Good afternoon. We will now hear evidence from Water UK, Blueprint for Water and the Marine Conservation Society. We have until 1 pm, but it has been very difficult to get through all the questions in the time allocated. As Members of the Committee do not seem to understand what “concise” means, I ask them to condense their questions. Our witnesses are very welcome. Do not feel that you have to answer every question if you do not have anything to add to what the others have already said.
Q Good afternoon. I want to start with some thoughts about water efficiency, and specifically the extent to which it is widely thought that the Bill perhaps misses the opportunity to strengthen water efficiency targets and encourage homes and businesses to reduce their water usage. Do you think there should be powers and targets included in the Bill to enable those efficiency measures to be expedited?
My name is Stuart Colville and I am from Water UK. The position of the water industry is really clear on this. Looking at the second half of this century, we are starting to see projections of water deficits in every part of England, and water efficiency is clearly part of the toolkit for dealing with that. We would like to see some of the Bill’s resource efficiency clauses used to bring forward a scheme to label water-using appliances—dishwashers, washing machines and that kind of thing—coupled with minimum standards. We feel that is really important. The modelling shows that if you do not do that kind of thing, you end up having to bring forward a lot of supply-side measures, such as strategic transfer schemes or desalination plants, which are not only very expensive, but quite carbon-intensive. That is the kind of measure we are looking for from the Bill.
I am Ian Hepburn of Blueprint for Water, which is part of the Greener UK coalition. We entirely support and endorse the view that there should be opportunities for water consumption reductions in the Bill. We have identified a couple of parts of the waste and resource efficiency element of the Bill that could allow for the relevant reduction opportunities to be put in, in the form of mandatory water efficiency labelling and setting standards. There is an absence of a target, and if this Bill could be used to produce a target for water efficiency, we would be very supportive of that.
Q I want to touch on the other aspect of water that we have heard rather a lot about recently, namely flooding, and observe that the Bill likewise holds no powers or duties on flood defence or work on drainage of waste water to reduce flood risk. Do you think that is an omission in the Bill, or are there other ways in which such measures could be reliably incorporated into legislation?
From a water industry perspective, the most serious omission, or the thing we would most want addressed, is a recognition in statute of these things called drainage and waste water or drainage and sewage management plans. There is no adjacent duty on those others in the water industry to co-operate and collaborate in the development of those plans. Those plans are slightly technical, but we see them as fundamental to our long-term ability to deal with increased rainfall patterns, climate change and so on, to ensure that there is enough capacity to meet that.
At the moment, the onus is placed on water companies, which is correct because they are at the heart of that planning process, but there is an absence of any requirement on other operators of drainage systems to be part of that. In practice, we are already seeing that leading to some variability across the country in the quality of co-operation, whether with strategic road operators or local authorities. The most serious omission for us is that lack of obligation on others to be part of that process, to be around the table and to think about how these very long-term plans will work.
If I could add briefly to that, one of the big opportunities missed in this Bill is to provide for a strategic catchment-scale management of water. Without that, we have lots of little piecemeal bits of mechanisms, bits of legislation, the flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy, the resource management plans that are coming in—a whole host of different elements, none of which are joined up. That join-up cuts across to the Agriculture Bill and the opportunities there under the environmental land management scheme to generate natural flood management opportunities.
If none of those are joined up and it is not dealt with in a strategic way, we will still be doing things using a very piecemeal, bitty approach, and that is not the way water works. Water falls, it moves, it goes into the sea; that is what you have to manage. You are managing the issues that we will increasingly face, too much water and too little water. We have to manage for that. We have to manage that so that we are able to take out water for our own communities and purposes, while having enough left for the environment.
I am Chris Tuckett from the Marine Conservation Society. I entirely agree with what Ian says about the connectivity between different parts of the environment. Yes, if you are managing the environment in terms of waste water and drainage, that also means that potentially preventing things such as bathing water quality impacts down at the sea. It is about looking at the different aspects in a more integrated way. Some of it is in the Bill—certainly in part I, which is quite general and integrated—but the connection is quite often missing. It should not be missed; in thinking about the Bill, we should think about the connections in our environment.
Q I would love to. I want to be clear about resource and water efficiency, which was mentioned earlier. That is catered for in clause 49. I take the points about needing to look at the wider issues of all water resources. We have to set a water target in part 1 of the Bill. I am interested to know your thoughts on what sort of target you would like to see, because we have that opportunity in the Bill.
First of all, I am delighted to be here. I am quite surprised I am here, because the Bill does not actually mention marine—it mentions the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, but it does not talk about the marine environment.
But it mentions the natural environment, and to be clear, that includes marine. That is why you are here.
Yes, which is great, and I really appreciate that. We would really like a little bit of clarity, and for the Bill to mention marine, because 55% of our territory in England is under the sea, yet the Bill does not mention the words “sea” or “marine.” There are some simple changes and a few amendments that I know have been agreed that can fix that very simply.
As far as targets go, it is incredibly difficult to look at the different parts of the environment—water, biodiversity, land and air—and put one target on them. For the marine environment, the best we have at the moment is good environmental status. That is to be achieved by the end of 2020. We are pretty certain that it will not be. Following the assessment at the end of last year, 11 out of 15 indicators of good environmental status are not at green; they are failing. There is a lot of work to be done.
In terms of the target for water, good environmental status is probably as good a measure as we can get. That needs to be there. It will not be met by the end of 2020. Thinking further about the value of the environment, particularly the marine environment from a climate point of view, do the indicators to achieve good environmental status need to be upped a bit more, to make sure we take account of climate change and the role that the marine environment has in that? For water, we need a basket of measures.
I cannot argue with any of that. It is quite difficult to pick one target, because there are many targets for the water environment that we would want to see. The most obvious target is the water framework directive target for good ecological status or potential for all waters by 2027. I seriously doubt we will meet that; most people think we will not. That is only one part.
I would like someone to invent a target that integrates all needs for the water environment. I have not seen it yet. I could not pick one particular target right now that I would like to see. There is a need for a multitude of targets. Picking one will not be sufficient.
Do you mind if I add two quick things? First, it is clearly right to have more than one target for water in the Bill. My personal preference would be to have a distribution input target, which is a technical thing that simply measures the amount of water taken away from the environment, whether for residential or commercial purposes or so on. Placing a target aimed at the ecological outcome—or the impact most associated with the ecological outcome, the removal of water—would drive a bunch of incentives and behaviours by water companies and others that would promote good ecological outcomes. There is something there around abstraction that is quite interesting.
There is clearly also something on ecological status or ecology. The targets we inherited from the water framework directive will expire in 2027. We are not really having a debate yet about what should come afterwards. However, if you look at the investment lead times of the water industry, for example, you are talking about 10 or 15-plus years, so we really need to have a debate now about what comes after 2027, regardless of the percentage compliance that we actually achieve under that. We already need to start planning those longer-term investments.
The third area, which is perhaps more difficult, because it is newer, is the idea of public health. All the existing legislative framework around protecting waterways, and the environmental outcomes around waterways, are predicated on the protection of invertebrates and species and biodiversity. If you look at the water framework directive, the urban waste water treatment directive and so on, that is the outcome that they aim at. We are increasingly seeing society expecting to have the ability to bathe, swim and paddle in inland rivers, or to go down to the local pool of water and splash around with a dog or whatever. The gap in how we—the industry and Government regulators—react to that is between whether we take that inherited legislation, which is clearly based on environmental parameters, or whether we think about protecting public health in that environment, because that will trigger a lot of investment and money, and a lot of carbon—
Q Can I quickly follow up on something? In the light of what you have all said, we already have a pretty heavy legislative framework for water and the water space; we already have water management plans, catchment plans—a raft of information—which is why a lot of that is not reiterated in the Bill. The message I am getting from you is that there are myriad targets that we could set. I would say that the Bill offers the opportunity later to set any targets that we want. Do you agree that it is good that a water target will be set in the beginning? I think our marine lady particularly welcomed that. This shows how complicated setting targets is, and that we would need to take a great deal of advice in the secondary stage of the Bill in order to do that. This is what the Bill offers us the opportunity to do. Do you welcome that general approach?
Yes. If I could add to that, the additional thing that the Bill will potentially bring is teeth to some of those targets. The water framework directive target is for 2027. Who knows whether we will get there; we have missed a number of points along the way. It is the same with the marine strategy framework directive. When I talk about good environmental status, that is related to marine strategy. The targets are there—there is a ream of targets—but the regulatory bite and the consequences of the targets not being achieved is missing. If we could bring that through, that would be great, and a huge improvement.
Q I have been doing quite a lot of work examining issues around munitions dumps around the coast of the UK. In fact, I called for an environmental audit—on both land and sea—of the Ministry of Defence’s activities. Clause 18 excludes
“the armed forces, defence or national security” and
“taxation, spending or the allocation of resources within government” from the scope of the policy statements. I am interested to hear your thoughts on that.
I have to confess that it is not something that I have scrutinised; I should have. Munitions dumps, disused landfill sites, unclaimed landfill sites are potentially a risk to the environment in the round. Where there is coastal erosion, they are absolutely a risk to the marine environment. If there are loopholes in the Bill in relation to those sorts of risks, and there is the opportunity to deal with those loopholes here, we absolutely should. But we must look at it in the round, because there are a number of different sorts of sites that are like that.
I do not see a reason for having gaps in terms of responsibility. There is a potential impact on the environment. They may be treated slightly differently, perhaps because of their special positions, but I do not see a reason why there should be a gap.
Mr Colville, you spoke about the water industry. Do you agree the Bill is a step forward with respect to the regulation of the water industry? Obviously, the current process can constrain water companies and increase uncertainty about regulation and so on, but bringing the process in line with other sectors can strengthen Ofwat’s ability to improve the way water companies operate and the information they receiveQ .
This is clearly an area that needs to be approached with caution, because the licences that water companies hold are extremely important to the way that they operate and for attracting investment, essentially. We think the Bill broadly strikes a reasonable balance between the powers that the Government and the regulator feel that the regulator needs, while maintaining protections for investors and continued investment.
I am interested in the panel’s views on the role of local government and, more broadly, on the regulatory framework once we have decided what the medium and longer-term targets may be. As I observe the water economy—if I could use those terms a little loosely—it seems very fragmented. We have water providers, water treatment, marine, canals, x, y and z. How do you see the regulatory framework, as that develops, once we have decided what those targets should be? I just want to make sure that we do not put the cart before the horse, if that makes senseQ .
I think the role of local authorities is crucial. We are seeing an increasing move towards catchment-based planning across the UK. Local authorities bring a sort of accountability that industry and regulators cannot. Involving local authorities more in the medium-term or long-term plans around some of our most important river catchments is really important—bringing them into the partnerships that are being constructed to think about how best to maintain and improve water quality, flood resilience and so on.
I do not necessarily see a role for the Bill in promoting that. I think it is already happening to some extent, and we are seeing work quite well in particular areas. It requires a proof of concept and a scaling up of what is already happening.
Q It follows on from Mr Hepburn’s comments earlier on integrated thinking. Given the fragmentation of the whole environment around water, it is a complicated equation.
The systems thinking around governance, as well as the environmental system itself, is really important. There is a specific example I have around local government. The inshore fisheries and conservation authorities that operate around England, at six or 12 nautical miles—the inshore area—get their funding through local authorities. We know that due to the situation local authorities are in, some of that funding is lost along the way. It just happens.
The funding position there is pretty dire, so from a marine point of view, to regulate the inshore and to do this job properly and recover our marine environment, we need the regulators to be in place to have the power and, bluntly, to have the funding to be able to do the job. That goes for the Association of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities and for the Marine Management Organisation.
With local authorities, you of course also go on to the waste and resources side of things, which I think you will be talking about later. It is important to think about their role on such things as deposit return schemes versus what would happen within a new system that is set up. I am sure DEFRA is absolutely on the case with thinking about governance arrangements, the flow of money and how all that works as part of this, but it is vitally important.
Q Can I just ask a quick question about chemicals in the water supply and whether the Bill does enough to increase the monitoring of pesticides and other pollutants in the water? You are all nodding, but nobody is answering.
It is not something I have looked at in depth, but certainly there seems to be concern—this is from other organisations that support and work with Greener UK—that there is a large number of substances out there that will be risky as far as human health is concerned, let alone the health of the environment. That will need to be regulated. I do not see within the Bill that there is necessarily the right framework to do that monitoring.
It is also probably worth touching on the fact that if one puts that responsibility on the Environment Agency, which has had fairly significant depletion of its resources, it may be that there is no capacity, even if you include that responsibility in the Bill, to get that monitoring done. I think that is something that we need to bear in mind when developing something that will help us watch these novel substances, both alone and in how they operate together in the environment, because they do pose risks.
I would just observe that regulators and the water industry itself have a programme of research into what I suppose you would call novel contaminants or novel pollutants within watercourses and water bodies. That is funded at a reasonably high level and will continue. In fact, the next round, between 2020 and 2025, is about to start. That looks at things such as microplastics, antimicrobial resistance and exotic chemicals that may be leaching into watercourses from various forms. I suppose the question is whether there needs to be some duty or obligation through legislation to formalise that somehow. My sense is that the current system, which is overseen by the Environment Agency, is reasonably effective at keeping an eye on those substances and trying to work out what is actually in the environment.
Clause 81 of the Bill, which relates to water quality, gives the Secretary of State powers to look at the substances that are regulated through what is now the water framework directive. That is good, and we do need flexibility on the sorts of chemicals that are monitored. It is slightly different for pesticides, but it is important to adapt as new chemicals come on to the market. What we would say about that clause is that there should be absolutely no regression on standards. Those standards that are there should not be reduced in any way.
Q There are a few requirements for consultation on water quality in the Bill, but they are only to ask the Environment Agency. If any changes made under this section of the Bill are subject to the negative resolution procedure, do you feel that that level of scrutiny is enough, or do you think it should be extended? I just wanted to hear your general thoughts on that.
It is an important issue. There is no overall requirement for non-regression, so changes could occur in either direction; they could reduce the standards and they could remove substances. We consider that that is highly inappropriate. There must be a degree of protection in there. We would certainly want to see a general improvement in the way in which any move to alter the substances or the standards is addressed. It will need to have specialist advice. There is an obligation to consult the Environment Agency, as you say, but it needs to go beyond that; it needs public consultation, and it needs an independent organisation like the UK technical advisory group—UKTAG—which currently advises on the water framework directive. That would need to be incorporated, and I believe it would need the affirmative procedure and proper parliamentary scrutiny alongside that.
I completely agree with all that. The clause gives quite a lot of power to the Secretary of State in ways that we cannot really predict, sitting here today, so we want to see a bit more structure or a few more checks and balances within that. The affirmative procedure is one way of doing that. Consultation and a requirement to talk to the experts are all helpful in that context.
Q The River Wharfe in my constituency and in Robbie’s has significant sewage outflows when it rains, with E. coli levels 40 to 50 times the EU bathing water limit. Only 14% of our rivers are, by EU standards, in a good ecological state. Considering that track record, do you think the Bill will improve the quality of our rivers? Chris alluded to this earlier, so perhaps she wants to respond.
Absolutely; it needs to be managed as a system. The targets need to be there and need to bite. You talked about E. coli and bathing waters. To be fair, good progress has been made on bathing water quality, but absolutely, there are some exceptions, like the one you talk about. Stuart mentioned the temptation to use bathing waters year-round in different places—swimming in rivers and all that sort of thing—so the need is there, from a recreational point of view, to do more. The biting part of the Bill around targets is pretty crucial.
The measures around waste water management and the need for planning for waste water management are also really welcome. Obviously, Stuart will come in on that. For a long time, there has been a requirement to plan around water resources, but not around waste water management. It is necessary to plan ahead on that, and to understand what the volume of water is likely to be under climate change conditions. It will increase. Having a sewerage system that works and can cope with that kind of capacity is a big ask, but it needs to be planned for. So yes, I think there are things here that will help.
Perhaps I could add two things. I agree with all that. First, on E. coli, that speaks to my earlier point that the legislation is aimed at ecological outcomes, not public health outcomes, which is why that issue is there. For me, there is the long-term question to address—probably through the target-setting process—of what we as a society and legislators feel about that.
The second point I would make is that one of the principal causes of spills of sewage into rivers at the moment is blockages, and the main cause of those is wet wipes congealed with fat, oil and grease within the sewerage network. One of the things we are calling for is for some of the producer responsibility powers in the Bill to be used to do something about that. We know it is an increasing problem. It costs £100 million a year and it is a direct cause of several pollution incidents we have seen across the country. That is why we hope this framework will at least address that element of the cause of what you describe.
You have alluded to the fact that we have not done desperately well in terms of achieving good ecological status for water bodies. In England, 61% of the reasons why water bodies are failing are down to agriculture, rural land management and the water industry. I believe that the Bill does a lot to address the water industry aspects; it does not seem to do very much on the agriculture and rural land use aspects of the pollution. Of the 37% of reasons for failure that are attributed to agriculture and rural land management, 85% are down to, effectively, diffuse pollution from farm land and rural land use. It is a big issue, and has been for a long time. We have not got around to dealing with it. We need join-up between the Environment Bill and the Agriculture Bill to ensure that we deal with that sector.
We have been talking about clause 81 and the need to have it framed in a way that does not allow regression. There must be a temptation somewhere down the line—not necessarily in this Parliament, but in future—to lower the bar because of the levels of failure. We need to resist that, and ensure that under the framework, that is unlikely to happen.
They are really important. As I said earlier, it is about systems thinking. What is happening on land, what is happening at source, and where does that go through the environment? Ultimately, quite a lot ends up in the sea. We welcome the waste and resources clauses. I think you have a session this afternoon in which you will go into more detail on the ins and outs of what is needed.
The clauses are absolutely welcome, particularly the enablement of deposit return schemes. That needs to happen as soon as possible, please. That would be great. A lot of other countries have done it, and there are figures of up to an 80% reduction in litter as a result of having deposit return schemes in place, through improvements in recycling. That is really important.
We also very much welcome extended producer responsibility. The emphasis within the waste and resources portion of the Bill should be very much on the waste hierarchy—reduce, reuse and recycle—but very much on the “reduce” bit to start with. Obviously, there has been a lot of discussion on marine plastics—the “Blue Planet” effect—and some measures have come in as a result of that, but not an awful lot. The Bill takes all of that forward, which is great and we welcome that. The sooner it happens, the better.
For the deposit return schemes that the Bill enables, we really hope that the legislation will be passed as soon as possible. It will be a comprehensive system that includes all types of containers—drinks containers—and all sizes. We at the MCS have been picking up litter from beaches for more than 25 years. It is not getting a lot better. We really hope that it will do soon as a result of the Bill.
Q I believe clause 81 sets out the same powers that we already had under the European Union with regard to ensuring that water quality is maintained. The only way is up, in my opinion, on that. I wanted to come back to the run-off from agricultural land. I believe that that is covered more in the Agriculture Bill than in the present Bill, with incentives given for good stewardship of land, and so on. I wanted to get your feelings on that. It does not change the wider regime for assessing and monitoring water quality that is enshrined in English law under the 2017 environment regulations. Do you feel that the Bill sufficiently sets out the direction of travel on leaving the European Union? As I say, the only way is up. Does it give you sufficient comfort that there will no regression?
The problem is that we do not see non-regression. The way could be up or down, given the way the Bill’s provisions are set out. There is nothing to stop the Secretary of State from changing the substances listed or the standards for those substances in the same way that there would have been had we been part of the EU and, alternatively, had we had a non-regression clause within the withdrawal Act. Again, that has gone. As my colleagues have made clear in earlier sessions, we consider that clauses 19 and 20 do not amount to non-regression obligations. That is the risk that we see. We think that some amendments to clause 81 could soften the impact of the risk and of going in the wrong direction.
Q To my mind it feels as though the Secretary of State is able to leave that open to do things differently from before, and that it is not an intention to regress.
I absolutely would like to think that. I really would, and I think we all agree this is a significant piece of legislation under this Administration. I am sure this Administration would absolutely think that this was about non-regression, but for the future, for the continuity of the Bill and what happens under the next Administration and the one further on, making that very clear would be extremely helpful.
I will make one quick comment on agricultural run-off, if I may. Incentives being put in place through the Agriculture Bill, which are really important, need to be coupled with a decent regulatory baseline. At the moment there is mixed evidence about that baseline. One option might be to set a target through the Environment Bill, not just on water and some other sectors, and to think about how that works with agriculture. That refers back to the integration point that we discussed.
We have a couple more minutes. This is not a question, but an observation. The whole purpose of the Bill is to significantly improve the natural environment; that is why the targets are set there. They should achieve what has just been referred to. We have not touched on water abstraction, on which there is a measure in the Bill.
Q Do you agree that amending the water abstraction licences regime will help us to better manage our water resources? Perhaps our water company specialist might comment.
Our view is that it will help a bit. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for managed abstraction in the long term. Ultimately we will need investment to develop the abstraction sources, as well as in potential projects to move water around and store it in different ways, but it is helpful.
My very quick point is that it is good. It is essential. We need to keep it, accelerate it and bring it forward. The issue is with things like chalk streams. Abstracting from the aquifers has been going on for so long that it needs action now. You could easily build in mechanisms through minor amendments to the Bill that would allow a 2021 date to be set, and then a negotiation period to be set for the individual organisations that would be affected. We must remember that this will not happen everywhere; it is only for the habitats and sites that are most threatened by abstraction. The bottom line is that for the sake of some of these scarce habitats, we just need to get it done, to borrow from an overused phrase, really quickly.
Order. That brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions. On behalf of the Committee, I thank the witnesses for the very thorough and informative way in which they have responded to the questions.