The consultation is the latest step in the implementation of the 2000 EU water framework Directive. It focuses on the preparation of one of the key outputs required by the Directive - river basin management plans (RBMPs), the first of which are due by the end of 2009, alongside their accompanying "programmes of measures" (POMs). Together, these must set out how the Directive's main environmental objectives will be met by the deadline of 2015.
The Agency acknowledges that it can neither produce RBMPs nor ensure compliance with the Directive on its own. "We will need to develop and enhance our partnership working with many other organisations and stakeholders," it says. "We will be dependent on many of them to take responsibility for the improvement programmes and policies that will lead to the achievement of the Directive's objectives."
It has long been claimed on behalf of UK water policy that England and Wales were among the international pioneers in practising integrated river basin planning - but the water framework Directive has shown up many elements of that practice as being neither particularly well integrated nor carried out at the level of the river basin. Much of this will now need to change.
For instance, as the Agency acknowledges, "there are currently a large number of separate plans for any one river or catchment, covering different aspects of water management from fisheries to flooding (see box). By harmonising objectives, time scales and participation processes, we will be better able to manage the complex relationships within the water environment."
The Agency also accepts that, internally, it will "need to join up areas of work that up till now we have tended to treat as distinct." But what it does not say is which specific single-issue plans may be scrapped or absorbed into others.
The focus of river basin planning will be the nine river basin districts in England and Wales. However, this by no means spells the end of planning at a finer level. At least some of the districts will be divided into catchments for planning purposes - and some issues arising from the Directive will need to be planned for and managed at an even smaller scale.
The arrangements proposed by the Agency for securing stakeholder involvement in the planning process match these different tiers of activity. Four levels of stakeholder engagement - some building on existing relationships, some involving new partnerships - are put forward:
According to the Agency's blueprint for stakeholder engagement,2 each panel will comprise a small number of organisations with statutory powers to implement the "basic" measures to be included in RBMPs, along with water companies and, where appropriate to the region, other significant actors such as the Forestry Commission or port authorities. A "small number of professional stakeholders" will also be invited on to the panels.
The planning document at this level will be the "catchment framework". The Agency regards this as "the basic 'building block' for river basin planning and the majority of planning effort (80-90%) is likely to be expended here."
Exactly how catchment frameworks and RBMPs will relate to each other is not yet clear. The woolly guidance offered so far is that they will be developed "in parallel in an iterative process". "Key stakeholders" will be asked at an early stage to advise on which issues are best handled at national, river basin and catchment levels.
It remains to be seen whether the Agency's plans will match up to the Directive's requirement on Member States to encourage the "active involvement" in river basin management of people with an interest in water.
The consultation paper goes on to identify several "planning" processes led by other organisations into which integration of the Directive's requirements will be particularly important if its environmental objectives are to be met:
The Agency has published several studies exploring in detail how these sectoral activities need to be integrated with water planning for the aims of the Directive to be fulfilled - and these show that it faces some stiff challenges.
In spatial planning, for instance, a report by Baker Associates identifies the EU Directive on strategic environmental assessment, which was implemented last summer, as a key tool for the Agency to influence the new generation of regional spatial strategies and local development frameworks.3However, it also points to some fundamental obstacles - notably the mismatch between the timetable for the preparation of these plans and the fact that the first RBMPs will not be ready until 2009. To this can be added another familiar mismatch - between local government boundaries and those of the river basin districts.
The study stresses that the Agency is unlikely to make much headway with regional and local authorities if it sets its sights at too strategic a level.
"Getting more references [to the Directive] in national policy statements may feel like an achievement," it says, [but] they do not necessarily get things done. It does seem that the key to success lies with the actions that the Agency itself takes" - notably in assisting planners in understanding the implications of different choices in preparing spatial plans so as to enable water management issues to be properly addressed at a stage when options are still open.
The report goes on: "The crucial issue for the Agency is that planning authorities cannot be expected to know what it is that has to be done to achieve what is sort. These are matters on which they expect to seek expert and authoritative advice, and they are entitled to expect this to come from the Agency in the first instance." Whether the Agency has the resources to support such an intense level of engagement must be a moot point.