests that many of these threats are linked together by a series of common threads. It also concludes that soil degradation is driven (or exacerbated) by human activity; that there is evidence that this is currently taking place within the Community, and is in fact increasing; and that the current threats may well be increased by climate change.

  10.4  The Communication also summarises the wider international dimension, where it points out that the threats identified are not confined to the Community, but rather constitute a major worldwide problem with significant environmental, social and economic consequences, which need to be addressed, particularly as population growth increases the need for food production. It points to a number of initiatives which have been taken in recent years, including those at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio; the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (which led in turn to the Community's own Biodiversity Strategy); and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (which recognised the importance of soil as a sink for greenhouse gases).

  10.5  The rest of the Communication is devoted mainly to an examination of Community policies relevant to soil protection, more particularly those on the environment, agriculture and the regions, but also including transport and research. In the case of environmental policy, it notes action taken in such areas as the Nitrates Directive and Water Framework Directive to prevent the contamination of surface and groundwater; the measures taken to control atmospheric pollution through the Air Quality Framework (and Daughter) Directives and the Directive on National Emissions Ceilings; and the Sewage Sludge Directive and other waste measures, such as the Landfill Directive, the Incineration Directive, and the Urban Wastewater Directive. It also comments on the role of land use policy (in preventing sealing) and of general environmental legislation, such as the Integrated Pollution, Prevention and Control Directive, and the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive. As regards agriculture, the Communication highlights the importance of the 1992 reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy, which established the importance of rural development policies, and the new agri-environment measures introduced as part of the Agenda 2000 reforms.

  10.6  In general, the Commission sees the way forward at Community level as involving the development of existing measures within these various policy areas, but it does propose that specific action should be taken to obtain more complete information on prevailing soil conditions and to evaluate the impact of the various policies. It therefore intends to bring forward by mid-2004, following consultation, a legislative proposal aimed at ensuring that assessments are carried out in a harmonised and coherent way, and that the results are made available to policy makers and provide an early warning of potential problems. Priority would be given to monitoring those contaminants which can be transferred from soil to food or which have any other potential health implications. It says that the aim would be to use as far as possible existing information systems, and that the arrangements should be cost-effective.

  10.7  The Commission also suggests more tentatively that the existing Habitats Directive on conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora might be extended to require site protection of specified soil types.

The Government's view

  10.8  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 27 May 2002, the Minister of State (Environment) at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr Michael Meacher) says that his department is developing a soil strategy for England which follows a similar approach to this initiative, and which recognises the threats to soil quality and resources and the need to make its protection more central to the consideration of the relevant cross-cutting policies. He adds that the devolved administrations are considering similar initiatives.

  10.9  The Minister says that the Government therefore supports the Commission Communication, which he considers recognises the issue of subsidiarity, and more particularly that problems local to Member States should have local solutions, with Europe-wide action being limited to areas where this can add value — a consideration which he says is reflected in the limited extent of the proposals for legislation specific to the subject. That said, he stresses that the Government will seek to ensure that any legislation is flexible and proportionate to need, and he adds that a Regulatory Impact Assessment will be prepared for any that is proposed (though he considers that there would be unlikely to be any significant impacts on the private sector).


  10.10  This is a useful document in that it summarises the present situation, and suggests ways in which further action at Community level might help to address the problem. That said, the specific action it proposes is limited, and, if pursued, would be the subject of further proposals in due course. Consequently, although we are drawing the document to the attention of the House, we do not think any further action is needed, and we are therefore clearing it.

30   (22132) 5771/01; see HC 28-xi (2000-01), paragraph 5 (4 April 2001), HC 152-i (2001-02), paragraph 3 (18 July 2001), and HC 152-ii (2001-02), paragraph 2 (17 October 2001). Back

31   (22437) 9175/01; see HC 152-i (2001-02), paragraph 42 (18 July 2001). Back

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