‘Deeply concerning’: Environment watchdog raps UK Government over water quality approach

Image: Surfers Against Sewage

A new report from the UK’s post-Brexit environment watchdog, released today (9 May), outlines flaws in the implementation of England’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) regulations.

These regulations, which applied to the UK during its membership of the EU and were subsequently transposed into UK law due to Brexit, exist to help lawmakers maintain and improve water ecosystems. It covers issues such as water pollution, water scarcity and wildlife, requiring appropriate bodies to collaborate to manage river basins.

The WFD details among other things monitoring requirements and an array of time-bound targets to improve water quality.

On the latter, the UK Government has specifically committed to ensure that 77% of England’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters are classed as being in ‘Good Ecological Status or Potential’ by 2027, up from 16% presently.

The OEP has stated that this target is unlikely to be met due to “ineffective” implementation of laws and regulations relating to the WFD by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

In its worst-case scenario, the OEP foresees just 21% of waters meeting this classification by the deadline. In any case, it believes the target will be missed “by a considerable margin”.

OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacy said: “There is a significant need to strengthen how environmental law on water is applied to make sure it is effectively and contributing as its needs to achieving Government’s wider goals and targets. There is a particularly urgent need for additional measures to be in place and for measures to be targeted at a local level, if there is to be any hope of achieving the 2027 targets.”

The OEP’s assessment follows on from a 2019 ‘Fitness Check’ of the WFD by the EU, which led three years later to proposals to expand the Directive to cover additional types of surface water and groundwater pollutants.

It bears noting that the OEP report confirms that no EU nation is currently on track to achieve its water quality improvement aims under the WFD. This indicates that improving water quality is a challenge shared across Europe.

Recommendations for change

Stacy added: “While we know that there are dedicated and professional people working hard to improve the condition of our rivers, as in so many other aspects of the environment, the Government must now ensure substantial funding for a wider range of specific action, at pace and with ambition.”

The OEP’s report makes 15 key recommendations to Defra and to the Environment Agency – one of the Department’s arms-length bodies. These include:

  • Producing an updated analysis of the costs involved in delivering River Basin Management Plans
  • Reviewing and improving how exemptions to regulations are justified
  • Improving the approach to public consultations on draft plans
  • Issuing guidance to all public bodies whose work may impact river basins

A Defra spokesperson argued that many of these recommendations are already being implemented but stated that it will “consider in detail” the OEP’s input.

The spokesperson said: “We are confident that the River Basin Management Plans are compliant with the current regulations and we have already committed to reforming these plans and delivering tailored long-term proposals to improve all water bodies in England. This is alongside our work to fast-track investment and hold water companies more accountable – including consulting on a ban on bonuses and bringing in a four-fold increase in inspections.”

The UK Government, amid the ongoing sewage crisis, has increased the level of funding available through the Water Environment Investment Fund which supports local water quality improvement projects across England. It has also outlined measures to reinvest penalties and fines on water companies back into the environment with an initial coffer of £11m.

A previous cap on civil penalties for polluting water companies has been lifted and Ministers are currently consulting on banning water bosses from receiving bonuses if their employer has committed serious criminal breaches.

Related news: UK making scant progress in delivering Environmental Improvement Plan, OEP states

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