Strategies for our sustainable future

A White Paper on water has been announced by the new minister, Richard Benyon. Flemmich Webb hears how the Government intends to meet the challenges ahead

The Government has announced it will publish a White Paper on water policy as well as consult on the issues raised by the Anna Walker Review on the charging regime for household water and sewerage services.

Making the announcement, Richard Benyon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Natural Environment & Fisheries, Defra, speaking at the Future Water 2010 conference in London in July, said the White Paper would give the Government the opportunity to focus on future challenges, and would provide a steer for the industry and potential investors.

"This will give us a chance to establish a step change in the way that water is used and valued," he said. "Securing the right change is a joint responsibility; we will all benefit if we get it right and we will all suffer if we get it wrong."

The White Paper, which will be published in early summer next year would dovetail with Defra's other commitments to the natural environment, in particular issues of water quality and availability of supply.

Benyon went on to set the context of future water policy against a backdrop of increasing global demand. "Consumption of water will increase by about 30% by 2030, yet there is no understanding of where this water will come from," he said.

"It's clear that this resource will need to be increasingly cherished especially against a backdrop of increasing population and an ever changingplanet. It won't just be about getting through a long dry summer or a few months of torrential rain every other winter, it will be about a long-term water management policy.

"It will mean an effective and sustainable management of demand. It will be about innovative improvements in water efficiency and influencing behavioural change."

He went on to describe the key elements of such a water strategy including helping those on low incomes pay for their water. He cited the example of the South-west, where the issue of affordability is particularly fraught, saying that "the bottom line is protecting those on low incomes".

On demand management, he said that water conservation should be taught in schools and that the Government is awaiting the results of Southern Water's metering programme, especially its impacts on poorer customers. He is also trying to ensure that water conservation is included as part of the Government's Green Deal, which is currently focused on insulation, but could include water conservation measures such as using grey water to flush toilets.

He highlighted the success of tackling pollution at source, saying it had contributed to the clean beaches, rivers and bathing waters in the country but warned that diffuse pollution still remains a serious issue especially in light of the Water Framework Directive.

"Future additional costs to meet the Directive by 2012 will be £30-50M each year. Who will meet them? Water companies? So we need to look at new ways of tackling water pollution at source."

This can be done in different ways and would not always include huge, highly engineered, capital-intensive projects. Solutions worked out in tandem with local communities would have a vital part in future water strategy.

He also said he was looking into making it easier for medium-sized companies to switch water supplier. "I am determined that competition is a good thing, that it's beneficial to link customers to all the innovations being made by all the water companies," he said.

This approach will contribute to the Government's wider goals of supporting the sector in building a profitable, innovative and competitive industry; developing a strong connection between the industry and its customers; and focusing on social goals supporting the industry's wider contribution to the economy and environment," he concluded.

Sonia Phippard, director of water, floods, environmental risk and regulation at Defra, picked up on the theme of community involvement, after she warned of spending cuts, as yet unknown, to come.

"The challenge for the Big Society [David Cameron's concept of returning power to local people] is to encourage stronger local involvement from individuals and communities. At Defra, we are trying to work out how we will deal with the big water challenges such as growing population and climate change over the next five-20 years."

Reducing the regulatory burden would be part of this, she said, including that imposed from Europe. Defining the future role of Government in water policy, especially given that it will have less money to spend over the next five years due to budget cuts, will be critical.

"Working out how the role of government needs to shift to being a provider of expert information and a partner in what happens rather from being the doer is the big challenge going forward," she said.

But budget cuts would not have an impact on regulatory effectiveness, she assured delegates. "The answer can only really be to take considerable care that we understand the implications of any changes,"
she said.

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