Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)

Baroness Young of Old Scone, Ms Tricia Henton and Ms Aileen Kirmond

17 JANUARY 2007

  Q1 Chairman: First of all, thank you very much indeed for coming along and helping the Committee as it looks at what flows from the Water Framework Directive. I wonder, Baroness Young, whether you could introduce your team? I should just make clear that the light is on, saying that we are broadcasting. It means that it is going out to a potential audience of millions.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Or, in actual fact, four—and one of them is my mother!

  Q2  Chairman: There is a potential clearly for a public audience out there to listen to what you have to say. Perhaps you would like to make introductions and make an initial statement, or get straight on to the questions.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: May I introduce Tricia Henton, who is our Director of Environmental Protection, and Aileen Kirmond, whose title I have not a clue about because she has just changed.

  Ms Kirmond: I was the Programme Manager for the Water Framework Directive, but I am now Acting Head of Land Quality—of three days!

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: They do have a link, in that the Water Framework Directive is a misnamed directive; it should be the "Land Framework Directive", because it is mostly about what happens on the land.

  Q3  Chairman: About an hour ago, the water was taking over the land at a rapid rate!

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Could I make a brief initial statement, because I think that the Water Framework Directive runs the risk of being oversold. It is an incredibly useful framework for long-term thinking about both land and water management and will give an extremely useful framework for a whole variety of actors: ourselves, water companies, local authorities, farmers, government; but it is a framework. We do not have very much new money to implement it, and much of it will be required to be delivered through our existing powers. We are therefore asking everyone to see it as a framework and not to load everything on it, because it is quite a big instrument and, if we try to overload it, it will sink under the weight of its own complexity and bureaucracy. There is a very strong flavour in the directive of being understandable by the people who need to play a role. That is one of the important things we want to do: to make it understandable by people who are not of the anorak and techie disposition. A lot of the work that we will be doing is to make things happen in the first cycle, but also, in successive cycles, to have identified in the first cycle what needs to happen thereafter.

  Q4  Chairman: That is very reassuring. I wonder if I could kick off with a really bring-us-up-to-date question. Give us an idea on progress of implementation of the directive, what has happened so far and whether the timetable is reasonable and being stuck to.

  Ms Henton: To date, the UK has met all its statutory requirements. We have done that either on time or indeed ahead of time sometimes. That has been due to a lot of hard work by both ourselves and Defra. We work jointly, very closely, with Defra on this, but there is still an awful lot to do and a lot of deadlines to meet. However, our view is that at the moment we are on plan to meet the deadlines. As an example of the sorts of things that we have already achieved on time, obviously the directive has been transposed; that is in 2003. The Article 3 report, which is River Basin District boundaries and the allocation of Competent Authority, was done on time, as was Article 5, which was the River Basin District characterisation reports, which was the first really big, chunky piece of work. The monitoring network is now in place. That had to be in by December 2006 and that is now in place. The rather lightly named Statement of Steps and Consultation Measures consultation document was also issued in December 2006. Those are some examples of how we have been moving.

  Q5  Chairman: You are here and you are responsible for England and Wales. We are sitting as a Committee of the UK Parliament. In your answers to us, as far as you can, could you highlight if there are any particular problems, difficulties, or distinctiveness about matters relating to other parts of the United Kingdom beyond England and Wales? For instance, in the timetable, is that uniform across the United Kingdom? Is everybody doing the same thing? And there are no particular problems anywhere else—in Scotland or Northern Ireland?

  Ms Henton: No, that is right. Obviously we work very closely, particularly with SEPA, because we have one shared boundary. So we have a River Basin District that straddles the Solway/Tweed area. Although it has been implemented slightly differently in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, all the major deadlines have been met, because of course they are UK deadlines; so it is when Defra reports to Europe.

  Q6  Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Clearly the key to a lot of the success of the directive will be the definition of "good status", which varies from water body to water body. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about the progress you have made in whether or not good status has been defined. It is one of the ongoing difficulties about which I have heard from other organisations, in that it is not yet defined, and some fear that perhaps there may be pressure to lower the standard of "good status", in order to make it more easily achievable.

  Ms Kirmond: We can perhaps pick up something there, in that it is a UK view of good status. So it is not just the Agency's view of good status; we are working across the United Kingdom to achieve that view. Yes, it is an ongoing process and we do not have the final answer yet, because that is dependent on some of the processes that are still happening in Europe. We will not have an absolute definition of it until 2007, but that does not mean that we do not already have a very good picture of what that looks like. You are right: it is divided into different elements. There is a chemical element of good status, which you might perhaps call the traditional view of a pass/fail element. There is a quantitative status, particularly relating to groundwater in terms of good status. The innovation that the framework directive brings, however, is the ecological status, which is very much to do with what communities live in different types of water bodies. So there will be a status position for each water body. It has three elements that sit within it, therefore. We are 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. We are using our monitoring information as an agency, as well as other people's monitoring information, to get an indicative view of what good status will look like for our water bodies. I think that the work we are doing with Europe means that our current view is likely to accord well with the European view. It is very much fitting in with the European picture. We are working towards that indicative view at the minute, but we will get the final calibration in 2007 when the final view is taken in Europe.

  Q7  Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: It is 2007 now.

  Ms Kirmond: Yes. Towards the end of 2007. As we mentioned earlier, there is a timetabling thing and there are timetabling elements, as my colleague said, which means that only certain things will be delivered at certain times.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Could I comment on that from the timetabling point of view? Ideally we would want this work to move as fast as possible, because obviously we are getting on with planning the River Basin Management Plans. There is a step, after Europe comes up with what it decides, when the UK has to set regulations. We do need that to be done pretty promptly, because the worst of all possible regulatory worlds is when regulations arrive late in the day. We are getting quite close to the critical point when we do need to get an outcome from this, and we do need to get UK regulations laid pretty soon after that.

  Q8  Chairman: Does this mean that basically we have signed up, through the directive, to an obligation to deliver good status? We have signed up to that objective before we know what good status is?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: One of our pieces of appraisal of the Water Framework Directive is that it actually does talk about environmental outcomes. So many directives in the past were about process rather than outcome. That is a good tick in its box, therefore. However, yes, you are right. What is good status? That is what the European process has to look at, not least from the scientific point of view but ultimately there will need to be some political view about what good status looks like. The Framework Directive is a very flexible one, because there is a bit of a feeling that everything has to be done by 2015. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that we will be able to hit some major milestones and make some major progress in the way in which we manage land and its interface with water by 2015, but there will still be a lot to do. To some extent the Government has not been rash in signing up to something the definition of which it does not know, because it then has successive cycles to move towards these. Of course, there is the cost-effectiveness test throughout; so that, if something clearly is not cost-effective, it will not be met, because that test will not have been fulfilled.

  Q9  Lord Plumb: Could I ask a supplementary which may sound a bit naive? I live in an area where the water changes every so often because of the supply situation. We go from hard to soft and from soft to hard. That causes a lot of problems in homes where they feel they have to change their equipment, because dealing with hard water is very different from dealing with soft water. Is that part of the question we have, when looking at the status of water?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I do not think that we would be taking account of the impact on your washing machine. We would be looking at the parameters that Aileen outlined, of chemicals, resource level, supply, quantity and ecological status. So I do not think that it would pick up some of these natural, background-level contaminants in water which may render it hard or soft and depending on where your water company is taking it from. I would suggest that you need to talk to your water company about their mixing policy, to see if you can get a more even spread of some of these background substances in the water.

  Q10  Lord Plumb: It is very strange, but we are actually doing that this morning in my own district. It is an important issue for a lot of locals, who do not quite understand why, suddenly, they find the difference. I am really asking whether, over a period of time, this is going to change. The water authorities are obviously well aware of this and therefore the water itself may well change through processing in different ways.

  Ms Kirmond: The Framework Directive very much deals with what we see in the environment. It is an environmental measure of hardness, of quantity, of quality; what subsequently happens to it once it is taken, treated and used in the industrial process of the water supplier. Obviously we do talk to the water companies, and we are using quite a lot of their data. They do quite a lot of monitoring in terms of their role as water suppliers, but it does not extend to the consumer end of the tap.

  Q11  Lord Palmer: Could I quickly ask something? Again, it may be a very naive question. How many different water companies are you actually dealing with?

  Ms Kirmond: I think it is 27 water companies: either water company only or water and sewerage.

  Q12  Viscount Brookeborough: You have already said at the beginning, as I understand, that by 2015 you will have achieved what you are setting out to achieve and yet, a couple of minutes ago, you said that of course it will depend on certain other factors. How confident are you that you really can achieve what is being laid down? There seemed to be a little bit of doubt there.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think that, with a following wind and good collaboration with government, we can achieve the timetable. We will have done everything we are supposed to have done for the River Basin Plans being delivered and we will have started on the measures to improve the water environment; but we will not be in a situation in terms of good status—which is judged on water bodies, not on whole catchments—where every catchment is in a position where every water body, down to the smallest that we will record, is in good condition. That is for a variety of reasons. Some of these will be about the cost-benefit test. If it is going to be a disproportionate cost to achieve something, we will be making the arguments that that is not good use of all of the players' monies. Some of them will be about the technical and feasibility. We simply will not know by then how you fix this problem and will be working on research in order to establish that. Some of them are about lead times. Some of the issues of groundwater contamination will take a very long time to manage, because at the moment they have been happening for a number of years, perhaps decades, and it will take similar periods for that to work through the system or for us to find ways of dealing with it. So all of those factors will influence what can be delivered by 2015. 2015 is just the first cycle. We have, during that process, identified other issues that need to be tackled; identified what some of the problems are; done some of the research. For the second and third cycles, therefore, we will begin to tackle some of these more difficult, deep-seated issues, with a view to building cyclically on the improvement of the previous round.

  Q13  Viscount Brookeborough: Is good "good status" really the same as achieving environmental objectives?

  Ms Kirmond: Its proper title is "good ecological status". That would be a measure of true success.

  Q14  Viscount Brookeborough: Therefore, looking at your programme, what I do not quite understand is that these river basins are being divided into first, second, third; and, in your programme taken off the Web, some of what I understood to be objectives that you were trying to achieve by 2015 are actually by December 2021—the second River Basin Management Plans and the third River Basin Management Plans. I rather imagined that you have these river basins and you have the plans, and that actually you would achieve the plans for each river basin by 2015; yet your programme says that there seems to be a second and third tranche.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Can I describe the nature of delivery of the programmes? We are kind of ringmaster in all of this, in that it is our job to make sure that River Basin Plans are produced and that we encourage, drive, cajole, bribe—any mechanism that is open to us—all of the folks who have to make a difference. There is a very wide range of folks: water companies; local authorities in their development role; developers themselves; all land managers, including farmers. There is a whole variety of different folk—Highways Agency—and all of them have a role to play. We are working with those in the River Basin Liaison Panels to make sure that they understand what needs to be done in that river basin and that they are on board with doing it. However, in some cases we will have powers through our regulatory role to insist that they do it; in others, it will be a question of incentivising, particularly with the farming community; in others, with local authorities, it will be a case of sitting alongside them as co-conspirators and trying to get them excited about the objectives of the Water Framework Directive. So in fact it will not be a plan, do, judge that it is done; it is a much more collaborative process, and therefore a lot will depend on whether the collaborators get on with the job or not. Apart from that, on the issues that I talked about before—on the basis of cost, on the basis of technical feasibility, whether we know enough and lead times—we know for a fact that some of the issues in relation to river basins will simply not be dealt with in the first round. I think that we have to be open and honest about that. There will be a second round of plans and a third round of plans before we see real progress on this, particularly with the groundwater issues.

  Q15  Viscount Brookeborough: The river basins—who decided what they would be? They are not necessarily catchment areas, are they? They are colossal areas, as written out here, so they are not one river basin anyway. What was it? Was it geographical?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: They have an ecological basis—but I am sure Aileen will be the techie person to tell us what it is.

  Ms Kirmond: It is a unitive division that is common to Europe. So, for example, the Danube is a river basin. What we have done is to divide the UK into a collection of small and large rivers which drain to one place. It is actually a catchment-based unit measure. Ours happen to be quite small, because we have lots of smaller rivers that drain to estuaries and the sea. In Europe we have the Danube and the Rhine, and so they have some very big river basins that cross four or five country boundaries, never mind administrative boundaries. It is a division that is laid down in European guidance, and we have come up with the level which Defra reported to Europe.

  Q16  Lord Bach: I am a kind of poacher turned gamekeeper or the other way round: I am not sure which. Whichever, I have never had all that much to do with the Water Framework Directive under my quite extensive portfolio. So could I ask a fairly basic question? The directive clearly involves a move towards both chemical and biological testing. How prepared is your agency for this new approach? I think that you have touched on it already in some of your answers, but what special preparations have you made for this new role?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Perhaps I could make one point on introduction and then pass it to Tricia, because she has been managing the landing of the monitoring programme as of last December. It is simply to say that probably we are in the forefront in Europe in terms of the length of time that we have been monitoring many parameters of the water environment. So 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. What we have been trying to do is that, rather than take the traditional regulatory approach of laying another set of monitoring requirements on top of the existing set of monitoring requirements, we have been taking a modern regulatory approach to it and saying, "What is it we actually need to monitor in order to deliver the totality of monitoring of the water environment, in the most cost-effective way?"—because it involves not only public money in monitoring terms but it also involves monitoring efforts by people like the water companies, who pass their costs on to water customers; by local authorities, who pass their costs on to ratepayers. So we have been anxious really to redesign our monitoring processes from scratch, to do a good job by the Framework Directive while building on the successes of the last 30-odd years. But Tricia has had that job to do, so I shall pass to her.

  Ms Henton: To answer your question, I think that we are very well prepared; certainly as prepared as any other European country. The fact that we have had this longstanding and very detailed monitoring programme—some of it goes back over 50 years and some of it even longer than that—has served us very well in the UK, right across the UK. We have looked at what we will actually need; what we have; where we are. We have done an assessment of where we need to shift some of the resource. The kind of area we have had to move into, for example, is where, in England and Wales, we have not monitored as extensively on lakes, estuaries and marine waters as we have on fresh waters. That is an area where we have some new activity going on, therefore. We have done a trawl round as many organisations as we can find who also have water data; for example, CEFAS, the water companies—who hold a lot of useful information—and we are linking with them and trying not to duplicate anything in any way. We have come up with this programme now; we have put it to the ministers; we have actually implemented it. It is just awaiting its last sign-off from Defra and WAG. It will be an evolutionary programme. This year, at the end of the year, we will look and see if it achieves what we need; how we need to tweak it or change it a bit for next year. So it will have an annual review, to make sure that we have got everything we need out of it.

  Q17  Lord Palmer: Could I ask a quick supplementary? In my part of the world, which is the Scottish Borders, a vast number of us have our own private water supply. Do you have a separate department which will deal with private water supplies in England and Wales?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Depending on the size of your private supply and how much you abstract, we will already have a regulatory role over you anyway if you are on our side of the border.

  Ms Henton: I think on both sides now!

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: But you are in a complicated part of the world, because there is the river basin that spans the border. Tricia, having come from both sides of the border, will probably be able to answer that.

  Ms Henton: We do not have a specific separate unit within our organisation, other than the fact that we would register your abstraction, if it is big enough. 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 aspects of each of the administrations correct.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: It is quite difficult to understand how all the existing mechanisms relate to the Water Framework Directive. So many elements of the water environment are already subject to either European or UK regulatory frameworks. For example, all of water abstraction has law already applying to it; quite a large proportion of discharges are already subject to regimes that we operate. The good thing about the Framework Directive is that, instead of having umpteen different plans and umpteen different regimes, we can try to make some sense of the whole lot by bringing the plans together, and then making sure that the regulatory regimes that underpin them are working together, rather than against each other. That is made more complicated when you have to do that across the border, but we will just have to cope.

  Q18  Chairman: I think that you have mentioned a couple of times "slightly different ways of implementing", when you have been talking about England and Scotland. Can you give us a flavour of how slightly is "slightly" and what are the difficulties, if any?

  Ms Henton: I am going to ask my colleague to answer that one in detail, because I have to say that my detailed knowledge of what happens in Scotland is getting a bit rusty now. I try to think England and Wales!

  Ms Kirmond: It comes back to the fact that we have a one-Member-State view of the directive, but obviously, as my colleague has said, some of the administrations have a longer history of regulation than others. For example, until quite recently Northern Ireland and Scotland did not have as comprehensive an abstraction licensing system as we do. There are therefore subtle differences in the way that the Framework Directive has been brought into implementation in the different administrations. One example is that Scotland have brought in the Controlled Activities Regulations, which they are using to control both discharges and abstractions. On the face of the regulations they may look slightly different but their intent is the same. That is one of the big issues, where we work through the policy administrations that are joint administrations, to make sure that the spirit and the law of the directive are observed. Where possible, however, if there is some degree of subsidiarity, it allows for individual regulatory regimes; but it still achieves the same thing. For example, abstraction licensing is one way, controlling discharges is another; but the intent and the outcome are the same.

  Q19  Chairman: I may be slightly getting the words wrong here, but in a particular river basin—let us do the Solway/Tweed, which must be an enormous area in relative terms, and where you have the complication of Scotland and England—is the regime within that basin uniform? Or does it differ if you are in Scotland or in England?

  Ms Kirmond: If we look at the Solway/Tweed as one river basin, which it is, it is up to the two halves of it to ensure that they jointly meet good status, or aim to achieve good status. They may use slightly different regulatory mechanisms on either side of the border, but the plan is unified in terms of its objectives for that river basin.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: If you have land that spans the border, for example, I am afraid that you will have to put up with the fact that you will be licensed in Scotland one way and licensed in England in another way, even though those two licences will be part of an overarching River Basin Management Plan.

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