Select Committee on European Union Twenty-Seventh Report

CHAPTER 1: Factual Background


1.  The Water Framework Directive[1] (WFD) represents a new, innovative and coherent approach to water protection in the EU. It establishes a framework for the protection of inland surface waters, transitional waters (partly saline waters close to river mouths), coastal waters and groundwater. All such waters should reach "good status" by 2015. Once standards have been adopted by the Member States, the main tool used to achieve them is to establish a "River Basin District" structure within which environmental objectives should be set. The integrated River Basin District approach dealing with all relevant types of water was a step forward, replacing the previous fragmented approach to water protection. Another innovation of the WFD is to add biological standards to the existing focus on chemical standards as a method of assessing water quality. The challenge of the WFD lies in setting ambitious targets for each River Basin District, ensuring at the same time that the timetable laid down in the WFD is respected.


2.  An important feature of the WFD is the level of flexibility built into it. Article 4 permits a maximum 12-year extension of the 2015 deadline for reasons such as technical feasibility, disproportionate cost and the impact of natural conditions. Where the extension is applied, however, a timetable for meeting the standards must be laid down. Temporary deterioration in the status of water in cases of force majeure is not regarded as a breach of the WFD.


3.  Under the WFD, the European Parliament and Council are required to adopt "Daughter Directives". The first, the Groundwater Directive[2], was agreed in 2006. It lays down specific measures with the aim of achieving "good groundwater chemical status". The second, the proposed Priority Substances Directive[3], is still under negotiation. Once adopted, it will lay down environmental quality standards in surface waters for certain priority substances identified in 2001[4].


4.  The proposed Priority Substances Directive was published on 17 July 2006 and sent to the Committee as part of the Parliamentary scrutiny process. Under Article 16 of the WFD, the European Parliament and Council are required to adopt specific measures to deal with certain priority substances which were identified in 2001. The proposed Priority Substances Directive fixes standards and emission controls for these substances. We felt that our examination of this "Daughter Directive" needed to be set in the context of the UK's experience thus far with the WFD and we therefore invited the Environment Agency and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to appear before us.


5.  The Water Framework Directive binds the UK as a whole but as it falls within the responsibility of the Devolved Administrations, it has been transposed into domestic legislation by Defra (for England), the Welsh Assembly Government, the Scottish Executive and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland. Each Administration shares the implementation role with an agency—respectively: the Environment Agency (England and Wales), the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency and the Environment and Heritage Service (Northern Ireland).

6.  The Agencies are required to:

These draft River Basin Management Plans should contain proposed environmental objectives for water bodies and proposed programmes of measures. The Plans must also note the process used during their development, ensure proper consultation and publicity and take account of the views of interested parties.

7.  The Environment Agency is working with the other agencies to draw up standards and conditions across the UK. This work is taking place within the UK Technical Advisory Group on the Water Framework Directive (UKTAG)[5]. The Group includes, in addition to the three agencies, the Countryside Council for Wales, Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Council, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Republic of Ireland's Department of Environment and Local Government.

8.  Defra's specific responsibility includes:

  • approving environmental objectives, programmes of measures and River Basin Management Plans;
  • the power to issue guidance to the Environment Agency and other relevant bodies, to which they are bound to have regard.


9.  In March 2007 the European Commission submitted a Report on the first stage in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive[6]. The Commission concluded that "reports from the Member States on their initial obligations under the Water Framework Directive show some encouraging results, although there are major shortcomings in some areas. There is still time to remedy the gaps before 2010, when the first river basin management plans have to be adopted."[7]

10.  The Commission noted[8] that in 2004 it launched a legal infringement case against the UK and ten other Member States. This has since been resolved. More specifically, the Commission focused its assessment on five key provisions. The UK was judged positively in the way it has transposed into domestic law the public participation provisions and the definition of water services provision. It was considered less successful in its implementation of Article 4 (environmental objectives) and Article 9 (recovery of costs for water services), although the Commission was not precise in its concerns with regard to these Articles.

11.  The Commission's Report included a section (based on recent data submitted by Member States) on how likely water bodies are to achieve the WFD's objectives. By way of example, 75% of the UK's surface water bodies, and 60% of groundwater bodies, were considered to be at risk of failing the WFD objectives[9]. This compared with an average across the EU of 40% and 30% respectively, although data were not complete.

12.  Crucial to the Committee's consideration of the proposed Priority Substances Directive was the Commission's assessment of the quality of information provided by Member States on the pressures and impacts for the relevant substances. The Commission stated that the information provided was very incomplete. For example, "inventories of significant pollutants emitted and pollutant loads have often not been provided."[10]

13.  We make this report to the House for information.

1   Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework of Community action in the field of water policy. OJ L237 22.12.2000 p. 1-73 Back

2   Directive 2006/118/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 12 December 2006 on the protection of groundwater against pollution and deterioration. OJ L372 27.12.2006 p.19-31 Back

3   COM(2006)397, 17 July 2006.Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and the Council on environmental quality standards in the field of water policy and amending Directive 2000/60/EC.  Back

4   Decision 2455/2001/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2001 establishing the list of priority substances in the field of water policy and amending Directive 2000/60/EC. OJ L331 15.12.2001 p.1-5 Back

5 Back

6   COM (2007) 128 final "Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council: Towards sustainable water management in the European Union-First stage in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC". This Communication is currently held under scrutiny by the Committee.  Back

7   COM(2007) 128 final P. 12  Back

8   SEC (2007)362 Accompanying Document to the Commission Report on Implementation (COM(2007) 128 final). P.10 Back

9   Ibid. P.28 & 29 Back

10   Ibid P.31 Back

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