Plans to tackle water pollution in England finally published after year-long delay

The Environment Agency (EA) has published plans to improve the state of waterways in England over the next five years, backed by £5.3bn of funding. These plans were originally due out last December but progress has been plagued by pandemic-related delays.

Plans to tackle water pollution in England finally published after year-long delay

Image: EA. Pictured: Staff monitoring water quality on the River Wye

Published today (22 December), the latest River Basin Management Plans set out a string of objectives to tackle water pollution from key contributors including the agriculture sector. The plans also include measures to safeguard waterways in the decades to come, as climate change continues and as England’s population grows.

On climate, organisations involved are asked to “consider a range of possible futures” including scenarios in which the global temperature increase from pre-industrial times reaches 2C by 2100, and 4C by 2100. The EA has stated that more frequent flooding and drought are likely in any scenario, worsening in hotter trajectories.

A total of £5.3bn of funding is mentioned in the EA’s documents, including £4.3bn of planned action by water companies and £500m from a mix of government funding and from agricultural firms. This latter funding tranche is intended to reduce the impacts of slurry, fertilizer and other agricultural products and by-products on waterways.

The EA has emphasised the importance of all organisations operating within a river basin district collaborating to improve environmental outcomes. It has stated: “Working in partnership has never been more important. By strengthening catchment-to-coast partnerships to support integrated planning and action, better outcomes can be achieved for all freshwater and marine waters.”

State of play and explaining delay

The Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan goal for water is that at least 75% of waterways are in good ecological status by 2027. According to the EA, just 16% of waterways in England are classed as being in good ecological health. 100% of waterways are currently breaching at least one standard relating to chemical content.

The EA claimed that “good progress” has been made in sustainably managing waterways over the past two decades. However, the above statistic casts doubt on this claim. Moreover, several of the objectives of the two previous River Basin Management Plans, from 2009 and 2015 respectively, have gone unmet. This is despite the fact that there has been an extra year for delivering the 2015 Plans, which were meant to be wrapped up in late 2021.

Defra told the post-Brexit environment watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, that the delay “arose from a diversion of the Environment Agency’s resources to address the exceptional national emergency of the Covid-19 pandemic”. It also cited furloughs and resource reallocations at other key external stakeholders, including water companies.

“Whilst progress has been made to protect and enhance England’s waters, it is clear that considerable time and investment will still be needed if we are to see the further improvement in our water environment that we all want,” said EA executive director John Leyland.

Leyland also hinted that the next set of Plans, due in 2027, will be backed by more funding than in this round. He added: “Without that investment beyond 2027, and if the impacts of climate change are left unchecked, the number of water bodies meeting the required standard could fall to just 6% by 2043.”

The Office for Environmental Protection will not take any enforcement action against the Government due to the delay in producing these latest Plans. Its chief regulatory officer Helen Venn has stated, however, that the new plans must be “implemented as a matter of urgency given the poor state of our rivers and the water environment more broadly”.

Back in May, the watchdog published a report on progress towards the 25-Year Environment Plan. The report was not promising, documenting a  “worrying and persistent environmental decline” in nature in England, including declining river quality.

Defra this month published updated, legally binding targets to protect and restore nature, following an “extensive consultation” on previous proposals that were broadly deemed weak and unscientific. These targets will be implemented through the Environment Act, which received Royal Assent last year.

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