Select Committee on European Union Twenty-Seventh Report

CHAPTER 2: The Issues


14.  There was consensus among our witnesses that the UK had met its obligations thus far in terms of implementing the Water Framework Directive. Tricia Henton, Director of Environmental Protection at the Environment Agency, stated that "to date the UK has met all its statutory requirements … either on time or indeed ahead of time" (Q 4). Ian Pearson MP, Minister of State for Climate Change and the Environment, agreed: "Defra and the Environment Agency have actually met all the Directive's deadlines so far and we expect to continue to be implementing them according to the schedule and what is envisaged" (Q 54).

15.  We were pleased to hear from both sets of witnesses that the implementation of the WFD had been successful thus far, although we were subsequently disappointed to learn that the Commission had launched a legal infringement case against the UK in 2004 and that the Commission was not content with other aspects of the UK's implementation of the WFD. We trust that Defra, the Devolved Administrations and the three Agencies will make all possible efforts to implement their obligations according to the schedule and the substance of the Water Framework Directive.

16.  We also urge the Government to take action on the matters raised by the Commission in its Report on the implementation thus far of the Water Framework Directive.


17.  Both the Environment Agency and Defra made clear that there was a high level of co-operation between the Administrations with regard to implementation of the WFD. The Minister stated: "There is England/Wales, England/Scotland co-ordination, and also with Northern Ireland as well there is a good deal of co-ordination. There is obviously some international cross-over with the river basins as well between the north and south in Ireland" (Q 54).

18.  By way of example, Ms Henton highlighted the fact that there is one River Basin District straddling the border between England and Scotland: the Solway/Tweed area. She said: "The Solway/Tweed River Basin District is a very interesting one, because we are dealing with two different administrations and two slightly different ways of implementing the legislation. It therefore requires all of us who are involved in it to go that extra mile to make sure that we are getting what we want out of the river basin district and that we are keeping the legal aspect of each of the administrations correct" (Q 17).

19.  We note the importance of effective co-operation between the Devolved Administrations and are pleased to hear that such co-operation appears to be taking place.


20.  Aileen Kirmond, Water Framework Directive Programme Manager at the Environment Agency, informed the Committee that the Agency was "working closely with both our other environment agencies and our conservation agencies and with the other administrations to look at what good status looks like" (Q 6). The Environment Agency was also working with the European Commission and the other Member States through a process described as "inter-calibration". Rob Hitchen, from the Water Quality Division of Defra, explained: "What Member States are trying to do through inter-calibration is a process of harmonising the ecological classification systems of each Member State" (Q 71). It was then up to Member States to decide, for example, what level of ammonia in their rivers or lakes would support an agreed diversity of fish fauna. Mr Hitchen said: "You have a common EU approach, if you like, in broad terms in defining the ecological status but then there is the flexibility for Member States to define what that means to its levels of ammonia, levels of phosphates in rivers and lakes, because it is going to vary across the EU depending on climatic and geographical factors" (Q 71).

21.  The Minister emphasised that, thanks to the UKTAG, the administrations were "developing common UK environmental standards and conditions that will support the achievement of good status under the Water Framework Directive" (Q 70).

22.  The evidence we have received suggests that strenuous efforts are being made to arrive at a satisfactory definition of 'good status'. We hope that the work involved will be completed in a timely manner in order that all concerned can make the necessary preparations.


23.  Baroness Young, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, emphasised: "The Framework Directive is a very flexible one … there is a bit of a feeling that everything has to be done by 2015. Nothing could be further from the truth." She explained that, while major progress should be made by 2015, "there will still be a lot to do" (Q 8). This, she explained, was for a number of reasons: the failure to meet the cost-effectiveness test; long lead times; technical reasons. A crucial factor would be the level of collaboration between all concerned, such as water companies, local authorities, developers and farmers (Q 14).

24.  The Minister explained that the WFD allowed Member States "to set alternative objectives to extend the deadline [of 2015] by one or two cycles, which would be 2021 or 2027. One of the key justifications when deciding what those alternative objectives might be is that measures and mechanisms needed to achieve the objective would be disproportionately costly" (Q 67). Elaborating on this, he said: "You have to look at the costs required to produce marginal increases in benefits" (Q 69).

25.  Ms Henton emphasised that the Environment Agency needed Defra to complete its preliminary cost-effectiveness analysis as soon as possible: "That is a very, very important part for us because without that we really cannot set the objectives … and we need guidance from them on what is considered to be disproportionate costs" (Q 44).

26.  It is clear to us that the flexibility enshrined within Article 4 of the WFD is pivotal to the success or otherwise of the WFD. We urge the Government to clarify as soon as possible what are considered to be disproportionate costs for the purposes of Article 4. We consider too that the flexibility provision must be applied responsibly, recalling that it provides a temporary derogation rather than a long term exemption.


27.  Baroness Young confirmed, in relation to the new standards introduced by the WFD, that "quite a lot of the monitoring that is already in place will serve for the purposes of the Framework Directive but some of it will not, particularly on the biological side" (Q 16). Nevertheless, Ms Henton emphasised, "we are very well prepared; certainly as prepared as any other European country" (Q 16).


28.  The Environment Agency told us that it was aware that local authorities needed to build the requirements of the Water Framework Directive more effectively into spatial and economic planning mechanisms (Q 22). Baroness Young suggested that "the area that is probably the most difficult and least well thought through at the moment is the issue of surface water drainage and sewerage" (Q 48).

29.  The Minister told us: "We would expect local authorities to have strategic discussions through the Agency's River Basin District Panels and possibly sub-groups of those panels, which are the forums in which the River Management Plans negotiations and discussions will take place" (Q 81). He confirmed that Defra was working with the Department for Communities and Local Government, and other relevant Departments, on implementation of the WFD (Q 80).

30.  Baroness Young said that the Environment Agency wished to see a requirement laying a more stringent requirement on local authorities to deliver the objectives of river basin plans, rather than the current requirement to have "due regard" to the objectives of river basin planning (Q 25). The Minister did not agree. His view was that, as the objectives of the river basin management plans had not yet been set, it was a little early to judge what the requirements on local authorities might be. "But there are clearly issues", he said, "in terms of the planning process that we will need to take account of in the future." (Q 78) He added: "What the appropriate balance of responsibilities is, I think, will have to be determined on a River Basin District basis" (Q 79).

31.  The evidence received indicates the key role of local authorities in delivering the objectives of the Water Framework Directive. The Government should work more closely with local authorities and ensure that local authorities have the necessary guidance in order to fulfil their role in relation to the Water Framework Directive, particularly with regard to local planning policies.


32.  Agriculture also has an important role. According to Baroness Young, the agricultural departments needed to look at how they could help farmers "do the right thing by the water environment" (Q 22). She noted: "Pillar 2[11] and the incentive payments on Pillar 2 will be a really important issue", although in terms of funding, "there will be rather less available in Pillar 2 for agri-environment schemes than we had hoped" (Q 36).

33.  According to the Minister, "agriculture is certainly one of several sectors that may, and probably will, need to take action to ensure that the Water Framework Directive objectives are met … We believe strongly in cross-compliance[12] and, as you will be aware, we have various schemes through environmental stewardship to encourage good environmental practice above the basic cross-compliance requirements" (Q 77).

34.  A particular problem is diffuse pollution, which can result from the filtering through of pesticides into water courses. In addition to agriculture, however, it can equally apply to other land-based activities emitting pollutants which are dispersed across an area and into water courses. Hydromorphology is concerned with the physical form and the flow of a water body. This can be affected by human intervention through structures such as dams, weirs, bridges and artificial beaches.

35.  The Environment Agency expressed a desire to see Defra launch consultations on diffuse pollution and on hydromorphology (Q 44). The Minister told us: "We intend to consult shortly on a package of measures with regard to diffuse pollution, in particular pollution from phosphorous, sediment and faecal indicator organisms … There are certainly plans to tackle diffuse pollution, but we will want to do it in partnership and in consultation with the industry" (Q 77).

36.  The agricultural industry has a key role to play in ensuring the success of the Water Framework Directive. We urge the Government to work closely with the agricultural industry to overcome potential obstacles, including diffuse pollution, to the meeting of the Water Framework Directive's objectives.

37.  We welcome the fact that, since both Defra and the Environment Agency gave oral evidence to us, the former has launched a public consultation on both diffuse pollution and on hydromorphology.[13]


38.  The Environment Agency expressed a strong view that the general public was more interested in outcomes than in process. Participation was, however, crucial for those who must deliver as part of the implementation process. Baroness Young stated that the WFD "guides us to make sure that the people who need to be involved because they deliver are participating, and that the public need to be informed" (Q 24). The Minister stated: "I am confident that people who want to get involved with this process will have the opportunities to be involved" (Q 74).

39.  Following the publication of the oral evidence, we were contacted by the Foundation for Water Research (FWR), an independent registered charity which has set up a website in order to provide information on the Water Framework Directive. The FWR disagreed with the assertions made by both Baroness Young and the Minister. It believed that the WFD "provides an ideal opportunity to engage the general public in water environment issues" (p 28).

40.  We showed the FWR's comments to the Environment Agency, who pointed out that the experience derived from its Pilot Scheme in the Ribble Basin "gave us practical evidence for the ideal shape of River Basin Liaison Panels", involving "all the sectors contributing to delivery, including consumers, environmental non-governmental organisations and local authorities" (p 29). Defra also disagreed with the FWR's view. It noted that the National Stakeholder Forum for England on the Water Framework Directive meets every 3-4 months and comprises over 40 national organisations, including the FWR. That forum had two sub-groups, on economics and on communication of the WFD to wider audiences. The work of the latter had been extremely useful in communicating "the initial results of the river basin characterisation exercise in 2004 to a wider audience (which also received coverage in national newspapers and radio)" (p 30).

41.  On the basis of the evidence provided by Defra and the Environment Agency and in view of the Report by the European Commission, we conclude that the public participation obligations prescribed in the Water Framework Directive are being met. Nevertheless, we consider it important that this aspect should be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that all those wishing to participate are able to do so in an informed manner.

42.  We believe also that the approach taken by Defra and the Environment Agency should be driven by the principle that the greater the public participation over and above the legal requirements, the greater the likelihood of success in implementing the Water Framework Directive.


43.  The Environment Agency believed that any new marine legislation must take account of the WFD because the WFD included within its scope estuarine and coastal waters (Q 44). The Minister confirmed that "we will take full account of the Water Framework Directive in our design for the detail, the policy that goes into the Marine Bill" (Q 84).


44.  Baroness Young informed the Committee that Defra would have a national stakeholder group and that the Environment Agency would have a national group to bring together some of the experience coming out of the River Basin District Liaison Panels (Q 31). An important lesson that had been learned from the Environment Agency's Ribble Basin pilot scheme was that partnership is crucial. Baroness Young told us: "We held the ring and people got together but they started talking together and went away holding hands into the sunset and did things together, and it was great. I think the Ribble Conservation Trust really got great benefit from new people being brought in that they had not previously had a framework to talk with" (Q 43).


45.  Ms Kirmond informed the Committee that both the Groundwater Directive and the draft Priority Substances Directive were there "because Europe could not reach agreement on them during the time of the agreement on the main body of the directive" (Q 50). They should therefore "be part of the whole regulatory framework that helps us to achieve good ecological status, both on the biological and chemical and quantitative basis" (Q 50).

46.  Ms Kirmond noted that the Environment Agency had been heavily involved in the negotiation of both Directives. With regard to the Priority Substances Directive, she said, "We are working very hard and supporting Defra in that negotiation so that we will get something which helps us to be in a good position to replace the Dangerous Substances Directive[14]. But we are also thinking very carefully about the applicability of the directive and what it will mean in terms of regulation and whether it is a reasonable approach. So we always have that in our mind as well, the reasonability of the chemical standards that are being proposed and whether they are transposable into reality" (Q 50).

47.  The Minister expressed "concerns about the safety factors that have been used to calculate EQSs (Environmental Quality Standards) where there is not the available toxicological data in some cases. We think that this is resulting in highly precautionary and stringent standards that could actually drive very costly investment to achieve objectives and might only have marginal environmental benefit … We would favour having provisional standards and seeing lower safety factors" (Q 64).

48.  Ian Macdonald, from the Water Quality Division of Defra, explained: "It is getting the balance between a properly precautionary approach and the certainty in the calculation of the correct and scientifically correct quality standard … It may be in a few years' time we will realise that we would have been doing enough with perhaps a less precautionary standard, and our approach would be in negotiations to see whether the Commission and other Member States would consider a provisional standard, as they have already proposed for a couple of metals" (Q 65).

49.  On the possible costs of the draft Directive, the Minister stated: "The cost of end-pipe controls to achieve environmental quality standards are estimated at some one billion [pounds] for additional treatment at water industry sewerage treatment works if we were required to meet all the requirements in the Directive as they stand in the proposal at the moment" (Q 67). This assumed that the flexibility enshrined within Article 4 would not apply.

50.  The Minister concluded: "One of the key things of the [Water Framework] Directive overall is that Article 4 makes it clear that members would not be required to take action which would incur disproportionate cost or which is not technically feasible within allotted timescales. I think that principle has to apply to all the Daughter Directives and this is very much a key part of our negotiating remit as we move forward with this proposal on priority substances" (Q 86).

51.  We agree that a proportional approach must be taken to the new Priority Substances Directive. In line with the Water Framework Directive, it is appropriate to apply to the Priority Substances Directive the flexibility enshrined within Article 4 of the Water Framework Directive.

52.  Our assessment of the implementation of the Water Framework Directive thus far indicates that the standards laid down must be transposable into reality, taking into account the complexities of delivering this legislation. We hope that the experience gained from implementing the first stages of the Water Framework Directive will provide a constructive input into the negotiations taking place in relation to the new Daughter Directive.

53.  We are concerned that the general level of information provided by the Member States in relation to priority substances has been weak, and consider that the speedy adoption of the Priority Substances Directive will strengthen implementation of legislation in this area.

11   The Common Agricultural Policy has two "Pillars". The first is for direct payments paid to farmers under the new Single Payment Scheme and the second (Pillar 2) is for more general funding of rural development, including agri-environment measures. Back

12   Receipt of the full Single Payment under the Common Agricultural Policy is conditional upon fulfilment of a number of conditions relating to the environment, animal welfare and public health. Back

13  Back

14   Council Directive 67/548/EEC (as amended) of 27 June 1967 on the approximation of laws, regulations and administrative provisions relating to the classification, packaging and labelling of dangerous substances. OJ 196 16.8.1967 p.1-98 Back

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