Water Policy: Environmental Quality Standards

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Ian Pearson: To update the Committee on the three remaining pesticides to which I referred, as a result of the licensing review that is taking place they might well not have a licence in future, in which case a large part of the problem that the hon. Gentleman identifies would be solved. As a result of the UK’s industrial legacy, we have cadmium in our water supply in pretty much every part of the country. It varies from area to area. The fact that background levels can be taken into account is significant, as companies in areas close to existing EQS levels should not be disadvantaged.
Mr. Paice: I am nearly done. The Committee will be pleased to know that I have just two more questions. I wish first to return to the links with the drinking water directive.
There may be some debate—the Minister has access to wider sources than I do—but I understand that some of the chemicals in question, both pesticides and industrial chemicals, are not allowed in drinking water. The water companies currently have to carry out whatever process is necessary to remove them from the drinking water that emerges from our taps, even if they are present in the river or reservoir from which the water was abstracted. If in future those chemicals are not allowed into the river or reservoir, those companies will presumably not have to spend money removing them from the water before it goes into the distribution network. That was my point about an offsetting saving, and I would be grateful if the Minister reflected on it again.
Ian Pearson: My understanding is that we have some of the highest quality drinking water to be found anywhere in the world as a result of a range of technologies deployed by the water industry to ensure that it is fit for human consumption. Those technologies will not suddenly become unnecessary if some of the water is produced to higher standards than hithertofore because of this daughter directive. Using granular activated carbon—basically the technology used to ensure clean drinking water—in all sewage treatment works might make a difference, but that is not what we are actually talking about. The debate on the proposals before us deals principally with the impact on sewage treatment works, not the work required to ensure wholesome drinking water.
Mr. Paice: Finally, I shall address a slightly different aspect. Somebody referred earlier to the weather that we are enjoying and to climate change. Will the Minister tell us what work is being done on flash flooding, which obviously is a potential source of pollution, owing to run-off from domestic properties and other things, particularly in view of the massive extra development envisaged by the Government for parts of the country? In particular, have they examined the sustainable urban drainage system—he is nodding, so he probably knows about it—and what work is being done to promote it in new developments to reduce the risk of pollution from run-off?
Ian Pearson: Flash flooding, and flooding in general, is a major issue that the Government take seriously, which is why we are spending about £600 million per annum on flood and coastal erosion risk management. We are talking about large rainfall events—that is probably the best way to describe them—and the sewage system is built to a standard that can cope with a one-in-40-year event. Sometimes, however, flooding occurs, such as in my constituency last week, following rainfall more exceptional even than that. We cannot build a pipe network to assume the worst of all possible cases because it would be hugely costly, so we must compromise. However, we can do a lot more to improve the resilience of the network.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned sustainable urban drainage, which I think is an important way forward. We have done a lot of work in the UK on sustainable urban drainage systems and, as part of new build, we want greater account taken of them. I am questioning whether there should be an automatic right for new developments to connect to the pipe network. That would be a new and different initiative.
We must look at what happens above and below ground in the same place and think about SUDS. We need more ponds and grass. In London alone, we have paved over the equivalent of 22 Hyde parks. That creates problems for access and water run-off, which the hon. Gentleman identified. There is a lot more that we can do, and as we learn and adapt to climate change, we will have to look at build standards for pipes in our sewerage network and at sustainable solutions. I say, “Bring back the village green.” We will need them in the future.
Chris Huhne: Bring back the village green—a definite attempt by the Minister to go for the John Major stakes. It brings back memories of old maids bicycling in the morning mist.
I have a question about another problem that occurs with “large rainfall events”, as the Minister put it. In some areas with essentially 19th-century waste water systems and potentially very substantial discharges from waste water treatment plants, the sewage system cannot cope with the amount of rainfall. Has the Minister assessed the likely problems from the remaining systems in that category across the country? In a number of older 19th-century and early 20th-century towns, such discharges can be a real problem. Indeed, in my constituency, the sudden arrival of polluted water in local waterways has led to problems of fish kill.
Ian Pearson: We have done a lot of specific work on compliance with the urban waste water treatment directive. For instance, if it starts to rain more than about 3 mm an hour in London, discharges start to go into the River Thames as a result of combined sewage overflows. Some 50 per cent. of discharges to the Thames come from the Abbey Mills pumping station, which is one reason why we see that as an early priority for action when it comes to the Thames tideway solution. That is the case in London.
In many other parts of the country, there has already been investment to solve the problem of combined rainwater and sewage outflows. We need to make sure that London is fit for the 21st century and has the right solution. We are seeking to ensure that in areas of the UK where the issue remains, such outflows are dealt with as quickly as possible.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 11816/06 and Add. 1, Draft Directive on environmental quality standards in the field of water policy and amending Directive 2000/60/EC, and 11847/06, Commission Communication on integrated prevention and control of chemical pollution of surface waters in the European Union; and supports the Government's aim of securing a proportionate, cost-effective and environmentally protective measure.—[Ian Pearson.]
5.21 pm
Mr. Paice: I do not intend to detain the Committee for long. In principle, we support the directive. As the Minister said, it is described as a daughter directive of the water framework directive and, as he implied, it is in many ways long overdue. As the hon. Member for Wallasey said, the chemicals have all been demonstrated to have negative effects on health, and the sooner they are removed from our water, the better. In an ideal world, they would not be there, and I entirely endorse the Minister’s earlier comment that it is better to prevent during the original manufacturing process than try to remove afterwards.
Nevertheless, I have considerable sympathy with the comments of my Liberal Democrat colleague about the absence of an updated RIA and I have made such comments myself. The Minister seems to accept that it is going to go through on Thursday. He almost seemed to cut his figures during the debate—from the original £1 billion to hundreds of millions of pounds, then to the bottom end of that range; perhaps the figure will have turned into a positive before we have finished. I hope that he is not, but if he is proved wrong, and the revised RIA still comes up with costs of hundreds of millions of pounds—perhaps even in the high hundreds of millions—he will have acquiesced in the agreement of a directive with potential costs.
Article 4 is a significant improvement on the original draft and I readily accept that it comes into play and that proportionality is a factor. However, it has its downsides: we may apply it sensitively, but if other countries judge that spending anything on the issue is disproportionate, they may use it as a way of avoiding doing anything. We have to be careful not to put too much emphasis on it. I fear that the Minister may go into the negotiations without all the information that he should have to hand.
Obviously, the costs are huge. The Minister answered some of my questions about where they go. The costs will fall on the port authorities, individual businesses and agriculture. With the possible exception of agriculture, a primary industry, most such businesses will be able to pass the costs on to consumers through their cost structures. I hope that the revised RIA will have some estimate of what difference the measure will make to consumers’ domestic water bills and to industrial water bills as it comes through the system. That is an important point because whenever we take measures to improve the environment—obviously, Conservative Members believe that that is one of the Government’s pre-eminent responsibilities—we should be conscious of the cost and of who will pay it.
I want to raise again, as a point of debate, the concern about how we understand who is responsible. As the Minister agreed, understanding who is responsible is much harder, but nevertheless just as important, when we are talking not about end-of-pipe or point-source pollution, but about run-off from agricultural land or developed areas, as I mentioned in respect of urban development. I therefore hope that the Government will undertake the necessary studies and investigations so that we can identify more clearly who is responsible, if only to ensure that everyone accepts their responsibilities in the interests of equity.
Put at its simplest, the other issue is that the directive is basically a target-setting and enabling measure, and the crunch will be the actions that follow from it. Although some of the environmental quality standards have been proposed, the changes that the Minister has described, which are largely welcome, make the provisions a little more vague and introduce a little more flexibility, and article 4 obviously comes into play. We will therefore have to await the next Government’s action plan—I suppose that that is how I should describe it, in as much as there will be a new Government of some sort after Wednesday—for turning everything into a reality. That is when we will see real time scales and whether the relevant date is 2015 or one of the later dates envisaged in the proposals.
In principle, my party does not oppose the directive; indeed we support the objective behind it, as long as ways can be found to ensure that the costs are proportionate and that other countries do not use them as an excuse not to take action. We must also ensure that the sources of pollution—whether point-source pollution or diffuse pollution—are properly identified and monitored in the way that I described.
That, however, is all that I need to say, and I certainly do not intend to divide the Committee. I am grateful to the Minister for his answers, although I am sorry that he has was unable to answer all our questions, particularly on costs. However, others will read what he has said—particularly about carbon granules and about the costs being dramatically less than £1 billion and perhaps nearer to a few tens of millions—and make their own judgments. Obviously, we will do so, too, if we find that his judgment has been too optimistic, although I hope that we will not need to do so and that he is right.
5.29 pm
Chris Huhne: I rise to assure the Minister that my party very much supports the thrust of the present policy and the directive. I do not, therefore, want to give him the impression that I am unduly persecuting him about the costs and about whether the directive is proportionate. However, it is striking that the motion before us clearly asks us to support
“the Government’s aim of securing a proportionate, cost-effective and environmentally protective measure.”
Unfortunately, the Minister has come naked into the conference chamber. one might say. He cannot give us any assurance about the actual costs other than in the most broad-brush terms of between tens and hundreds of millions, which is a pretty wide margin when it comes to making public policy. He cannot tell us whether the likely measure will be cost-effective or proportionate.
There is an issue of principle, although not in this legislation. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, who has just taken his seat and is a former Member of the European Parliament, knows that when the Commission promised to try to secure updated regulatory impact assessments, many of us felt it was an exceptionally good idea because we would know the costs of particular measures. The Minister is moving around, saying, “Hang on. This has all turned over, because hundreds and indeed thousands of water outlets might be affected,” but that is exactly the point. It is precisely because of the extremely broad scope of the measure that it is so important to get right its proportionality and cost-effectiveness.
I am disappointed that we have not had a better stab at securing evidence-based policy, and that the Council appears to be rushing into adopting a common position before it has all the evidence. I do not know whether there are any particular deadlines that make it important in an institutional sense——perhaps the Minister will tell us——but, as a matter of principle, EU legislation and this House’s legislation should be based on a proper assessment of the costs imposed on people.
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): I am sorry that I was not present at the start, Mrs. Anderson; I was in another Committee.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, while Dr. Caroline Jackson was chairman of the European Parliament’s environment committee, she sent back the regulatory impact assessments on several occasions when they were not deemed adequate? Perhaps the Minister should take that line when there is a similar lack of detail in the submissions that come to us.
Chris Huhne: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, because Dr. Jackson was feisty with a capital F on several occasions. The hon. Member for Wallasey might remember that Dr. Jackson was someone who cared considerably about environmental matters. It was a matter of trying not to kick into touch important issues, but to ensure that legislation was undertaken properly, and that proper consideration was given to its cost-effectiveness. However, we do not intend to divide the Committee. We are supportive, and I hope that the Minister will return with a little more information and evidence for the policies that he proposes.
5.33 pm
Ian Pearson: I welcome the support of the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire and for Eastleigh for the proposals overall. I recognise their points about costs, but the hon. Member for Eastleigh is a bit of a one-club golfer on that issue. I say to him that proportionality is built into the provision because of article 4 of the water framework directive, which will be applied, and that we will be able to consider whether the measures required have a disproportionate cost.
In response to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, I stress that we will certainly want to bear in mind the costs of implementing the water framework directive in general when it comes to the social and environmental guidance that we provide to Ofwat as part of the PR09 price review process.
I shall give one more example of the difficulties and assumptions concerning costs. The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of ports, which did not come out in questions. The ports industry is important to the UK economy and there is a potential threat through the water framework daughter directive. Originally, there were estimates of £1 billion per annum in the draft impact assessment, but our latest estimate, which again I stress is provisional and has been provided by officials, is that there will be a range of between £35 million and a maximum of £185 million. Again, that is based on a particular programme of work that may or may not be required, depending on a person’s view of proportionality.
Given the expected half-life of tributyltins, which are the principal cause of the problems, I do not think that any action could be regarded as proportionate. In my judgment, because of the natural half-life of TBTs, the problem will be solved when they have been banned and not used for 10 to 20 years. A person can pick figures on the basis of their view of proportionality. Again, that is why it is not possible at this stage to make definitive judgments on what an impact assessment would look like.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire made some good points about diffuse pollution. We are working on that area, and I will certainly want to discuss with him how to tackle that important problem.
The Government believe that it is absolutely necessary to build new homes. I sometimes think that the Conservative party do not want homes in people’s back gardens, in the green belt or anywhere. We owe it to our citizens to provide affordable housing for the future, but we must ensure that development is properly planned to take account of water companies’ 25-year water resource plans in respect of water availability and sewage treatment. As a Government, we will endeavour to ensure that that happens. We need more imaginative solutions when it comes to areas such as urban drainage.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned action plans, and he was right to say that we are not yet at the stage of producing them. That is another reason why it is impossible to have a fully reliable impact assessment. Again, I return to the basic point. The Committee can take reassurance from the fact that the article 4 provisions of the water framework directive are now clearly part of this daughter directive. That will make a difference. It will give us the flexibility to make judgments about the cost-effectiveness of measures, which is exactly what one would expect a responsible Government to do.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 11816/06 and Add. 1, Draft Directive on environmental quality standards in the field of water policy and amending Directive 2000/60/EC, and 11847/06, Commission Communication on integrated prevention and control of chemical pollution of surface waters in the European Union; and supports the Government’s aim of securing a proportionate, cost-effective and environmentally protective measure.
Committee rose at twenty-three minutes to Six o’clock.
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Prepared 26 June 2007