Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-52)

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

17 JANUARY 2007

  Q40  Lord Palmer: I reckon that two of my three questions you have fully answered, but you may want to add something. Some of us are a little worried about the timetable for this implementation. Do you feel that you will be able to stick it? And, perhaps more important, do you have a sufficient budget to do so? As a matter of interest, have you had to take on any extra staff to help you implement this?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: The timetable is very tight. We are aware of the fact that the timetable is very tight, and we have tried to build into it quite a long period for the Secretary of State to ponder on the River Basin Plans, because they are going to be potentially quite controversial. I think that he/she/it needs to be given plenty of elbow room to talk to stakeholders once the plans are available in draft form. However, that means we all have to keep up to the timetables. That is why getting the regulations, once the quality indicators are available, is important to keeping that timetable going. It is very tight, therefore. Europe began by saying that we were going to have to deliver all the objectives of the Framework Directive by 2015. We have told them right from the start that we did not see that that was possible anywhere across Europe, quite frankly. So I think that they are a little less gung-ho about it now. We need to deliver the processes that will produce plans and actions that we have outlined in the first set of plans by 2015, but we then have the successive Round Two and Round Three, where we can build on those. In terms of cash, what we have been trying to do—because Defra is broke, we are broke, and the Government will not necessarily hand out money in the Spending Review—is to divert some of the work that we are already involved in in issues that were pretty well Water Framework Directive issues. In terms of all our water management issues, quality and quantity, which are important for the directive, we have made sure that we have taken a step back and used the directive as the framework for deciding what are the important things to do and how we make sure they are done in the most efficient way. However, we have had to put additional funding into the Framework Directive and we have received some money from Defra for that. Somewhere—and I cannot remember where—we have a bid in under the Comprehensive Spending Review. We are not really expecting that we will get any, but the sorts of figures we are talking about would be in the range of £6 million for next year and £11 million for the year after that. They are big money but they are not huge money, bearing in mind the scale of the task because we are corralling the resources that we have already and also, to be frank, many of the bits of delivery will have to be done by other folk.

  Q41  Chairman: Does that effectively mean putting the cost on to other folk?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: It may not be cost; it may just be the different way of doing things. If you think about, for example, looking at local authority development options, we want to see the housing development that is coming on to be done in the right place, so that it does not impact on flood risk management, which is part of the Framework Directive. We are not going to be putting houses where there is either not sufficient water for them to have a decent water supply, or indeed where there is not sufficient water to flush away their sewage. We do not want to see houses built that are not water-efficient as far as possible. So there are things about the way in which planning applications are given, the location of stuff, and the nature of the development that goes ahead. We want to see sustainable urban drainage systems built into developments, so that we do not see surface water run-off that contaminates water bodies. There is therefore a whole range of processes that individual co-deliverers need to think through when they are doing the stuff that is their day job. It is not necessarily additional cost, therefore; it is about how they do their normal duties. There will be some additional cost, however, and I think the farming thing and the size of the agri-environment budget will be pretty material to this.

  Q42  Lord Palmer: Have you had to take on extra staff?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Yes, we have, but I do not have a clue how many.

  Ms Kirmond: We have, for example, a voluntary programme and, as my colleague said, we have reviewed it very heavily and, where possible, we have re-deployed people to start doing things differently. Overall we have taken on something like two extra people on to the programme. There are some areas where we are using other people's data. So, for example, CEFAS has to look at marine, so rather than us doing it ourselves we are collaborating with other people to build together a comprehensive picture, rather than employ lots and lots more people to do things that may already be happening elsewhere.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Just to give you an example of some of the stuff, the monitoring programme costs 60 million, but then we were spending quite a lot of that already on water body monitoring, so that is not a fresh cost on top; about two-thirds of what we are doing in the Framework Directive is from the existing funding.

  Q43  Lord Cameron of Dillington: You have already mentioned the Ribble Basin pilot, and apart from the encouraging news—at least I think it is encouraging—that the local panel is going faster than you, are there any lessons which you have learnt from this pilot that are going to impact upon your implementation or approach?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Yes, I think I had two lessons from it really. One was that, given half a chance, everybody will over-complicate this damn thing and we will not get delivery from it: we will just have tons of processes and no outcome if we are not careful. So we learnt not to over-complicate it. I think what we heard from stakeholders was that they did want to be involved but they did not want this to be an add-on to additional stakeholder groups and processes; they wanted to be involved but they did not want new mechanisms and they did not want to turn up to new meetings—it needs to be built into the day job as some of the things that they do. They were very clear with us about the balance between engaging in discussion and doing—they wanted more doing as well. I think what it also showed us was this new partnerships thing—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, and they now have collaborative work going ahead, and obviously we want to play a role in it, but it is not being led by us by any means, which is good.

  Chairman: Baroness Miller, with the question that you will absolutely love!

  Q44  Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: You have mentioned the fact that it would be useful if the Government advised planning policy guidance, but I think you are also on record as saying that there are other powers that you do not currently have but that it would be very useful to have. Could you outline some of the actions that could be taken by government, either legislative or others, that would be helpful to you in order to implement the framework?

  Ms Henton: I think most of the actions that we would like government to take, rather than legislative, is things that need to be done. We are working very closely with Defra, we have a joint plan with Defra and the Welsh Assembly Government, and we are working on the timetable. That is really the key thing, getting this joint plan flowing through both the Environment Agency and government to time and not getting delayed in any way. In order for that to happen there are various things that we particularly require Defra to deliver. In particular they are the Competent Authority still for the economic requirements of the Water Framework Directive; they are carrying out the preliminary cost effective analysis. That is a very, very important part for us because without that we really cannot set the objectives. So we need that piece of work to finish, we need guidance from them, and we need guidance from them on what is considered to be disproportionate costs. So there are various things we need delivered. We also need feedback. Obviously we are talking to them very closely all the time, but we do not want to get to a position where they do not like, for any reason, what we have proposed so that major revisions are needed. So that is again part of the dialogue with Defra and the Welsh Assembly Government. We need some consultations to be put out, for example on diffuse pollution control and on hydromorphology. They need to go out to time table because once the consultation has been finished there may be recommendations that come out of that and there may be the need for new powers to be put in place—that is a possibility, we do not know. Another very important aspect we need from them is for them to be working across government and picking up on issues. For example, we have touched on spatial planning on land use and obviously DCLG has the lead role in that, and it is very, very important that Defra works across government so that other government departments are aware of and can incorporate in their own guidance the requirements of the Water Framework Directive. We are working with the new environmental standards and that is ongoing work, and we need a result from that, and something that is only beginning to come into the frame now as we progress towards the first cycle is that it is going to be very important to keep a corporate memory within Defra of why did we get to where we are, why have we taken certain decisions—and I use "we" collectively. As we move forward into the Second Cycle and the third cycle that is going to be very important; so we need a corporate memory within Defra.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Can I add one other thing—and we have not thought our way through it yet—that as the Marine Bill comes through, if it does come through, we need the new marine legislation to take account of the Framework Directive issues because, of course, the Framework Directive involves estuarine and coastal waters as well.

  Q45  Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Yes, there are 46 questions that come to my mind on that!

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: We have 47!

  Q46  Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: If I might ask this, my Lord Chairman? What is your relationship with the RDAs?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Through our regional offices we work very closely with the RDAs to try to get environmental outcomes into regional economic strategies and other mechanisms that the RDAs use, and also into the things that they fund. It varies from RDA to RDA. Because they are development agencies the environment is never going to be their primary objective, but they do have a requirement to take account of sustainability issues, and so we will be trying to get Water Framework Directive objectives and processes into the regional economic strategies and the various other economic instruments at regional level.

  Q47  Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: They do seem to hold the key to quite a lot of what happens in the region as far as the Water Framework Directives goes.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: It is difficult to know. If I was asked to bet who was the most important player in the Framework Directive, I do not quite know what I would say because it depends on the water body. The good thing about a Regional Development Agency is the limited number—you can nail them. The biggest, most difficult group to deal with—not because they are difficult but because they are manifold—are the farmers and the land managers, because with a lot of them you have to find ways to talking to groups of people and getting them to collaborate as well as getting the formal processes of an RDA, where you can eyeball them fairly close up.

  Q48  Viscount Ullswater: Can I ask a supplementary on that? Are you satisfied that local authorities are taking sufficient notice of your advice on development, particularly on flood plains or maybe that huge requirement in the South East where the availability of water is perhaps at its minimum? Do you think that they really do listen to you now? Are you seeing it in the decisions that they are taking that they are listening more to you than they listened five years ago, when perhaps they did not listen?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think it varies, depending on the issue and also the local authority. We are getting quite good collaboration now on flood risk management but there are a tiny, tiny number of local authorities that still give planning permissions against our advice—but it is a very tiny number now. On water quantity we are working to try to get a statutory right for water companies to be able comment on planning applications and for water quantity to be taken account of in the planning authorities' decisions, because at the moment until recently that had not been adequately done. I think now, because of the drought issues in the southeast, there is much more focus on that and there is much more readiness to get that to happen. 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. Generally speaking, what happens at the moment is that somebody builds a whacking great development and only discovers after they have built it that it is perched on a tiny Victorian sewer that cracked 50 years ago anyway. So we are looking through some of the discussions that are happening with government on issues like the use of land for development—the Barker Reports, both Barker 1 and Barker 2—and to try and get a debate going that says that green infrastructure planning over a 25-year period, planning for water supply, planning for sewerage and drainage is as important as planning for water resource, and therefore there need to be mechanisms not only in planning 25-years ahead for these issues that can take the Water Framework Directive objectives into account, but also the ways in which they can be funded because at the moment funding for this sort of environmental infrastructure is really hit and miss. The water companies provide it through charges to water payers if it is water supply or main sewerage, but nobody does it for surface water drainage and drainage within developments. At the moment it is all very haphazard and done on the back of development, and in some cases it is not done adequately at all. I got it in the neck from the Deputy Prime Minister over Corby, which wants to increase its size—it must have pretty well doubled in size—and it basically does not have a sewerage system to do it. The first developer who is going to build the school and a few houses does not want to build the whole sewerage system and pay for it, so who does? The local authority does not have the money; it is not their job to pay for sewerage systems. If the developer is not going to do it, there has to be some strategic process of funding, either on land values or on planning conditions or in some fashion or another. But that is the least well-provisioned relationship between a Water Framework Directive issue and a local authority at the moment.

  Q49  Lord Cameron of Dillington: Could I ask a question about inter-European liaison? Thinking about this, it occurred to me that we probably have a slight advantage because for decades our water management has been done on a river catchment basis, which is not the case on most of the Continent. I wondered whether during liaison knowledge and skills have been passing and perhaps which way they have been going?

  Ms Kirmond: I think we are proud to say that a lot of views and regulatory experience is being seen in the approaches in the European guidance that is coming through. We have been very heavily involved in Europe, both through individual technical expertise and through a group like UKTAG, where we are working to a common European understanding of the challenges. So I can say very positively that we have been very heavily involved in Europe. We have looked at working hard on what is called the Common Implementation Strategy, because when a Framework Directive was promoted obviously, you are quite right, we came from lots of very different starting points and the thrust has been very much to reach a common goal in terms of objectives, a common goal in terms of good ecological status, in terms of what we are trying to achieve, and therefore we have worked hard to bring in our approaches, which has helped us in terms of minimising the disruption to ourselves and the people we work with, because it means that the transition from what we have to what we are going to have has been kept to a minimum where we have been able to manage it. And I think Europe has been very grateful for our help, and we have also worked through our Administrations and through Defra and our Water Director in terms of getting those views at a European level.

  Q50  Lord Cameron of Dillington: Can I now turn to the Daughter Directives, the Groundwater Directive and the Environmental Quality Standards in Water Directive? Two questions. One: to what extent have you been involved in the process? And are you happy with the direction of travel that the development of these two Daughter Directives is going? My second question probably applies to the whole issue and is: does the emphasis on quality, particularly in these Daughter Directives, in any way clash with the problems of water quantity and supply that we have in certain parts of our country?

  Ms Kirmond: If one looks at why we have two Daughter Directives in the first place, they are there because Europe could not reach agreement on them during the time of the agreement on the main body of the directive, so they are there because Europe could not reach decisions on some of the chemical substances in some of the groundwater issues, so they are very much subsidiary to the main, and therefore they should not clash, they should be part of the whole regulatory framework that helps us to achieve good ecological status, both on the biological and chemical and quantitative basis. So they are very much complementary to each other. We have been very heavily involved in the negotiations of both these Directives. In the Agency we are lucky enough to have some of the top ten technical experts in these areas working with us and they have supported the negotiations very heavily in Europe. For the Groundwater "Daughter" Directive we now have—coming back to some of the other questions—a directive very similar to the UK approach because it is based on environmental standards and it is looking at the outcomes rather than the process; and we are currently working with Europe on the detail of what that looks like, so that actually came under legislation in December. With the priority substances, the environmental quality that you refer to, 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. 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.

  Q51  Lord Cameron of Dillington: Is there generally a clash between the quality of water and the quantity? For instance, I remember once talking to old water authorities about what goes on in some of the hotter parts of the world, where during the rainy season they pump water down into aqueducts. I was told this was a complete no-no because it might pollute some of the aqueducts and so on. It seems to me that we have a water shortage problem and at some point some compromises might have to be made.

  Ms Kirmond: I think it comes back to the point we were discussing earlier, that in protection of good ecological status we look at the interaction of both the groundwater and the surface water. So under our future planning process we would have to look very carefully at an activity in groundwater that will compromise the successful achievement of good ecological status in our surface waters. So if we were, for example, either going to put something in that would manifest itself in surface waters, or we would pump it very hard which might cause the chemical quality to deteriorate, then that will appear in terms of good ecological status, in terms of our groundwater body. So it is very much an integrated view. We have always had to reach compromises in the past and, as my colleagues have said, we are going to have to reach some level of compromise in the future because this is about the environment, society, the economy—it is an integrating directive. But I think the important thing that we have now are the tools to be able to look at it in an integrated way and, if we are going to have to do something where we are hard pressed, then we are doing it in an open and transparent way. We are saying, "If this is what we need to do, then this is the impact. Is it acceptable? Can we deal with it? Can we mitigate it? Is it affordable? What are the long-term outcomes?" So it enables us to put all those things on the table and say, "Is this the right thing to do?" rather than do it in little packages and then not be joined up with each other.

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: Could I make one point about water supply? I personally do not believe that we have a water supply problem in this country if we get our act together. If we get proper water efficiency measures that allow us to be more confident about where we do need to develop more water resource and we get ahead with the planning of that and make a positive interaction with the public so that they are willing to fund these things through their water bills, I do not see that we need run short of water. But at the moment the framework within which that happens, the price round by which what needs to happen to protect the water supply is paid for by customers, is severely flawed and, in my opinion, irretrievably broken. And I would like to see it substantially reviewed, because at the moment we are not hacking that in terms of getting ahead of climate change.

  Q52  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I think we have come to the end of our questions but it is always advisable in these circumstances to say: is there anything that you think we ought to know that we have not asked?

  Baroness Young of Old Scone: I think we have told you quite a lot!

Chairman: I think you have! Thank you very much indeed, all three of you; it has been an absolute delight, particularly the emphasis on delivery rather than an over-complicated process.

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