Environment Bill: Water rules tweaked but ‘wriggle room’ remains

Provisions in the Environment Bill relating to abstraction, water quality, drainage and water resource planning would “make sure that we have a cleaner, greener and more resilient country for the next generation”, according to DEFRA, but experts say the changes do not go far enough and could give future environment secretaries too much “wriggle room” to revise targets.

The department says the bill “reforms elements of abstraction licensing to link it more tightly to our 25-Year Environment Plan goal of restoring water bodies to as close to natural state as possible”. But neither the plan nor the bill define what constitutes “natural state”, nor what “as close as possible” means. 

In its current form, the bill would set in statute DEFRA’s previously announced plans to enable the Environment Agency to vary or revoke an abstraction licence without paying the licence holder compensation in cases where the licences “cause, or risk causing, considerable environmental damage”, or if they “consistently abstract less water than their licensed volume”. However the changes will not take effect until 1 January 2028. 

The bill would also create a power allowing the secretary of state to update the list of substances which potentially damage rivers and groundwater, alongside a power to update the standards and limits associated with the substances. DEFRA says this will ensure “regulations protecting water quality are keeping pace with scientific and technical knowledge”.  

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EU Directive 2000/60/EC: Establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy [Water Framework Directive]

In force/
Current
Legislation
EU
Published
10 Nov 2014

Commentary

31/10/2014 Amending EU Directive (2014/101/EU) published.

Compliance Dates

22/12/2015 All ground and surface waters to reach good status by 22/12/2015, 22/12/2020 The cessation or phasing out of discharges, emissions or losses of priority hazardous substances, 22/12/2003 Transposition deadline is 22/12/2003, 22/12/2009 Water Basin Management Plans must be prepared for each river basin district

Characteristics

Subject

Water

Source

EU OJ (Official Journal of the European Union)

Affected Sectors

Cross-sector Water
ECM

EU Directive 2000/60/EC: Establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy [Water Framework Directive]

Document Status: In force/Current

Scope: EU

Commentary:

31/10/2014 Amending EU Directive (2014/101/EU) published.

Compliance:

22/12/2015 All ground and surface waters to reach good status by 22/12/2015, 22/12/2020 The cessation or phasing out of discharges, emissions or losses of priority hazardous substances, 22/12/2003 Transposition deadline is 22/12/2003, 22/12/2009 Water Basin Management Plans must be prepared for each river basin district

If the bill passes without amendment, the water industry can expect its regulators to take a more interventionist approach to resource infrastructure and drainage, with the bill strengthening Ofwat’s powers to modify companies’ licences to operate in a bid to ensure their supply, wastewater and drainage networks are resilient in the face of droughts and floods. Water resource management plans would be underpinned by statute for the first time. 

The bill would also require sewerage undertakers to prepare Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans and promotes the creation of new internal drainage boards, funded by local communities.  

No water quality or use targets are defined in the bill, although it sets out a process for setting targets and would require the government to put in place legally binding goals on water, air, biodiversity and waste and resources by 2022. However, the bill also contains a clause that would give the secretary of state the power to revise or revoke a target, leaving what Wildlife and Countryside Link chair and former DEFRA adviser Richard Benwell calls “wriggle room for future governments to weaken tricky obligations, if circumstances have changed to render compliance costly or impractical”. 

“This power should be hemmed in with clear requirements for scientific input to prevent goals from being weakened where the right efforts simply have not been made to meet them,” Benwell added. 

Nathan Richardson from NGO Waterwise said he was “disappointed not to see anything on water efficiency in the bill given the commitment in the 25-year plan to reduce water use”. A DEFRA consultation on water use has recently closed however,  giving Richardson hope that there will be “opportunity for an amendment” to the bill. 

The omission comes desite support from utilities for measures to reduce water use. Anglian Water had lobbied government to add a requirement for “all bathroom fittings and water-using appliances to be sold with a water efficiency label, to help households make informed choices and save them money in both water and energy bills”.

Lucy Lee, environment advocacy adviser at WWF, welcomed the changes to industry regulation and abstraction, particularly the “inclusion of statutory underpinning for wastewater management plans and the ability to change abstraction licences, if they are causing environmental damage”. 

However, she said the changes would not be enough to “restore our struggling freshwater ecosystems” and that it was important to “ensure the legal target for water ensures existing standards are raised over time, in line with the Water Framework Directive – driving the actions needed to achieve good ecological status in all our freshwater bodies”. Currently just 14% of the UK’s waters have achieved good ecological status.

Lee added: “The bill should also include a requirement for business to take a forward-looking approach, to identify and manage environmental risks and to continuously improve environmental performance and resilience. This should really help reduce the impact of their supply chains on freshwater ecosystems and we applaud that.”

Follow-up: The Environment Bill is available here. The explanatory notes are available here. The policy statement is available here.

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