Select Committee on European Communities Report


Memorandum from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions


  The Government welcomes the Committee's report on the European Commission's proposal for a Water Framework Directive. The proposal has developed further since the Committee reported and some of the concerns expressed have been addressed by amendments to the proposal presented by the Commission and during negotiations in the Council working group.

  The most significant developments have been the formal adoption by the Commission of the following:

    —  a revision of the Dangerous Substances in Water Directive (76/464) within the Framework Directive, which was adopted at the end of November (an Explanatory Memorandum was submitted on 20 January). In the Government's view this generally represents a considerable improvement on earlier attempts at revision and reflects a number of detailed changes sought by the UK;

    —  a complete revision of Annex V (EC Document 6260/98) (which provides the technical specifications of definition, classification and monitoring of the status of surface and groundwaters), which was adopted in February. An Explanatory Memorandum will be submitted shortly. The proposal responds to a general concern among member states and the European Parliament, and which the Committee shared, that since these provisions define the objectives to be achieved under the Directive they should be agreed by the Council and Parliament prior to the adoption of the Directive, rather than deferred for consideration by the Management Committee to be established under Article 25 of the Directive. The Government considers that this represents a significant advance.

  The UK has made the Directive a priority for negotiations during its Presidency, and progress to date has been encouraging. Inevitably, aspects of the text change as negotiations proceed so the situation should be regarded as fluid, but it is possible to give some responses to the Committee's detailed comments. These are set out below.


  On average the river basins identified under the Directive are likely to be considerably larger than some of the catchments for which plans are currently prepared in England and Wales (catchment planning has yet to be fully developed in Scotland and Northern Ireland). However, there is flexibility in the identification of river basins and for the development of plans at sub-basin level which can then be aggregated into the overall river basin management plan. The intention of the proposal is to build on existing administrative structures where possible, including international bodies where these exist. There has been further discussion of cases where river basins cross the boundaries of the Community—an issue which is of concern to a number of member states. The emphasis is on seeking to achieve the requirements of the Directive throughout these areas (the latter may entail use of the provisions of existing Conventions where these are in place), but there is an inevitable limit to the extent to which this can be achieved in practice.

  As regards the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Directive allows for any number of competent authorities to be designated to implement the requirements of the Directive. The Government is considering carefully the potential implications of the Directive for the powers available to the various regulatory bodies.

  There is an ongoing debate about the degree of prescription required in the Directive in respect of the river basin management planning process, including the degree of detailed information in the analyses of the characteristics of River Basin Districts, the reviews of the impact of human activity and the economic analyses of water use. It is clear that many member states wish to see more flexibility in these provisions. In terms of the actual planning process there will be a requirement to take account of all of the issues which impact on the catchment. Programmes will include whatever measures are necessary in order to tackle diffuse pollution or other anthropogenic influences on catchments in order to achieve the objectives set under Article 4.

  However, as the Committee acknowledged, there should not be a requirement to reverse the effect of long-standing urban and other development. There are some features of a catchment that are in practical terms unmodifiable and these will often include flood prevention measures. However, as the Committee also recognised, there may be a need to mention floods and droughts more explicitly in the Directive so that efforts to mitigate their effects are also reflected, at least to some extent, in river basin management plans. River basin management plans will also need to take into account longer-term changes in quantity and quality of water resources, including, where practicable, those resulting from climate change.

  Finally, the Committee expressed some concern about the Government's approach to strategic environmental assessment. The Government is firmly committed to the appraisal of environmental implications at all levels of decision making. In its view, however, the proposed Directive on strategic environmental assessment is not the best way to ensure that environmental concerns are integrated into members states' decision making processes. The UK and a number of other member states have concerns over the scope and pracitcality of the proposal, and it was therefore decided not to put this proposal to the Council of Ministers during the UK Presidency.


  The revised proposal for Annex V reflects the work of an experts' group, established under the Luxembourg Presidency and which is continuing to operate under the UK Presidency. The Environment Agency has played an active role in the experts' working group and the Government has also taken advice from other UK water regulatory bodies and statutory nature conservation bodies and sought views from NGOs and other interested parties in industry and agriculture. The Government will continue to seek such views as negotiations proceed.

  Good quality for surface waters is defined primarily in terms of the condition of biological populations, as well as concentrations of certain dangerous substances. Biota are monitored and the status is determined by comparison with a reference condition representing what would be expected for the body of water in conditions of minimal human impact. The reference condition can be determined either by using historical data for the site concerned or from contemporary data from another site with similar characteristics. Since the objectives are concerned with the state of the biological populations, all impacts on the biota—whether chemical or physical in origin—must be taken into account and tackled where necessary.

  The Directive will contribute, sigificantly in somes cases, to the protection of habitats which are aquatic or are directly dependent on the water environment, thereby addressing some of the concerns that have been expressed about the treatment of wetlands. However, the Directive is not a biodiversity measure per se; to make it such would significantly extend its scope and complexity.

  Naturally dry climatic conditions will be reflected in the determination of reference conditions for surface water bodies and good status will be defined accordingly. Since the defintion of good status for surface waters rests on the state of the biota, the achievement of "good status" for surface waters requires an appropriate flow regime or water levels capable of supporting the characteristic biological communities. However, it does not require achievement of specific quantitative or other physical or structural objectives if these are not necessary to support the biological communities.

  Work on defining the objectives for groundwaters has also developed significantly. The material on groundwaters in Annex V was not considered by the experts or the Council working group prior to the adoption of the amendment. However, subsequent discussions at expert level indicate a broad consensus among Member States about an approach which concentrates in terms of quantity, on a relatively general assessment of groundwater levels and the relationship between levels of recharge, abstraction and flows to support surface ecology.


  Consideration of the timetable for improvements cannot be divorced from the nature of the objectives to be achieved and the extent and nature of derogations for certain difficult cases. Now that the objectives are becoming a good deal clearer, detailed consideration can be given to these other issues. There seems to be a general feeling among member states that the timetable will need to extended beyond 2010 but the degree to which this is necessary remains to be debated.

  One idea that has been put forward is for a stepped approach to improvements; another is that there should be some assessment of the benefits of better quality in particular areas. However, regardless of the resolution of those issues, the notion of "no deterioration" underpins the Directive so that existing high quality waters will be protected regardless of how quickly other waters are brought up to higher standards.


  The Government agrees with the Committee that effective monitoring is vital in order to measure progress both within and between member states. National monitoring systems will continue to be used (in some cases after further development) for some considerable time. Accordingly, the need to ensure a high degree of comparability between the results obtained by different monitoring systems is addressed at some length in the revision of Annex V. The work that has been done for surface waters draws heavily on the advice of the European Environment Agency Topic Centre for inland waters. However, some further refinements of the monitoring sections in the Annex is necessary in order to strike the right balance between obtaining sufficient good quality data to measure the status of water bodies and avoiding unnecessary burdens on member states.


  The consultants commissioned by the Government to undertake a study estimating the compliance costs and the benefits of the proposed Directive are due to produce their final report shortly. The study is inevitably somewhat speculative in a number of respects but has taken fully into account the revision of Annex V. The Government considers that it is important to make as robust an assessment as possible of the costs and benefits of the Directive whilst negotiations are in progress, and the results of this study will assist the Government greatly in making this assessment.


  The Government agrees with the Committee that demand for water must be managed if water abstraction is to be sustainable, especially given the prospect of climate change. Through its requirement to achieve good status of surface water and groundwater, the proposed Directive will provide firm drivers towards sustainable abstractions, for those objectives will only be possible if abstractions are managed in a way which takes full account of the interaction between water quantity and the quality of water and its dependent ecosystems.

  The precise way in which water demand is managed needs, however, to be determined according to local circumstances. The Government would expect river basin plans to incorporate references to an appropriate blend of leakage control and encouragement—by various means—of efficient use by household and industrial consumers, but it considers that compliance with the proposed Directive's overall objectives provide sufficient incentive in that regard, with no need to make undefined "demand management" an explicit mandatory measure for incorporation into the plans.


  Many member states share the concern expressed by the Committee about the effects of cost recovery and, in particular, charging for environmental costs. The Government welcomes the greater emphasis in the proposal on the "polluter pays" principle and on economic analysis and the potential use of measures such as charges to stimulate improvements in the use of the water environment whether for abstraction, discharge or other measures. It seems likely from negotiations to date that Article 12 will be couched in less prescriptive terms to allow greater cognisance to be taken of the interactions with other areas of policy—such as public health—and social, geographical and climatic circumstances.

March 1998

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