Work of the Committee: 2010-15 - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Contents

2  Environment

Natural Environment

6. Defra holds the remit for policies relating to England's terrestrial and aquatic environments. The breadth of this remit means that during this Parliament we have focused on a wide range of issues covering water, air, and land policy areas. Some of the largest areas of Defra's expenditure relate to this policy area, such as spending on flood defences and waste management. The largest Defra agencies also fall under this category with the EA, NE and Ofwat performing key functions in protecting and enhancing the natural environment and assuring the supply of essential services such as clean air and water.


7. In June 2011, the Government published the first White Paper on the natural environment for 20 years. This recognised that a healthy natural environment is the foundation of sustained economic growth, prospering communities and personal wellbeing.[2] We carried out an inquiry to examine the policies in the White Paper and were disappointed that its aims had not been integrated into the policies of other government departments.[3] Successful delivery of the White Paper was seen as central to the Coalition Government fulfilling its commitment to be the "greenest government ever". The White Paper contained 92 specific actions and a range of policy levers, but we were concerned that Defra had neither an overarching action plan nor a timetable for delivery of its aims. Defra has published periodic White Paper implementation updates: the most recent, from October 2014, notes that the delivery of a number of commitments is still "in progress".[4]

8. The White Paper included proposals for piloting voluntary biodiversity offsetting schemes, which we believed had the potential to deliver a considerable positive impact on the natural environment provided that the first priority of these schemes was to enhance biodiversity.[5] We have monitored the progress of the biodiversity offsetting proposals, which have been significantly delayed, and made subsequent recommendations in our annual reports on Defra's performance.[6] In our Defra performance in 2013-14 report we called on the Department to set out a renewed timetable for its actions on biodiversity offsetting to provide certainty for local communities, landowners, planning authorities and developers.[7] A future Committee may wish to continue to monitor progress on the implementation of biodiversity offsetting.


9. Following the discovery of the fungus Chalara fraxinea (which causes ash die-back disease) in native UK ash trees in 2012, we looked into whether Defra's policies and response to plant disease outbreaks were adequate.[8] During the course of the inquiry, Defra asked its Chief Scientific Adviser to set up the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce and subsequently accepted all the Taskforce's recommendations. We welcomed the Government's actions in this regard and stressed the importance of maintaining up-to-date systems and information whilst guarding against a focus on short term fire-fighting due to budget constraints. The Government has committed to providing us with regular updates on its progress on negotiating the new EU plant health regime over the next few years.

10. More recently, in March we raised with the Secretary of State the ability of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, to continue to provide world-class scientific expertise in the light of uncertainties about the organisation's future structure and funding. This is a potential issue for future monitoring.


11. We conducted several inquiries into water policy and legislation during this Parliament, examining a breadth of issues including water scarcity and drought, water abstraction, water metering and water bills, water market reform, and flood and coastal risk management. As part of our role in scrutinising key public appointments, we also carried out pre-appointment hearings with the Government's preferred candidates for Chair of Ofwat,[9] and Chair of the EA.[10] We endorsed the appointment of the candidates: Jonson Cox and Sir Philip Dilley respectively.[11]


12. During the 2012-13 Session, we carried out pre-legislative scrutiny of the Draft Water Bill, which set out legislative proposals to increase competition in the water sector in order to improve efficiency and ultimately lower bills for customers.[12] Our views were informed by our earlier reports on water policy: Future Flood and Water Management Legislation,[13] and The Water White Paper,[14] and by the work of our predecessor Committee. The draft Bill had a narrower focus than the Water White Paper, establishing a legislative framework for reform of the water industry and leaving much of the detail to be determined by secondary legislation and guidance. We criticised this approach and called for more detail and clarity to be included on the face of the Bill to allow for appropriate scrutiny.

13. None the less, we were encouraged to see subsequent Government amendments introduce some of our key recommendations into the Water Act 2014. Examples include a new clause enabling incumbent companies to exit the non-household retail market voluntarily, and a new clause requiring the Secretary of State to prepare a report on the progress being made on water abstraction reform within five years from the day the Act was passed.[15] Defra's consultation on its abstraction proposals closed in March 2014 and included proposals to link the amount of abstraction allowed more closely with how much water was available; and to make trading water much quicker and easier, giving licence holders a greater incentive to use their water responsibly. Defra is committed to being ready to legislate early in the next Parliament in order to implement reforms in the early 2020s. Key decisions on which to base the legislation will be made later in 2015.

14. We continued to monitor in subsequent inquiries and correspondence further pre-legislative recommendations which were not reflected in the Water Act. In particular, we continued to urge the Government to implement key, yet repeatedly delayed, provisions of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, such as those on sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) to improve the management of surface water. Following public consultation in October 2014, Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government announced that, rather than implementing the 2010 Act's SuDS provisions, an alternative approach would be taken forward. This proposes to strengthen the planning system applicable to developers and local authorities, with relevant changes to planning policy expected to come into force this spring.


15. Defra has policy responsibility for flood and coastal risk management. One of the Department's top priorities is protecting the country from floods. Our reports on Managing Flood Risk,[16] The Water White Paper,[17] and Winter floods 2013-14,[18] examined flood and coastal risk management and policy at various points throughout this Parliament in response to several episodes of widespread flooding across the country. We have consistently pushed for increased investment (both capital and revenue) for flood management, and in particular for better funding for agricultural land and rural areas and an acknowledgement of the importance of sustained and adequate maintenance work. We have also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the partnership funding model for securing private sector funding and the fairness of the thresholds and eligibility criteria of the Bellwin scheme. We have pursued specific recommendations—such as endorsing the role of Internal Drainage Boards and calling for urgent guidance on the new reservoir safety regime—through various channels, including through correspondence with the Secretary of State and via debates in both the Chamber and Westminster Hall.

16. We have closely followed developments in investment levels and policy: it is encouraging that action addressing our concerns has been taken in a number of respects. We welcomed the additional sources of funding that were announced over the past five years, most recently in response to the floods of the winter of 2013-14. We commended the widespread help provided to communities during flood relief efforts, but remain convinced that investment in flood prevention is preferable to spending on clean-up, from both an economic and social perspective. We were pleased that changes to the Bellwin scheme were made following the 2013-14 floods: for the first time in 30 years the threshold of costs incurred by flood damage at which help is provided was reduced, and the Government now commits to pay 100% of costs incurred by communities above this level. We welcomed the introduction of public sector co-operation agreements between the EA and Internal Drainage Boards which enable the EA to make full use of the Boards' local expertise and knowledge in allocating funding for maintenance on main rivers in and around Board districts. In response to our continuing concerns that agricultural land tends to get sacrificed in favour of highly populated urban areas, the EA recently informed us that only 1% of grade 1 agricultural land is at very significant risk of flooding.[19]

17. Most recently, we have raised concerns about the detail of the Government's six-year capital investment programme and the lack of any corresponding certainty for future revenue funding.[20] In particular we have repeated our concerns about whether the partnership funding model will deliver increases in private sector funding in the future, and have urged Defra to explain the impact on the six-year investment programme if the £600 million external contributions target is not met, noting that only £40 million of the £148 million of partnership funding contributed to date has come from the private sector. The delivery of the external contributions target falls to the EA, which confirmed that "quite a lot of [the external funding] will either come from the local levy or local councils, but we are actively looking at how we can increase the money from private sources".[21] We also recommended that the Government assess the possibility of a transition to a total expenditure (capital and revenue) classification for flood and coastal risk management to allow funding to be targeted according to local priorities, which Defra's Permanent Secretary confirmed "is certainly an issue that we keep carefully under watch and discuss regularly with the Treasury".[22] A future Committee may wish to monitor this during the next Spending Review.


18. Flood insurance for households (and, for now, small businesses) at high risk of flooding is currently provided in line with a Statement of Principles agreed between the Government and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) in 2008. As the Statement of Principles was a temporary solution (originally due to expire in June 2013), the Government has long been working with the insurance industry to find a more permanent solution. We tracked the development of updated proposals during the course of this Parliament and examined a number of potential models for flood insurance during our Managing Flood Risk inquiry.[23] We supported the preferred Flood Re scheme in principle but were concerned that the full details were not available at the time that we carried out our scrutiny.[24] A one-off evidence session was subsequently held with representatives from the insurance sector in March 2014 to provide us with an update on flood insurance proposals following the floods of winter 2013-14.[25]

19. Since we published our Managing Flood Risk and Draft Water Bill reports, the Government and the ABI have agreed a Memorandum of Understanding on how to develop the Flood Re scheme to allow flood insurance to remain widely affordable and available; and a broad framework for establishing a new flood insurance scheme has been included in the Water Act 2014. Secondary regulations will put in place the detailed scheme, its funding and administration but these have yet to be laid for debate in either House.[26] The Government intends Flood Re to be established by July 2015 and a future Committee may wish to continue our watching brief as the scheme is finalised and commences operation.


20. In January 2011, we welcomed the introduction of a Marine Policy Statement to provide a framework for planning in the UK's marine areas.[27] The Statement was in turn jointly published by the four UK Administrations in March that year, with the aim of ensuring clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas around the UK. Consultation in advance of publication was broadly positive. It was anticipated that the Statement would be reviewed every five years or so, implying that a review will be due in early 2016, or that a new Committee may wish to prompt one.


21. The UK already has more than 347,000 kilometres of sewers and 9,000 sewage treatment works but new infrastructure will be needed to meet the demands of a growing population and EU environmental requirements. Our inquiry into the Government's draft National Policy Statement (NPS) on Waste Water noted that it was essential that the planning system for large waste water projects was as efficient as possible to deliver this in a timely manner whilst giving sufficient attention to the impacts on local communities, and on water and sewerage company customers who ultimately foot the bill.[28] We supported the proposed Waste Water NPS for its potential to provide a valuable policy framework to guide decision makers. We did not, however, endorse the inclusion of site-specific sections on the Thames Tideway Tunnel project, recommending that the NPS focus on the generic issues applicable to all projects. None the less, we welcome the Government's acceptance of our recommendation that the Thames Tideway Tunnel be designated as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project so that the streamlined planning processes could be applied to the project.

Air quality

22. In the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, we took evidence on air quality issues in England and Wales, with a particular focus on London.[29] We examined performance against EU and national air quality targets and considered how effective improvement measures had been in cutting pollution. Also explored were the health impacts on people living and working in areas experiencing breaches in air quality standards, as well as the roles and responsibilities of key organisations in tackling air pollution, including local government, the EA and Defra. In February 2014, the European Commission started infraction proceedings against the UK following the UK Supreme Court declaration that the UK was in breach of its obligations to comply with the nitrogen dioxide limit values in the Ambient Air Quality Directive.[30] As Defra is responsible for policy and regulation on environmental protection and pollution control, and as the Department has committed to ensure compliance with the Directive "as soon as possible",[31] this issue may be an area which a future Committee may wish to monitor.

Environmental regulation of hydraulic fracturing

23. We took evidence on Defra's responsibilities relating to the recovery of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing (known as 'fracking') in September 2014 from Defra's Secretary of State, Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, and from EA witnesses.[32] We focused on the role of Defra in shaping environmental policy on fracking and on specific environmental impacts regulated by the EA. Concerns were raised about possible impacts on water resources and water quality, which were subsequently followed up by the Chair during a Liaison Committee evidence session with the Prime Minister in December 2014.[33] Other issues associated with hydraulic fracturing, such as possible seismic activity, health and safety issues and noise pollution, are outside our remit as they are regulated by other Government departments including the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Health and Safety Executive. The Committee welcomes the additional controls put in place by DECC to reduce the risk of seismic activity by way of a traffic light monitoring system triggered at a magnitude of 0.5. A further evidence session was held in March 2015 with representatives from shale gas operators to gain an industry perspective on the benefits and risks associated with fracking and to discuss the impact of the relevant Infrastructure Act 2015 provisions on shale gas operations.[34]

Waste Management

24. About 177 million tonnes of waste is thrown away each year in England. However, from April 2014, Defra stepped back in areas of waste management "where businesses are better placed to act and there is no clear market failure".[35] In response to Defra's announcement, we carried out an inquiry examining existing approaches to recycling and the treatment of household waste in England. Following publication of our Report on Waste management in England,[36] (but before receipt of the Government response), the European Commission announced it would withdraw its proposals on moving towards a circular economy to replace them with more ambitious proposals by the end of 2015.[37] The withdrawn package had included proposals on new targets on waste recycling, including 70% for municipal waste by 2030 and a ban on landfilling of recyclable waste (plastics, metals, glass, paper, cardboard and biodegradable waste) with the objective to move towards virtual elimination of landfilling municipal waste by 2030. We encouraged Defra to aspire towards these objectives (with or without European targets) but, in relation to many of our recommendations, the Government responded that until EU negotiations on any new proposal had substantively concluded, it would not have sufficient clarity to consider what further action would be necessary.[38] The issues of increasing recycling rates across England and energy from waste capacity and management may be something a future Committee wishes to pursue, not least because our recent recommendations to a large extent remain unanswered by the current Government.


25. Defra published the draft National Policy Statement (NPS) for Hazardous Waste for consultation on 14 July 2011, which would form the basis of the Infrastructure Planning Commission's consideration of applications for large scale hazardous waste infrastructure once the final NPS was designated in July 2013.[39] We carried out scrutiny of the draft NPS and concluded that it needed further amendment owing to ambiguities and inconsistencies that risked a level of uncertainty for developers and decision-makers. We also found the sections on Environmental Permitting and flooding unsatisfactory and urged Defra to take a more proactive approach to educating the public about the need for, and the benefits of, hazardous waste infrastructure.[40] We were disappointed that the Government did not accept some of our recommendations, particularly in relation to safeguards for flood zones and flood protection.[41]

2   HM Government, The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature, June 2011, CM 8082 Back

3   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2012-13, Natural Environment White Paper, HC 492 Back

4   Defra, Natural Environment White Paper, Implementation update report, October 2014 Back

5   See HM Government, The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature, June 2011, CM 8082, Commitment 15 Back

6   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2013-14, Departmental Annual Report 2012-13, HC 741, and Eighth Report of Session 2014-15, Defra performance in 2013-14, HC 802 Back

7   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2014-15, Defra performance in 2013-14, HC 802 Back

8   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2013-14, Tree health and plant biosecurity, HC 469 Back

9   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2012-13, Pre-appointment hearing: Chair of the Water Services Regulation Authority, HC 471 Back

10   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2014-15, Appointment of the Chair of the Environment Agency, HC 545 Back

11   Note: The Committee also held pre-appointment hearings and endorsed the preferred candidates, Andrew Sells and Margaret McKinlay, as the Chairs of Natural England and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority respectively. See Eighth Report of Session 2013-14, Appointment of the Chair of Natural England, HC 890, and Seventh Report of Session 2011-12, Pre-appointment hearing: Chair of Gangmasters Licensing Authority, HC 1400-I Back

12   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2012-13, Draft Water Bill, HC 674 Back

13   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2010-12, Future Flood and water Management Legislation, HC 522-I Back

14   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2012-13,The Water White Paper, HC 374 Back

15   Water Act 2014 Back

16   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2013-14, Managing Flood Risk, HC 330 Back

17   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2012-13, The Water White Paper, HC 374 Back

18   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2014-15, Winter floods 2013-14, HC 240 Back

19   Q105 [Sir Philip Dilley] Back

20   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2014-15, Defra performance in 2013-14, HC 802 Back

21   Q99 [Dr Leinster] Back

22   Oral evidence given on 19 November to Defra performance in 2013-14 inquiry, HC 802, Q26 [Bronwyn Hill] Back

23   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2013-14, Managing Flood Risk, HC 330 Back

24   Note: Flood Re will apply to flood insurance for households only  Back

25   Oral evidence given on 11 March 2014 to Insurance for flooding inquiry, HC 1142 Back

26   See: Defra, Government response to the public consultation on the Flood Reinsurance Scheme Regulations, December 2014 Back

27   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2010-12, The Marine Policy Statement, HC 635 Back

28   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2010-12, The draft National Policy Statement (NPS) on Waste Water, HC 736 Back

29   See Air Quality inquiry page on EFRA Committee website Back

30   Directive 2008/50/EC on Ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe. Back

31   See Defra, Request for information: air pollution infraction fines, May 2014 Back

32   Oral evidence given on 10 September to Defra's responsibility for fracking inquiry, HC 589 Back

33   Oral evidence from the Prime Minister given to the Liaison Committee on 16 December 2014, HC 887 Back

34   See Clause 50 Infrastructure Act 2015. Oral evidence given on 10 March to Defra's responsibility for fracking inquiry, HC 589 Back

35   Letter from Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Water, Forestry, Rural Affairs and Resource Management, Defra, dated 6 November 2013 to stakeholders Back

36   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fourth report of Session 2014-15,Waste management in England, HC 241 Back

37   European Commission Communication, Towards a circular economy: zero waste programme for Europe, July 2014 Back

38   Government response to Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report of Session 2014-15, Waste management in England, HC 921 Back

39   Note: In April 2012 the Infrastructure Planning Commission was abolished under Localism Act 2011 provisions, and replaced with the National Infrastructure Directorate of the Planning Inspectorate Back

40   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2010-12, The draft National Policy Statement for Hazardous Waste, HC 1465 Back

41   Government interim response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2010-12, The draft National Policy Statement for Hazardous Waste, HC 540 Back

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Prepared 24 March 2015