Clause 4 - Restrictions on Impounding

Water Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 16 September 2003.

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Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford 11:00, 16 September 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 176, in

clause 4, page 3, line 12, leave out

'which are not discrete waters'.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 177, in

clause 4, page 3, line 13, leave out

'which are not discrete waters'.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

I did not have the opportunity earlier, Mr. O'Brien, to welcome you to the Chair; I have pleasure in doing so now.

We tabled the amendment to find out why discrete waters are not covered by the Bill. The Committee has expressed strong support for the environmental

aspects of the Bill, and we would expect it to include discrete waters. Section 221 of the Water Resources Act 1991 defines discrete waters as

''inland waters so far as they comprise—

(a) a lake, pond or reservoir which does not discharge to any other inland waters; or

(b) one of a group of two or more lakes, ponds or reservoirs (whether near to or distant from each other) and of watercourses or mains connecting them, where none of the inland waters in the group discharges to any inland waters outside the group''.

A number of other discrete waters come to mind, including navigation waters, navigation reservoirs and other substantial bodies of water with their own environmental systems, which are used for various purposes. It would be wrong to exclude them.

Ponds, lakes and reservoirs have important ecosystems, and other parts of the Bill look to protect those ecosystems. On the face of it, however, a substantial amount of water seems to be excluded from the Bill's provisions. Several discrete bodies of water are sites of special scientific interest, and I would like to know how they are to be protected. It might be decided to remove water from a discrete body of water—the idea is floated every now and then that we should have a national water grid or a similar mechanism—but I want to know how we would support the water levels in those reservoirs. Those levels will rise and fall, but removing too much water can cause environmental damage. It seems that the Bill does not provide the protection to those habitats that is afforded to the other areas of water that it covers.

I would like to know what the Government are going to do to protect those ecosystems, and I wonder why discrete waters are excluded. I would welcome the Minister's comments on how discrete waters are treated in the water framework directive and whether the directive might offer more protection. Certainly, the Bill offers them no protection. We would like the amendment to be accepted because it could form the basis of an efficient way to tackle the environmental problem of supporting such systems. What will the Government do to protect those habitats?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I understand the hon. Lady's point, which is reasonable. The amendments deal with discrete waters—lakes, ponds and reservoirs or groups of such waters, which do not discharge into other inland waters. The licensing system, whether for abstraction or impounding, does not apply to discrete waters. Our proposals for the Bill, on which we consulted in 2000, did not suggest a change to that position. The changes proposed in amendments Nos. 176 and 177 would control the impounding of discrete waters but not abstraction from them, so they would not preserve the ecology of those waters.

In discrete waters, where impacts downstream cannot occur, impounding controls would be of little benefit in managing water resources. We recognise that we must consider discrete waters in fulfilling the requirements of the water framework directive, which does not necessarily exempt them from abstraction or pollution controls. Some discrete waters should perhaps be water bodies for that purpose.

As we have said in the other place, DEFRA and the Environment Agency are exploring how best to amend the definition of discrete waters to meet the objectives of the directive. I understand that the consultation has ended and the agency is considering the outcomes.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Liberal Democrat, Lewes

Will the Minister give us a flavour of the process that the Government will use to determine which discrete waters harbour important species and how they should be protected? That may give us some confidence that the ecology of those waters will not be diminished.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

On that latter point, certain species may be protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 or by SSSI status. However, as the hon. Gentleman rightly states, we must consider the characteristics of bodies of water. The agency is currently working examining those characteristics with a view to producing definitions, and it must finish its work by the end of 2004. The obligation will be included in the regulations to transpose the directive. There is still work to be done, but this point will be addressed.

We must consider how discrete waters are treated under the regimes rather than simply imposing abstraction controls. The controls must be co-ordinated and planned in light of the needs of catchment areas. The amendments are intended to bring discrete waters fully into the licensing regime, but they would not achieve that as they would not bring discrete waters under abstraction control. They would take a different approach to abstraction controls from that taken in any other regime, and they would pre-empt the outcome of the consultation by DEFRA and the Environment Agency on how the directive should be implemented.

I understand the hon. Member for Guildford's point. It is being addressed by ongoing work on the directive, and those definitions and clarifications will emerge as part of that consultation.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am sorry to pop in at this juncture, but it is unclear whether the measures would affect ordinary people who build ponds or swimming pools in their garden. [Laughter.] Well, those are discrete waters. Would they be affected if there were a drought? If they then, for example, pumped out their swimming pool and it contained more than 20 cu m, would they require an abstraction licence?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Minister of State (Environment and Agri-Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

They would not require an abstraction licence to pump out a swimming pool, unless it was the size of Lake Windermere—that might be a bit excessive. Perhaps some people could afford a swimming pool that size, but that is not generally a problem that we face.

There are restrictions on the impounding of water, which make it an offence to begin, construct or alter impounding works unless a licence has been obtained. If someone starts to impound a stream, that will have consequences downstream and upstream.

Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Liberal Democrat, Guildford

I have listened to the explanations and thank the Minister for examining the subject and providing that information. I will seek the leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment, but I support

the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes that this is another example of a lack of joined-up government and clarity.

The hon. Member for Leominster posed an additional helpful and important question about the scale of a discrete water, which demonstrates that some of that information should have been made available to the Committee and that, when we are considering such an important Bill, such information should be clearly understood.

We look forward with interest to the results of the consultation. However, these matters are very worrying for members of the Committee, who are trying to look after the relevant interests at this stage. We seem to be working with one arm behind our back as we discuss whether we are in or outside the European framework directive. Notwithstanding what the Minister said about there being two different activities, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.