Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)

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

17 JANUARY 2007

  Q20  Chairman: That will make you really popular, will it not!

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We already have that, as you know, My Lord Chairman, in terms of fisheries, if I may say so!

  Q21  Viscount Brookeborough: Who are these people on the ground that are doing it? Who are these groups of people, the actual people, who are having to interface with each other?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: The structure that we have adopted, in line with European guidance and Defra guidance, is River Basin District Liaison Panels, who really bring together, round that river basin, what we are calling "co-deliverers". We did not want those panels which are advisory to the Agency—and the agency advises the Secretary of State—to be the kind of "usual suspects" consultees. What we need, above all, is to harness the ability to act over the people who can make a difference round a river basin. So there will be people like water companies, a selection of the local authorities—I am running short of people already.

  Ms Kirmond: NGOs.

  Q22  Viscount Brookeborough: But do they have an address that you go to if you have a problem?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: No, because the executive action—this is where the Framework Directive, as I was saying, is quite collaborative rather than directive—is taken by whichever body sitting on the panel has that executive action under their belt. If it is something that needs to happen that water companies need to do, the water companies will do that and they will be regulated in that by us as regulators and by the economic regulator. If it is the local authorities who have to do it, we are still searching for ways in which some of the requirements of the Framework Directive can be more effectively built into the planning mechanisms of local authorities, both spatial planning and economic planning. If it is farmers who have to do it, it will be a combination of mechanisms where the agriculture departments—Defra, and in Scotland and in Wales—will have to look at how they can persuade farmers, with a bit of regulation, a bit of incentive, a bit of advice, a bit of cross-compliance, a bit of all the mechanisms that are there to help farmers do the right thing by the water environment. So it is a very complicated process; but if anybody has any bother with it, we are the ring-holder and so the first port of call will be us. If it is an issue that requires the River Basin District Liaison Panel to think about, because it is a big enough issue of principle and policy, we will ask them what they think about it and they are our sounding board. However, we also want those panels to be a kind of cheerleader for the Water Framework Directive process as well; we want them to be selling it back into their own industries, back to their own stakeholders.

  Q23  Viscount Brookeborough: It sounds to be a recipe for long-windedness and passing the buck by the time you finally do that.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I must confess, when I was first told that I was going to have the responsibility for the implementation of the Water Framework Directive, it felt as if the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse had just arrived! It is good; it is a great directive; but it will not be easy to get everybody enthused and delivering, because of course people have competing priorities. It will be a complex directive to deliver, but it gives us the benefit of taking things that we are already trying to do with all these groups and giving some logic and longer-term strategy to it, and some picture where people can move towards the vision of good ecological status round that catchment. So it is a simplifying mechanism, even though it does not sound like one.

Chairman: Let us move on to public participation.

  Q24  Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Your answers to that last question touched a bit on some of the public participation. However, would you see the Liaison Panels—and you talked about them feeding back into their circle—as the prime way that you will get public participation? You have talked a bit about spatial planning, and so on, but in local development framework discussions, or parish plans and things of that level, I do not think the words "Water Framework Directive" have really crossed anyone's lips much yet. How will you ramp that process up and get the public involved in it? Or do you see that as very much the responsibility of local authorities? If so, how are you talking to them, to move them up, I would suggest, several gears?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I would like to put a nail through the heart of this public participation thing right from the start, because there is a lot of loose talk about it. Sixty million people in this country will not regard the Water Framework Directive as the thing that they want to talk about over the breakfast table, and so we are not even going to try to do that. In fact, the directive has been misquoted endlessly on this. The directive actually guides us to make sure that the people who need to be involved because they can deliver are participating, and that the public need to be informed. From our market research, the public want us to know that they think water quality and water availability are important, and that biodiversity protection is important. They want to know that there is a mechanism out there that will do that, and that is pretty well all they want to know. What we will give them is a bit more, because we will be reporting on river basin status on a regular basis. So there will be a mechanism for getting very simple messages about how much progress we are making. We know from past experience that the public are quite interested, for example, in our information on bathing beaches and river water quality. There are therefore ways in which, at a top line, we can engage with the public. In terms of local authorities, I think that their major role is to be the doers: to take up the challenges that lie with the things that they have to do in order to deliver the Water Framework Directive, and to use their normal mechanisms of public engagement to explain what they are doing in that—as they explain what they are doing in any other field. However, we do also have a very large number of other consultative groups; we have our regional committees; we have all of the mechanisms that we use and which all of the co-deliverers use to engage with the public. For example, the water companies do a good job in talking about some issues of the water environment to the public, and we need to use their channels as well. So there will be a large number of ways, but we have to do it on the back of things that we are doing already. To spend a lot of public money trying to get the intricacies of the Water Framework Directive over to the man in the street, when he has already told us that he does not want to know that, seems to me to be not what we are about. I want action. I do not want discussion. I want doing; I want outcome; I want river basins to get better. I would rather spend more money on getting river basins better than making sure that all 60 million people in Britain know their water catchment and know exactly what we are doing in it—to be frank.

Chairman: Rather a Stalinist principle there!

  Q25  Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Can I ask you one last thing on that? When local authorities—who, as you said, will be key on this—are looking at something like this historic built environment, I think that at least all elected members and all officers involved would understand what the aim is and where they are going with that. Do you not have quite a big gap to close with those decision-makers? The decisions they make on development control issues, on highways, and so on, will be key. Actually, you have to get your message through to them pretty quickly.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: What we would like and what we do not yet have is a requirement, through the government guidance on river basin planning, which lays a more stringent requirement on local authorities to deliver the objectives of river basin plans. At the moment, the guidance from Defra lays a requirement upon us to do so, but only requires local authorities to—and I cannot remember what the word is ... .

  Ms Kirmond: "Due regard."

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: ... to "have due regard to" and "due regard" is—well, due regard. We would have been happier had it been slightly tougher. I do think that we will need to work quite hard—and we are working quite hard—to get river basin planning requirements into, first of all, all of the strategic level plans and strategies for which local authorities are responsible: the spatial planning strategies; regional economic strategies; housing strategies; transport strategies. Through our regional networks, we are already engaging with those processes. These messages will be going out to local authorities. Then we need to work down through the system. Whether we actually need to get to parish council I think is probably beyond us. Local authorities will have to decide whether that is vital. In some places it will be. Some of these incredibly sensitive chalk streams that are very much affected by what happens on a very local basis—that will be an important thing. However, I suspect that is already the case, because there will be issues locally that people are angst-ridden about already: water quality in local streams; groups of fishermen anxious about what is happening to fishing stocks; farmers and some of the things that they will be talking about. So there are a lot of mechanisms that will bring it much more up the public agenda. To be frank, however, if in 2015 we do a survey of the British public and there is even a minor proportion of them who can utter the words "Water Framework Directive", I shall put a bullet through my head! It will have been the wrong thing to tell them. We want to tell them about outcomes, not about the processes.

  Q26  Lord Plumb: Your views on doing rather than reacting are very welcome, particularly to an old farmer who is involved in many of these issues. I am pleased that you recognise that there is a problem. Water is here today and it is gone tomorrow. We might have a drought midsummer; today we are flooded; and all these things have to be dealt with. Your remark about liaising with other bodies is very important. You are there at the centre and therefore you can the better advise those with whom you are working if that is the direction people should go, and therefore that is welcome. You have spoken of many of those different organisations. There is the UK Technical Advisory Group which is, or should be, a doing body. To what extent are you working with them? Would you like to elaborate on some of the things that you have already said?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: The UK Technical Advisory Group is a bunch of folk who definitely have the anoraks, so I shall turn to Aileen.

  Ms Kirmond: I will put my anorak on, because I chair the Technical Advisory Group. I think perhaps there may be a bit of a misconception about what the Technical Advisory Group is there for. It is very much what it says: it is a technical advisory group to the UK administrations and it is a technical support group to the UK administrations. It is made up of a collaboration of UK environment agencies and the conservation agencies. It has people like ourselves; it has EHS from Northern Ireland and Scottish National Heritage on it. So it is a mixture of the UK's technical experts in their field. The point of it is to ensure that we have a consistent UK technical approach for implementation of the Framework Directive. The places where it has had a role to play, therefore, is whether we have expertise to put into what communities would expect to see—in certain chalk streams, for example. We may have an expert in, most likely, the agency; but, if it is a habitat that is likely to be unique to Scotland, we would use the Scottish expert there. It is very much a collection of experts who advise the UK administrations, so that they can make their decisions in terms of their European decisions and their UK decisions. It is a consistency group. It helps with promoting consistency of standards; consistency of technical input to the common implementation work in Europe, and things like that. They are there to represent their expertise; they are not there to represent their individual organisations. They advise the administrations on the best way for the UK to proceed, as a Member State and as a member of the European Community.

  Q27  Lord Plumb: So would they come to you? Or would you be chasing them?

  Ms Kirmond: In terms of me being Chair?

  Q28  Lord Plumb: Yes.

  Ms Kirmond: Part of my job is to manage their work programme, and the work programme is agreed with the administrations. So it is there to serve what the administrations need in terms of the implementation of the directive. It is an agreed programme, both within the agencies—both conservation and the environment agencies—but it is agreed ultimately by the administrations and we are there to serve them.

  Q29  Lord Plumb: You say that you are involved—and I say "you" because you did say that you were Chair—in Europe. So you will be arguing the wider issues than just water directives, in terms of development and technology in the water industry?

  Ms Kirmond: It is very much confined to the needs of the Framework Directive. So where there is a need for a common view to be taken on a chemical standard, for example, that is the sort of forum that we would send our experts to. It is specific to the implementation of the Water Framework Directive; it does not have a wider remit than that. Its role will finish when the Framework Directive is successfully completed. It is a task and finish to do with that particular directive.

  Q30  Chairman: This is several decades away.

  Ms Kirmond: I hope UKTAG does not go on for several decades, because it is very much a first-cycle activity. It is about trying to put in place processes and combined knowledge that we did not have when we started out on this road. Once we have done the process for the first time, we should not need it any more, because we have uncovered things, put them in place, and we should not need to do it again.

  Q31  Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: With a group, for example, like the NFU, who I do not think are on UKTAG but might have a national view bigger than just a river basin, where do they feed into the process at an early stage?

  Ms Kirmond: As I say, the UKTAG is a technical advisory group to the Governments on their implementation of the directive. It does not advise on policy matters; it advises on technical matters only.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: But there will be national panels. Defra will have a national stakeholder group in order to hear what the stakeholder views on a national level are. We are also going to have a national group to bring together some of the experience coming out of our River Basin District Liaison Panels.

  Q32  Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: When you say you are going to, when is that?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We have not set it up yet. I think that the River Basin Panels have met three times, and so they are still kind of finding their feet. We are still building the systems, basically.

  Ms Henton: The NFU has a seat on probably all of the Liaison Panels. Certainly they will have been invited, because they are an absolutely key stakeholder. In terms of the structure, the people who sit on the liaison panels, there is a certain core group of people, like the NFU and like the NGO representation—who have agreed to divvy it up between them—the regional development agencies, et cetera. Then, for specific areas—for example, in the mining areas in the River Basin District in the North East and in one of the ones in Wales—the Coal Authority sits on that, because mining and mine water is a very specific issue for that area and we need them to deliver things for us.

  Q33  Viscount Ullswater: That leads quite well to the next question, because it is one about scope. Are there any bodies of water in England and Wales not included in the Agency's strategy for implementation of the directive? If so, which are they? And what is the Agency's rationale for excluding them? Have you perhaps been able to identify any where you may be looking for less stringent environmental objectives because of human activity, disproportionate cost, or unfeasibility?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: This is an incredibly technical and difficult area, so I will try to make it as simple as possible to the best of my understanding, but Aileen may leap in and say something completely different when I have finished. The directive, in Annex II, defines what water bodies we should include, but the reality is that, as far as rivers are concerned, it is almost impossible, except for a very small number of rivers, to manage a catchment without having an impact on all of the rivers within it. So, even though they do not appear on our maps—because the maps do not go down to sufficient scale—we are basically assuming that all rivers, to all intents and purposes, are part of the work on the directive. As far as water bodies are concerned, we have 6,535 surface water bodies and 356 groundwater bodies. For the non-river bits—the lakes, the ponds, the pools—we are guided by the directive to go down to lakes greater than 50 hectares. That is quite big, and so there is now a discussion about what we do about lakes that go from 50 hectares down to five hectares. The discussion there is really what is the best way of approaching these, particularly where they have important, either international or national, biodiversity designations. I do not think that there is any doubt that we will be including all of the bodies that have international nature conservation designations, either Special Areas for Conservation or Special Protection Areas; because we already have mechanisms to protect those bodies and it would seem crazy not to have them as part of this uniting framework that the Framework Directive is. The question is really those bodies that are Sites of Special Scientific Interest as opposed to internationally protected, where we have a national designation. There is work going on in which we have been involved, and which Defra is now considering, about the cost-effectiveness and the importance for the overall objectives of the Framework Directive of those smaller bodies, and whether there needs to be some form of objective set for them and process put in place for them that may in fact not be at the same level as the bigger water bodies that are included within the directive. That is work that is currently underway. There was a report by consultants looking at that. The moot point, however, appeared to be with regard to water bodies which are important for the Biodiversity Action Plan but are not currently a designated site under nature conservation regulations in this country; so they are not an SSSI (a Site of Special Scientific Interest) but they are important for the delivery of the Biodiversity Action Plan habitat improvement process—I told you that it was going to be complicated!—and that is as yet unresolved. Aileen may want to comment on that. It seems to me that we have not to lose sight of the fact that there are other processes in place that will bear on these important nature conservation bodies. There is a shed-load of regulation that surrounds Special Protection Areas and SACs—very justifiably, because they are the jewels in the crown—and there is now much enhanced protection under the CRoW Act for the SSSIs. The Biodiversity Action Plan has not been an instrument that has been progressed as fast as I would like, because it is dependent on a very large number of people, often operating in a voluntary capacity rather than a statutory capacity. It remains to be seen what Defra will or will not decide on the inclusion of BAP habitat-important bodies in the framework directive, and in what way. How is that?

  Ms Kirmond: It is all that needs to be said!

  Q34  Viscount Ullswater: Perhaps I can then go on to my second question, which again I think that you have touched on. It is not immediately clear from the directive how wetlands—and I am not sure whether that is a body of water or not (ponds and marshes) are to be included. Do they fit into the strategy on implementation? Perhaps I could elaborate slightly. In terms of what the directive says—to deliver some form of ecological status—when you have some form of acid bog, will you leave it as an acid bog? Or will you try to change its chemical status? Eventually the water percolates through, some thousands of years later—for instance, I heard on BBC radio that it takes 10,000 years for water to percolate through the Mendips and come up in rather smelly form in the baths in Bath—these are long timescales, are they not?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Yes. That is one of the problems of the Framework Directive. It will take an awfully long time to work out whether this damned thing is working or not! Some of the progress will be very immediate, particularly where we have areas that are drier than they should be and need to be wetted and, locally, where there are issues like that and it is, sort of, "Instant wildlife: just add water". With some of these groundwater issues, however, they are very, very long-term processes. I would hate, in a few thousand years, for the burghers of Bath not to be able to drink the ghastly stuff that comes out there! Wetlands are not water bodies under the Framework Directive, so they do not have their own objectives; but there is European guidance on wetlands. There are three things that we take into account. One is—are these wetlands important because they interact with groundwaters that are part of the directive? We obviously need to assess that. That means we have to collaborate with the experts in the conservation bodies like Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales. Are there wetlands that are important for the Water Framework Directive objectives of surface water bodies? For example, there can be pressures on wetlands that produce an impact upstream or downstream for water bodies that we will be looking at as part of the Framework Directive. We are therefore looking at what those relationships are. Some wetlands are just protected under their own rights under pre-existing regulation and, if they have a protected designation, we need to take them into account in river basin planning. So the answer to your acid bog is: if it is a big acid bog that currently has a protected designation, we will be watching its acidity like a hawk. If it is a tiny, tiny acid bog, we will probably be watching its acidity like a hawk, because we have far too few acid bogs anyway; so under the Biodiversity Action Plan we would want to see some progress—but that is as yet an unresolved issue with Defra. If it was screwing up—I am sorry, a technical term!—our ability to achieve the objectives for either groundwater or surface water under the directive, we would be watching it like a hawk. If it was a very, very small acid bog—well, I think probably we would want to take account of acid bogs, no matter what size they were really.

  Q35  Chairman: So that I can understand this, what will the Water Framework Directive bring additionally to the Flow Country?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: One of the issues in Scotland—and Tricia will help me on that—must be that it is a different texture of risk. The first thing we had to do around river catchments was to assess what the risks to the water bodies were in those catchments, and we did the characterisation maps. If you are feeling seriously sad one sunny day, do go on to the website or ask us, and we will send you the characterisation maps for any water body that you have an interest in. They are fascinating. They show us the picture for nitrate, pesticides, water quantity issues, biodiversity issues. They are great maps, showing what the pattern of threat around each river basin is. The pattern of threat in Scotland is a heck of a lot less than the pattern of threat in England, because there are fewer people, there is less development, less intensive industry. However, there are areas where there are threats to the Flow Country, some of which in the past were things like inappropriate forestry, inappropriate upland drainage—I cannot think of any other threats to the Flow Country—though nobody has suggested building houses on the area yet. The pattern of threat is much less and so the Framework Directive probably brings less to those wild areas of Scotland, but will bring a lot to the Central Belt and to some of the areas where farming or land management is having an inappropriate effect.

  Ms Henton: I think that is fair, yes.

  Q36  Lord Plumb: May I ask a supplementary on the implementation of the directive? Since farmers are encouraged to become more environmentally friendly, on Pillar 2—thanks to Willy Bach, of course, and all the development that has taken place—farmers are responding to this in a way that I would not have believed, frankly. I have never seen so many ponds cleaned out, waterways cleared, and so on, in various parts of the country—because there is a carrot there to help them. I am just wondering, in the implementation of the directive, how this fits into your programme. You obviously have a very close liaison with Defra and the work that is going on there, and the implementation of Pillar 2 in particular.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Pillar 2 and the incentive payments on Pillar 2 will be a really important issue. Our worry, and I am sure Lord Bach shares it, is the fact that under the current negotiations there will be rather less available in Pillar 2 for agri-environment schemes than we had hoped, and certainly not enough to fully fund both the new Entry Level Scheme and the higher tier scheme, all of which will be aimed at encouraging farmers and incentivising them to do the right thing by a whole range of environmental issues, of which the Framework Directive will be one. We are seeing the way in which we can work with farmers as a kind of basket of instruments on which we can work with them. Advice is clearly quite a powerful one and it is interesting to watch. We did a pilot in the Ribble catchment, and the good thing about it is that it brought people together to talk about what needed to happen. To be honest, they are running away from us at the moment. They are doing it themselves. We are not having to do anything. They are getting together and sorting themselves out. We do need more money in Pillar 2. We very much hope that the Secretary of State's hand will be firm in the negotiations in Europe, and that Mrs Fischer Boel will not also diminish the power of some other things that are around which we think are useful. I know that cross-compliance, whereby anyone who is in receipt of farming payments has to achieve minimum environmental standards, is not popular with farmers but it is popular with us, because it does mean that we then have a relationship with every single farmer who has public money payments. That relationship allows us to talk to them about what are the particular issues round their patch. We want to keep it simple for farmers because, for many of them, all of the different bits of legislation and regulation are quite confusing. To be frank, the River Basin Framework Catchment Plans give the opportunity to identify what are the important things in each round of planning. If the important thing round a particular catchment or a part of a catchment is nitrate, therefore, let us talk to farmers about nitrate. If it is sedimentation, let us talk to them about sedimentation. If it is about the way in which they are managing their maize, let us talk to them about maize management. That is m-a-i-z-e, not m-a-z-e! Farm diversification has not yet got as far as creating m-a-z-e-s all over the place!

  Q37  Viscount Ullswater: I do know that there are maize mazes.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Perhaps that is something we could talk to the NFU about!

  Q38  Lord Bach: There is one in Leicestershire too.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Working with farmers will be very rewarding but it will also be very difficult, and we shall have to have a very close relationship with Natural England because we do not all want to be walking up the farm drive at the same time—but we do all want to be saying the same thing to farmers.

  Q39  Lord Plumb: Mrs Fischer Boel is speaking in a week or two's time at the NFU Annual Meeting and I will see that there is a proper question tabled.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: At the Oxford Farming Conference, the biggest round of applause that Mrs Fischer Boel got and the biggest booing and hissing I got was when we started talking about cross-compliance. I felt like one of those pantomime acts, where every time I went on stage everybody started hissing!

  Chairman: Many of us have experienced that!

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