UK Progress on Reducing Nitrate Pollution Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Water Quality

1.It is a cause for concern that 86% of English rivers did not reach good ecological status in 2016, which is lower than the EU average, and that the UK is also performing badly compared to many of its European neighbours in terms of the chemical status of its ground waters. It is particularly worrying that the UK may not hit the 2027 target set in the Water Framework Directive for all water bodies to have a good ecological status. (Paragraph 24)

2.This is having a negative impact on our ecosystems and the organisms that live in them. We note that there were 314 serious pollution incidents in 2016 and that this level of incidents has persisted for nearly a decade, which suggests that more needs to be done to reduce pollution in both surface waters and groundwaters. The figures also show that the Government is rightly concentrating on agriculture and the water industry as the major polluters. (Paragraph 25)

3.We are reassured that regulators are reporting high levels of drinking water quality. But as we note elsewhere in this report, the costs of delivering this in terms of mitigating nitrate pollution, especially in groundwater sources, are high. Such costs are ultimately passed on to the consumer. (Paragraph 28)

4.We are disappointed that the Government was slow in addressing UK breaches of the Urban Water Directive in 2009 which led the ECJ ruling against the UK 2017. We have seen similar problems elsewhere in relation to air quality and nitrogen dioxide emissions. The fact that the UK was slow to respond to these breaches even after the intervention of the European Commission and European Court of Justice does not inspire us with confidence about maintenance of water standards once the UK leaves their jurisdiction. This underlines why a powerful environmental watchdog will be needed after the UK leaves the EU and particularly in the event of leaving without a deal. This body will need to set, monitor and evaluate targets to reduce pollution incidents and improve water quality. (Paragraph 30)

5.Though there has been has been an improvement in the quality of UK bathing waters over the past 25–30 years, the UK is still 7th from the bottom of the scale. The European Environment Agency notes that nitrate pollution from diffuse pollution is a major cause of bathing water not reaching excellent status and that steps taken to address this will have the added benefit of also addressing phosphate pollution. It is crucial that the Government continues to enforce the various initiatives to control nitrate pollution and improve water quality if our beaches are to move into the upper tier of EU bathing quality. The new system of farm payments, linking payments to provision of public goods should look at reducing nitrate pollution from agriculture as a key public good. (Paragraph 34)

6.Though progress has been made in reducing nitrates in surface waters, levels are high in some areas, especially in parts of England, and we still lag behind a number of our European neighbours. We are particularly disturbed to hear of the high levels of nitrate pollution in some of our groundwater sources, which supply nearly a third of our drinking water, which might not peak for another 60 years. Water companies are having to invest substantial sums of money in nitrate removal and water blending plants, the costs of which are being passed on to customers through water bills. (Paragraph 44)

7.Though significant progress has been made in reducing levels of phosphorous in rivers over the last 20 years, which we welcome, it remains the main cause of eutrophication and an obstacle to our surface waters achieving good ecological status. The Government should continue to invest in new technologies and natural infrastructure approaches that can reduce phosphorous levels further. This should include encouraging water companies and landowners to trial such measures and rolling them out if they are cost-effective. (Paragraph 47)

8.Collaboration between stakeholders involved in river basin catchment management makes sense as it seeks to stop nitrate and other pollution at source and acknowledges that responsibility for better water quality lies with multiple actors. A key part of this is investment from water companies and they have made a persuasive case for a longer-term approach to funding. We would, however, note the Secretary of State’s concern that water companies should invest more of their profits addressing environmental challenges, before passing their costs on to consumers. (Paragraph 54)

9.We believe that the Government should consider whether a longer-term approach to river catchment planning and funding would deliver better environmental outcomes. Investment should be used to support farmers and other stakeholders who go beyond regulations and best practice, but it should not break the polluter pays principle. Such investment must ensure that environmentally sensitive sites are protected. We also recommend that the Environment Agency examines whether the sharing of evidence, data and best practice between stakeholders can be improved along with better engagement of farmers by the Agency. (Paragraph 55)

10.To make progress on improving the ecological status of water, the Government will have to use higher standards than those used for drinking water. This should include setting stricter standards for nitrates in freshwaters, as is the case in other EU Member States. It will also need to take a holistic approach to different pollutants, their collective impact and their sources. The Government have produced two plans–the Clear Air Strategy and the New Farming Rules for Water, which seek to tackle the sources and causes of pollution whether it is water, air-or soil based. The Environment Agency and Minister accepted that a more holistic approach makes sense. (Paragraph 59)

11.The Government should seek to ensure that various EU Directives and regulations are aligned and do not result in a siloed approach to individual pollutants but address them in their totality. The Government should also report on progress introducing mandatory water protection zones for vulnerable Natura 2000 sites, which it agreed to do in September 2015, and whether it is considering this approach more widely. (Paragraph 60)

Air Quality

12.We have commented elsewhere on the Government’s failure to meet air quality standards on nitrogen oxides, especially in relation to transport. We welcome progress on reducing particulate matter but we are disappointed that after many years of reductions in ammonia emissions they are beginning to rise. The Government has accepted that this is an issue that needs addressing. We would note that agriculture contributes 88% of ammonia emissions and nearly half of which are from cattle and about a quarter are from fertiliser applications. These are key areas where the Government needs to focus if recent rises in ammonia emissions are to be reversed and reductions made. (Paragraph 74)

13.We welcome the Government’s acknowledgement that both nitrogen oxides and ammonia are key air quality problems that need to be addressed. Plans to use urea inhibitors seem a sensible idea, as does extending IPCC emission permits to dairy farmers. Farmers should be paid for the delivery of public goods, and the new code on good practice for ammonia emissions, and better support for investment in farm infrastructure are both welcome. However, we note that other countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, have taken a more regulatory approach to controlling emissions which has led to significant reductions in their emissions. (Paragraph 79)

14.We recommend that the Government considers whether it can better align policies on water, air and soil and the interaction between nitrogen in its various forms so that actions in one area do not have a negative impact in another. For instance, it needs to ensure that greater use of anaerobic digestion to reduce nutrients leaching into war sources does not lead to greater ammonia emissions, which have increased over the last two years. Better alignment needs to ensure that regulations and regulators are fully joined up across agriculture, water and air quality and that this is fully reflected in future agricultural payments based on the provision of ‘public goods’. For such a joined-up approach to work effectively after the UK leaves the EU, it is imperative that an independent overarching body can oversee these overlapping areas and enforce compliance. This further strengthens our case for an Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office (EEAO). (Paragraph 80)

Agriculture and Nitrogen Pollution

15.We welcome the introduction of the New Farming Rules for Water, especially the focus on soil health, which we have previously championed, and the linkages with water quality. It is important that the rules are supported by good advice and information for farmers and other land managers so that the right behaviours and practices are encouraged and link to other policies and regulations, such as the wider rules for Nitrate Vulnerable Zones and those which seek to address ammonia emissions. Equally important is that data and evidence is collected and maintained to show that the rules are having an impact in improving water and soil quality and that sufficient resources are given to regulators to ensure compliance. (Paragraph 89)

16.We recommend that the Government explores solutions to the logistical problems of moving organic animal waste from livestock farms to arable farms. This could address the challenge of storing and managing animal waste and mitigating ammonia emissions whilst reducing the use of artificial fertiliser. The Government should also explore other incentives for reducing artificial fertiliser use, such as nitrogen and phosphorous budgets, and the concept of a nitrogen price. (Paragraph 94)

17.Anaerobic digestion offers an effective solution to managing sewage sludge and repurposing waste as a resource. This can be used as a renewable energy source and as a bio-fertiliser which can reduce the need for artificial fertiliser. Both uses have the added advantage of reducing carbon emissions, including reductions in the emissions required to manufacture artificial nitrogen fertilisers. This area is regulated by the EU, UK and an assurance scheme. Compliance is essential to realising the advantages of anaerobic digestion. The Government should set out how it is monitoring anaerobic digestion and ensuring compliance and how this is supporting reductions in air, water and soil nitrate pollution. (Paragraph 98)

18.The Government should conduct an assessment to understand how future pressures, such as population growth and climate change, might impact upon air, water and soil quality. This could include working with the Committee on Climate Change to develop models and scenarios to help guide the Government’s nitrogen reduction strategy, as it has for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Committee could also help the Government ensure that such a strategy was aligned with other objectives such as delivering the Government’s Carbon Budgets. (Paragraph 99)

Monitoring, Enforcement and Resourcing Issues

19.We are concerned that a number of witnesses told us that the monitoring system for water quality was not fit for purpose and that figures supplied by the Environment Agency show that the numbers of samples taken, tests carried out and funding have decreased in recent years. Despite the Agency telling us that this is due to increased efficiency, we are troubled that this is occurring ahead of the UK leaving the EU and implementation of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, and before the 2018 New Farming Rules for Water have fully bedded in. We think that it is imperative that good monitoring is in place to provide a baseline against which these new policies can be measured. (Paragraph 105)

20.The Environment Agency should publish the results of its Strategic Monitoring Review as soon as possible and provide evidence that its monitoring is comprehensive in terms of: the range and number of sites; the frequency of testing; the amount of third party information it is using; the full range of pollutants and their combined impact upon water quality; the impact of farming practices and pollution mitigation strategies; the correct balance between modelling and data. This is important as it provides the evidence base for policies and future investment decisions and ensures that Government policies can be scrutinised and progress can be monitored. (Paragraph 106)

21.We are concerned that a number of witnesses suggested that the EA lacks the resources it needs to ensure compliance with the existing regime and rules. We do not believe that 30 FTE Inspectors to cover the whole of England is enough. The regime is also fragmented with various bodies involved, both regulators and market-led assurance bodies. Though prosecutions may not necessarily be the best guide to the effectiveness of the regime, only 20 prosecutions between 2012 and 2016 seems too low. There is a danger that a poorly regulated and resourced regime will discourage farmers and others to comply if they see neighbours flout the rules without a penalty. A poorly resourced and fragmented compliance regime also risks public money, especially in the form of cross compliance payments, being misused. A lack of resources will also undermine the credibility of the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment, and of any new system and the compliance body that will oversee it if the UK leaves the EU. The Government needs to bring forward plans and costings to indicate that it has sufficient resources to enable effective enforcement and oversight. (Paragraph 114)

Monitoring, Compliance and Enforcement after the UK Leaves the EU

22.We are concerned that, despite the assurances of the Minister, the compliance regime for EU water quality and nitrate directives can not be fully transposed into UK law and run the risk, as we have warned before, of ending up as ‘zombie’ legislation. These laws will no longer be updated to take account of changes across the EU and will be divorced from the EU institutions which ensure administrative support, compliance and enforcement. While we welcome the Secretary of State’s acknowledgement of the need for an environmental watchdog to fill the Commission-shaped hole and to replace the European Court of Justice, we are worried that his proposals do not provide an independent body with sufficient powers to ensure that statutory water quality and pollution reduction targets are met. We are also concerned that it will be more difficult to bring cases against the Government for breaches of nitrate pollution and water quality legislation. In addition, we are concerned that if the current system of monitoring, compliance and enforcement is currently under-resourced, as several witnesses told us, regulators such as the Environment Agency will struggle to take on responsibilities previously undertaken by EU institutions. (Paragraph 120)

23.The Government should ensure that its draft environmental bill includes a watchdog as we have recommended, with sufficient powers to enforce compliance with statutory water quality targets, fine Government departments and public authorities for non-compliance, and allow complaints for breaches to be raised and dealt with by the courts. The Government also needs to provide assurance that the post-EU regulatory system will be sufficiently resourced. (Paragraph 121)

24.Despite the Minister telling us that the Government had no intention of watering down commitments on reducing water pollution and improving water quality we are very disappointed that the Water Framework Directive (WFD) target of ‘good status’ for all ground and surface waters in the EU by 2027 has not been retained within the 25 Year Environment Plan. The Plan’s aim to ensure that at least three quarters of our water will be close to their natural state as soon as is practicable is a significant watering-down of the aim in the Directive. This retreat seemed to be confirmed by the Secretary of State’s subsequent letter to the Chair concerning the challenging nature of the 2027 WFD target. We also question the absence of targets and key milestones within the Plan. The Minister contended that overall trends are more important, but interim targets and milestones are vital stepping stones to guide policy and measure progress. While we support the use of public funds to support the provision of public goods this must not undermine the polluter pays principle and public money should fund public goods which go above and beyond compliance with regulatory requirements. (Paragraph 131)

25.The Government should, as part of its upcoming environmental legislation, and as we argued in our report on its 25 Year Environment Plan, produce robust targets and milestones to underpin legally binding targets on water quality. If there is any weakening of long-term and interim national, EU or international water quality targets, the Government needs to provide an explanation of where they are weaker and why. We look forward to seeing the metrics for nitrate and water pollution by the end of the year, which we hope will underpin clear targets in line with or exceeding those set out in the Water Framework Directive. (Paragraph 132)

26.We are concerned that if UK and EU policies on nitrate pollution and water quality diverge in the future it will present challenges for Northern Ireland, particularly its farmers, where there are shared water bodies. Regulatory alignment could also have an impact on the Government’s proposals to tackle ammonia emissions through its Clean Air Strategy if there is a divergence in this area as well. The Government should produce a strategy for dealing with future divergence for both water and air quality. This should include proposals for sharing river basins that span the Irish border according to catchment management principles. (Paragraph 135)

Published: 22 November 2018