A dip into costs and benefits

The Environmental Bill set off on its course through Parliament with a second reading debate in the House of Lords on 15 December. Among its provisions which will attract the closest attention over the coming months is a duty on the Environment Agency to take into account the cost it may impose against the benefits it may secure by exercising its powers. Business will doubtless welcome the duty, but fears have already been voiced in the lords that it will hobble the agency from birth.

Ministers have yet to explain in any detail how they expect the Agency to put the duty into practice. But one current example of how Government itself is addressing issue of risk, cost and benefit suggests that the concern expressed in the Lords should not be dismissed lightly.

Earlier this year, the Government explained its position on a proposal to amend the EC Directive on bathing water quality to the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities. Both a Minister and an official from the Department of Health told the inquiry that there is no case for tightening the current standards. An extensive programme of official research, they said, had shown that any health risks posed by bathing in waters designated under the Directive were not statistically significant, and that in any event any illness acquired in this way was not only "self-limiting" but "trivial".

The Committee and its specialist adviser have done an excellent job in demolishing those assertions (see pp 29-31 ). In the civil manner customary of the Lords, their report expresses "regret" that the Department of Health has "not yet given sufficient weight" to the results of its own research. In everyday parlance, the Department either misunderstood or misrepresented those findings, which have provided the first clear evidence of a relationship between a microbiological indicator of bathing water quality and disease may seem "trivial" from the remote perspective of Whitehall, those enjoying bouts of diarrhoea during a holiday at the seaside will doubtless feel otherwise - even if they do not show up in the disease statistics.

The Committee was right to conclude that decisions on whether it would be worth spending money to improve the quality of bathing water should be taken after a full and open debate on the risks and costs - a debate which the government appears reluctant to have. And it was also right to point to the desirability of dealing with one aspect of the problem by disinfecting sewage effluent at source. In particular, the report points to some 200 ultra-violet irradiation plants which have been installed in the USA for this purpose since the early 1980s. The technology has barely got a look-in in the UK despite proving to be cheaper in at least some circumstances than the option favoured here - a lower level of sewage treatment followed by a dose of the good old "dilute and disperse" philosophy with the help of a long sea outfall.

The message is that a narrow and short-term outlook on costs is likely to be self-defeating - and that disregard of the science is no place to start with cost/benefit assessments.

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