Motion to Approve
That the Regulations laid before the House on 19 December 2022 be approved.
Relevant document: 25th Report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Special attention drawn to the instrument.
My Lords, I beg to move that the draft environmental targets for water in England be approved. Water is one of our most precious natural resources. It is essential for human well-being, farming, food production and biodiversity.
I will briefly set out how the Government have massively increased action on water quality. We are tackling agricultural pollution at the source by doubling investment in catchment-sensitive farming and rolling out new schemes to reward sustainable farming. We launched our storm overflows discharge reduction plan to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in water company history, with £56 billion of capital investment by 2050. Through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, we will place a duty on water companies in England to upgrade wastewater treatment works in nutrient neutrality areas to the highest achievable technological levels. Our new long-term targets will tackle some of the biggest impacts on our water environment by stimulating action towards our ambition in the 25-year environment plan of clean and plentiful water.
I turn to the amendment to the Motion, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, which gave rise to this debate. The amendment raises concern about the level of ambition of this new set of water targets and the recent river basin management plans published by the Environment Agency. The targets we are setting are ambitious and will have significant impact. They will deliver tangible improvements to the water environment. We are going as far as we can as fast as we can, while balancing the costs to business and people’s lives and complying with the Environment Act. I remind noble Lords that the Act says in Section 4:
“Before making regulations under sections 1 to 3 which set or amend a target the Secretary of State must be satisfied that the target, or amended target, can be met.”
I absolutely reject the claim that existing deadlines for our commitments in the water framework directive regulations 2017 have been pushed back to 2063. The updated river basin management plans published by the Environment Agency set objectives for good ecological status by 2027 and are compliant with the water framework directive regulations 2017.
In December last year, the Environment Agency published its river basin management plans, which included modelling that showed that, for a small group of ubiquitous, persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals known as uPBTs—specifically mercury, PFOS and PBDE—the level of pollution will not decline to acceptable levels until 2063. Although most of these are banned from use, there is no technically feasible way to remove this historic pollution from the water environment. This situation is not unique to England. This is an issue faced internationally and EU states that have also chosen to undertake biota monitoring for uPBTs such as Germany, Sweden and Austria have returned comparable results.
The water framework regulations 2017 have always allowed an extended time frame beyond 2027 to allow water bodies to recover naturally once actions to stop emissions of certain pollutants have been carried out. That is specifically linked to this chemical issue and is not related to any other measures required by the water framework directive. The basis of the amendment to the Motion is therefore factually incorrect, and I am disappointed that the Opposition have decided deliberately to ignore the facts. It is for the noble Baroness to explain how she could have made such an error, or why she has worded the amendment to the Motion in such a misleading way.
We have categorically not amended the target timeline in the water framework directive regulations 2017, nor have we reduced the work involved to meet it. We remain committed to delivering clean and plentiful water, as set out in the 25-year environment plan. Those targets are absolutely critical to deliver the long-term improvements to the environment that we all want to see. However, I will be clear in saying that, if noble Lords on the Opposition Front Bench delay the adoption of those targets, they will not slow us down or slow down the action we will take to meet them; they will just let down the British people, who will see right through their amendment to the Motion.
I will return now to the details of the instrument. The instrument sets four legally binding targets for water, fulfilling the requirement under the Environment Act 2021. The Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) (England and Wales) Regulations 2017 already set an outcome-based, long-term target to improve the overall water environment. Under those regulations, we are committed to restoring 75% of water bodies to “good ecological status”. We do not simply want to replicate that, so we are setting four water targets to address some of the most specific pressures. The regulations are laid to create four new legally binding targets for water: to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution from agricultural land by 40%, and to reduce phosphorus from treated wastewater by 80%. Our abandoned metal mines target will seek to halve the length of rivers polluted by abandoned metal mines, and our water demand target aims to reduce water demand by 20%.
Pollution from the agriculture sector prevents 40% of water bodies in England from achieving our objectives for “good ecological status”. Our agriculture target will address three major sources of harm from this sector: nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. Agriculture and wastewater are the biggest sources of nutrient pollution in the water environment. Agricultural nutrients enter the water environment through run-off and leaching from agricultural land; it accounts for an estimated 70% of nitrate inputs into our rivers, lakes and groundwaters, and 25% of the phosphorus load in our rivers and lakes.
To deliver the target, we will work with the agricultural sector to improve farming practices and we will reward farmers for incorporating sustainable methods and wildlife habitats into their farm as part of a profitable business. At every step, farmers will have access to free, face-to-face advice from the catchment-sensitive farming partnership. We will help farmers benefit from the technologies that could transform how our food is grown, including closed systems that capture excess nutrients for reuse, or reduced tillage systems that preserve the soil structure and reduce the need for fertilisers. Sadly, there still will be, and still are, polluters who will let the side down and end up threatening those collective efforts. If they do not accept our support, we will tackle them head on. We have increased the funding for Environment Agency enforcement officers to enable that and to focus them on the most sensitive areas.
Our second water target that addresses nutrient pollution is focused on reducing phosphorus pollution from treated wastewater. That new target is part of a wider programme of work started by Conservative Governments to improve water companies’ environmental performance. That includes, for example, £56 billion of capital investment by 2050 on storm overflows discharge reduction and £7.1 billion of investment by water companies on environmental improvements in the years 2020 to 2025, including £3.1 billion on storm overflow improvements specifically, driving 800 storm overflow improvements across England.
In 2013, when I was the Water Minister, I personally wrote to all water companies to direct them to roll out a systematic storm overflows monitoring programme for the first time. Only 5% of all storm overflows were known about at that point; by the end of this year, we will know every single one of them. The information that people have is largely due to measures that we took a decade ago to drive up that information base, because previous Governments had no idea what was going on.
We also made the environment a priority in the strategic policy statement for Ofwat for the first time. This included giving a clear expectation that it must challenge water companies to achieve zero pollution incidents by 2030. I repeat that, because some noble Lords have questioned me on this: to achieve zero pollution incidents by 2030. We also have a requirement for water companies to cut leakage by 50% by 2050.
Over the last two decades, phosphorus in treated wastewater discharged into rivers has reduced by 67%. However, monitoring shows that the amount of phosphorus in treated wastewater is still damaging to the water environment and that water companies are still the largest source of this nutrient pollution. That is why, in this price review period for 2020 to 2025 and following trials of new and improved techniques, the Environment Agency set a more stringent technically achievable limit for phosphorus reductions that could be applied to wastewater treatment works. To meet this target, we will work with the Environment Agency to tighten the permits on wastewater companies even further, by requiring an estimated 400 treatment works to meet the strictest limits for phosphorus.
Our amendment to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill will also contribute to the achievement of this target by requiring water companies to improve the performance of wastewater treatment works to the highest achievable technological levels for phosphorus in designated nutrient neutrality areas. Our approach balances ambition and significant changes that need to be made to meet our wider targets with impacts on customer bills. We also support the work that Ofwat is undertaking to link water company dividends with environmental performance and to scrutinise water company performance.
The third target will address metal pollution from abandoned metal mines. Metal mines are the biggest source of metal pollution in rivers and one of the top 10 pressures impacting the water environment. This causes acute local pressures where it appears, which has a high environmental and economic impact. Impacted rivers are polluted by high concentrations of at least one of cadmium, nickel, lead, copper, zinc or arsenic. Until the year 2000, mines could be abandoned without the mine operators having to take responsibility for the legacy of ongoing water pollution from their activities.
As most of the metal mines in England were abandoned by the early 1900s, it falls almost entirely to the Government to take action to mitigate continuing environmental harm. Without government action, the effects of these activities would typically continue for hundreds of years. We will deliver this target, along with the Coal Authority, through a tenfold increase in the existing water and abandoned metal mines programme and by upscaling our existing three treatment schemes to around 40, with a similar number of diffuse interventions. In the majority of catchments impacted by these mines there are few or no other reasons for failure, so tackling this pollution will support these rivers achieving good status.
Our fourth target will bring about a reduction in water demand to ensure a resilient supply of water in the face of climate change and an increasing population, and leave more water in the environment to support biodiversity. The recent dry weather conditions have driven the importance of this home to the British people more than ever before. Increased demand and reduced water availability is affecting the environment and reducing the security of our water supply. Public water supply represents around 30% of water abstracted from the environment and the majority of water abstracted across England but not returned directly to the environment.
Abstraction used for spray irrigation accounts for a small proportion of total national freshwater abstraction—between 1% and 2%. Of the additional 4,000 million litres of water a day which is estimated to be needed by 2050, half of this capacity will be met by demand reduction, through a reduction in water lost through leakage and a reduction in household and non-household water use. Industry-wide, water companies have reduced leakage by 11% since 2017-18. Through this new target we are pushing water companies to go further. The water demand target will ensure a sustainable level of water demand and help to leave more water in the environment for nature.
In conclusion, the targets enshrine in legislation our ambitious objectives for the water environment by tackling some of the most significant pressures: pollution from agriculture, wastewater and abandoned metal mines, as well as a target to reduce water demand to ensure that we have a resilient supply of water in the future. Without these actions, we will see shortfalls in water supply across England and significant strain on the water environment from nutrient and metal pollution. I commend these draft regulations to the House.
Amendment to the Motion
At the end insert “but that this House regrets the lack of ambition and urgency contained in the Regulations; notes that in relation to the department’s consultation, an overwhelming majority of respondents supported more stringent targets than those in these Regulations; further notes that these targets must be considered in the context of the Environment Agency’s decision to postpone the deadline for improving the quality of England’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters to 2063; therefore calls on His Majesty’s Government to bring forward revised targets by the end of 2023”.
My Lords, along with many others, we have for some time expressed our concerns about the Government’s lack of ambition in tackling the huge challenges facing our environment. We argued strongly during the passage of the Environment Act for the need to set targets to bring about transformative change, and were told that ambitious targets would be announced by 31 October of last year. That is a full year after the Act came into law—so hardly urgent. It was only after interventions from the Office for Environmental Protection, fellow parliamentarians and environmental groups that eventually they were laid—late—on 19 December.
One reason for the delay is that Defra did not begin the consultation on the proposed targets until March 2022 and the publication of evidence documents to support responses was also delayed. Over 180,000 consultation responses were received, with most people asking for higher levels of ambition. We know this carries a high level of public interest and support. Instead, as the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee says in its highly critical report, most of the targets have not been strengthened, none has been strengthened significantly, and some have been weakened, with key gaps remaining in some areas where there was strong public and expert support for additional targets.
In addition, the Government are further undermining nature recovery by threatening hundreds, if not thousands, of environmental laws under the retained EU law Bill. Can the Minister tell me what is the point in the Government having a 25-year environment plan if it ends up being nothing but rhetoric?
I turn to the SI in front of us today on the water targets. The date of 2063 was mentioned by the Minister. Until Brexit, the UK Government were signed up to the water framework directive, requiring countries to make sure that all their waters achieved good chemical and ecological status by 2027 at the latest. The UK Government later reduced this to 75% of waterways reaching a single test of good ecological status by 2027 at the latest. The target for the majority of waterways to achieve good status in both chemical and ecological tests has now been pushed back to 2063 according to an analysis by the Wildlife Trusts of the new river basin management plans.
It is not amusing. The latest state of rivers and lakes report released by the Environment Agency shows that only 16% meet the criteria for good ecological status and that no water bodies are deemed to meet the criteria for achieving good chemical status. This is appalling. The Government have set targets to reduce pollution from agriculture, abandoned metal mines and wastewater, and to reduce water demand. That is commendable—of course we support pollution reduction. Nitrogen and phosphorus run-off from agriculture lead to freshwater ecosystems being starved of oxygen, causing harm to wildlife. In fact, agriculture and wastewater nutrient pollution carry most responsibility for the failure of our lakes and waterways to meet good ecological standards.
The problem with this SI is that there is no information or specifications as to how this will be achieved. The executive summary states that it
“does suggest groups of policy options which could together deliver each target.”
That is pretty thin. Couple this with the fact that the target date to achieve any of the stated aims has now been moved back to 2038 and you will see that there is a complete lack of urgency or ambition from the Government.
Both the general public and experts in this field believe that the level of ambition proposed in the targets for nutrient and sediment pollution is too low. For example, the Government’s Water Targets Expert Advisory Group suggested that a significantly higher level of ambition is required to achieve the goals of the 25-year environment plan. Over 90% of people who replied to the Government’s consultation disagreed with the proposed level of ambition for reducing nutrient pollution; almost every single one wanted a stronger target. Let us remember that only last December, the Government agreed to the COP 15 global biodiversity framework, target 7 of which is
“reducing excess nutrients lost to the environment by at least half”
by 2030. How will the target proposed today, to reduce nutrient pollution from agriculture by 40% by 2038, achieve that commitment? Is it even compliant?
Having said that, bizarrely, there is a nutrient pollution chapter in the levelling-up Bill. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us as to how this will work alongside the Defra proposals and the COP 15 commitment. Has a Cabinet Committee been set up, perhaps, to try to co-ordinate all this?
Looking at the target for water demand, the Secondary Legislation and Scrutiny Committee refers to the submission from Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link. This highlighted that the water demand target is a relative target, based on water abstracted divided by population, and that this could result in overall water taken from the environment increasing, with the outcome of no environmental improvement in this respect. What reassurances can the Minister provide that this will not be the case? We have heard in numerous debates in this House that overabstraction is a significant cause of poor habitat quality and can exacerbate the effects of pollution, including that of the disgusting practice of sewage being pumped repeatedly into our rivers and seas. There have been more than a million sewage spills over the last six years; one every two and a half minutes. It really is time to clean up our seas, lakes and rivers.
We believe that being a custodian of our waterways and the environment should be a government duty and priority. Instead of the lack of ambition and urgency offered by this Government, we believe there should be mandatory monitoring of all sewage outlets so that we can get a grip on the situation, with a legally binding target to end 90% of sewage discharges by 2030. We believe that the Environment Agency should have the power and resources to properly enforce the rules and, as it suggests, that water company executives who routinely and systematically break the rules should be held personally and professionally accountable. The Environment Agency is so concerned about the lack of progress from the water industry, confirming that water firms’ performance on pollution had declined to the worst seen in years, that it is calling for chief executives and board members to be jailed if they oversee serious, repeated pollution, because they seem undeterred by enforcement action and court fines for breaching environmental laws. In other words, it is the only way that the Environment Agency can see a change in attitude in order to turn the situation around. Why will the Government not support this course of action?
The Minister may well believe that Defra is being ambitious, and I am sure he will continue to reassure us that all is well and in hand, but I am afraid that our seas and waterways need so much more than these targets can deliver. For the sake of our environment and its threatened biodiversity, the Government must do more. We need to ensure that we do not just stop polluting but help our fragile ecosystems to recover for future generations to appreciate and enjoy. I beg to move.
My Lords, I agree with every word—
Why should I give way?
Because that is the way it goes. I thank the noble Baroness for giving way.
My Lords, it is the turn of this side. There will be time for everyone to contribute.
I deeply resent that.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. On the environment, we agree on so much.
I am not giving way; I am being bullied.
My Lords, I welcome this debate as it enables us to consider where we are with the state of our rivers and seas. I pay tribute to my noble friend and congratulate him on the work he has done since we were on the Front Bench together—albeit in opposition—and the interest he has shown and the knowledge he brings to this area. I will make two brief points.
There is disagreement over why our rivers and seas are being polluted by sewage. I argue that one of the reasons is that we are building 300,000 houses a year—that is our aspiration and that of, I think, the Opposition Front Bench. There is nowhere for the sewage to go. At the moment, highways are excluded from the surface water run-off, which is compounding this, as was identified by Pitt in 2007. Surface water run-off is a relatively new phenomenon and it is combining with the combined sewers. That is adding sewage to our rivers upstream, way before it gets into the sea.
I welcome this opportunity strongly to urge my noble friend to respond urgently to the report into the review on SUDS. It has recommended that sustainable drains be added, exactly as they have been in Wales. I can see no reason to delay this, for the simple reason that, as the noble Baroness opposite said, we cannot accept this extra form of pollution: surface-water flooding into our rivers and seas. So I ask my noble friend to bring forward as a matter of urgency these recommendations, to ensure that there is an environmental impact assessment, that it is well costed, that highways will be added and that all new developments will be submitted to developers building sustainable drains in this regard.
My noble friend mentioned nutrients, which will cause an ongoing debate in the House. My noble friend is aware—I have registered my interest in this—that a study is taking place on the use of bioresources. Without putting too fine a point on it, we are seeking to take the solids out of the sewage—if noble Lords get my drift, without spelling it out—and, as other countries have done, recognise it as a resource, put a value on it and decide, with government advice and guidance, how it can best be used. There are two obvious ways to use it: putting it on the land, which they tried to do in north Yorkshire when I was an MP there—it got a very mixed response, but it is worth looking at—and using it to create energy, which I understand is happening in Denmark and other parts of Europe. We need to look at nutrient neutrality, as I think my noble friend called it.
Finally—I apologise to the noble Baroness opposite—when we come to the retained EU law Bill, I would like to consider why we would wish to remove the wastewater directive, the water framework directive, the drinking water directive, the bathing water directive and the urban wastewater directive when they are part of the reason why our rivers have recovered from the state they were in through the 1980s. I welcome this debate and look forward to hearing my noble friend sum up.
My Lords, I hardly think it is appropriate for a government Minister to attack the people on this side of the Chamber as letting the British people down when it is we who are actually trying to protect them. We have had 13 years of Conservative Government and it has been mismanagement, incompetence and corruption almost from the start. I do not blame the Minister sitting in front of us, but the successive Cabinets at the other end have damaged the British people much more than we ever could.
I thank Ash Smith of WASP, which is Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, for a briefing on these targets. Essentially, telling water companies that 2038 and 2040 are appropriate targets is absolutely ridiculous. It means they can sit back on their hands and relax. I am curious to know whether the Government think that if they set the targets too high, the water companies will not make any money and go bust and then we will have to nationalise them—which sounds like quite a good result to me.
As of this morning, Fairford sewage treatment works has been dumping sewage into the River Colne for a total of 745 hours continuously since 23 December last year. I am curious to know what action the Government are taking about that. Is that the storm overflows that the Minister was referring to? Because, of course, storm overflows are not storm overflows, they are constant overflows. This is not a storm overflow, so are the Government doing anything about it?
The Government has a target of reducing phosphorous by 80% by 2037, because the current excesses lead to algae bloom, cut oxygen and kill rivers. It is used by water companies to mitigate harmful lead pipe impact. That is because, of course, they have not updated their pipes over the past 20 or 30 years. Feargal Sharkey, who we all know, suggested that I take the example of Amwell Magna Fishery, as it regularly has phosphorous readings way up in the death zone; even if the readings were reduced by 80%, we would still end up with a level of phosphorous that was poisoning the river.
I also point out that the Government have used different base years. I do not understand why. They have used 2018 and 2020: why use two different baselines? Is that because in those years the spillages were very high and so 80% of a huge amount is not a particularly difficult target? I would really like an answer to that. In order to recover the health of the Amwell Magna Fishery and the river there, something like a 95% reduction would be needed. Given that 60% to 80% of phosphorous comes from sewage, I cannot see that even these inadequate targets are going to be met.
I very much want to know why the Government have used different base years. There must be a reason. And what about untreated sewage dumping? What is happening about that? I did not see this mentioned. Is phosphorous measured at every sewage outfall, and is it measured seasonally? Of course, it varies with the seasons, and it varies throughout the day. Could the Minister explain that a little bit? What about nitrogen from sewage works? Why is that not mentioned? We know that many sewage works discharge large amounts of effluent with very high levels of nitrates.
Other countries have reduced ammonia from agricultural runoff using simple measures. For example, Holland have been covering its slurry pits. I do not know exactly how it works, but there is some capital input and they have had extremely good results. Why are we not doing something similar? Also, why is there no overall target for water quality after 2027? If the Government are committed to supplying water, would a standpipe cover the point about the amount of water supply by water undertaken per person? Would a standpipe come into that definition?
The only way to get clean rivers and a clean water supply is to accept high standards and monitor them, and to have an Environment Agency that does not have its budget slashed all the time and is actually competent to do the work. Personally, I would of course like to see water companies taken back into public ownership. It is absolutely ludicrous that we let profit-making companies make a profit from something we all so desperately need.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. As always, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, has given a very thorough introduction to this statutory instrument. I thank the Minister for his time in providing a briefing.
The environmental targets, which were delayed from 31 October and eventually published on 19 December, are now being somewhat hurriedly debated before the end of January. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee debated all the environmental target SIs on 17 January. The committee did not feel that the original Explanatory Memorandum explained the four water targets very well or how they will be assessed and reported. The Minister has laid out very passionately the rationale behind the water targets.
I have received a briefing from Wildlife and Countryside Link and Greener UK, for which I am grateful, which makes the very valid point that only 16% of water bodies are in a good ecological condition. Therefore, ambition is needed to move this forward. The targets for pollutants—nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment—represent a siloed approach, which I will comment on later. Overall, the lack of ambition is worrying. It is some time since the 25-year environment plan was launched. The subsequent Environment Act should have supported fully that plan, with the environmental targets playing a wholly supportive role.
I have looked at the summary of responses to the government consultation. There were over 56,132 answers to the questions on water posed by the Government, and the government response can loosely be described as “No change”. The date for achieving the targets, however, has changed from 2037 to 2038. The rationale for this is that it will allow targets to span a 15-year minimum timeframe, and this will then tie in with the five-year reporting cycle of the environment improvement plan. This is eminently sensible and straightforward, provided that the targets are ambitious.
The abandoned metal mines target for a 50% reduction by 2038 is, however, not ambitious enough. Some 91% of the responses on this target disagreed with it. As far as I was able to ascertain, there is no detail on how the pollution substances target will be monitored. The Government, in their response to the disagreeing 91%, said that tackling pollution by the largest substances will lead to these rivers achieving good status, since there are few reasons for failure. However, they do not say how they are going to achieve this.
Further down in the document—I fear I quote here—the Government say:
“This ambition will require at least a 10-fold increase in the number of projects operated by the current Water and Abandoned Metal Mines Programme. We considered calls to increase our target ambition, however we concluded this would not be feasible given significant additional funding required, supply chain constraints and long lead-in times to secure the additional capability and to plan schemes. Ultimately, the additional costs would reduce the cost to benefit ratio”.
I repeat: they say that the additional costs would reduce the cost-benefit ratio. We are talking about cadmium, lead, copper, zinc and arsenic. These poisons are leaching out of abandoned mines into our watercourses, in which children are playing and adults may be swimming—but they say that cleaning this up does not meet the cost-benefit ratio. It would seem that silo working can justify almost anything. Undoubtedly, the cost to the water industry will be reduced by this unambitious target. What about the cost to the NHS of dealing with the health issues of those poisoned by exposure to toxic chemicals—workers off sick, children off school? The health impacts are enormous.
I turn now to the target on agricultural nutrients. Some of the respondents wanted more pollutants included in the target scope. The Government reject this because nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment are, by a considerable margin, the agricultural pollutants causing the most harm. Regardless of just how many pollutants are covered or not, the target to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from agriculture by 40% by 2038 is just not good enough. We have had many debates in this Chamber about the pollution of our major rivers, including the Wye polluted by chicken manure. It really is time for Defra to be taking this matter seriously and dealing with this toxic pollution on a permanent basis.
Much is made in the document of that fact that the majority of responses came from campaigns by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the RSPB and the Woodland Trust. However, each of the responders under these campaigns were individual members of the public who felt passionately about the issues.
The pollution from wastewater target is poor, allowing the water companies flexibility to deliver on it. The consultation response document states that 98% disagreed with the target on pollution from wastewater, preferring a more ambitious target. The document also stated that, of the non-campaign answers, 44% agreed with the outlined flexibility in the target. This means that 56% still disagreed with that target. However you attempt to translate the responses to the consultation questions, the overwhelming response all round is “Not ambitious enough”.
Lastly, the water demand target increases the target for leakage reduction in domestic supplies from 31.3% to an amazing 36.9%. This is on the basis that it will align with industry targets. This is also at a time when household bills are increasing. Surely to goodness the water companies can do better on their percentage of leakages than 36.9%. Who is paying for all this leaked water? The consumer, of course.
All round, I regret that I am disappointed in the water targets. I look forward to the Minister’s response to this debate.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hayman for drawing these substandard water environment targets to the attention of the House. As has been said, they arise from the requirement of the Environment Act 2021 to publish these targets. As my noble friend has said, they are late and already put Defra in breach of its statutory obligation. But, more importantly, neither these water targets nor the remaining statutory targets which have been published are sufficient to address the persistent trends of environmental decline that we have been hearing about this evening.
The excellent progress report from the Office for Environmental Protection, which was published last week, illustrated well just how big the gap between ambition and delivery has become. As the OEP chair, Dame Glenys Stacey, said:
“Progress on delivery of the 25 Year Environment Plan has fallen far short of what is needed to meet Government’s ambition to leave the environment in a better state for future generations.”
The report went on to say that, of 23 environmental targets assessed, none was found where the Government’s progress was demonstrably on track. It does make you wonder what Defra has been doing for the last four years.
I am grateful to the Minister for reminding us of his previous stint as the Water Minister. I do not doubt what he said, which is that we have more information on water pollution now than we had in the past. But does that not just demonstrate the fact that the Government have been falling asleep on the job? They have known about this, they have been seeing the data coming through, and what exactly have they been doing over the last 13 years—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones? As that evidence came through, why was it not matched by action? Why are we still having to raise these issues now?
It is also hugely frustrating that all of us who were involved in the debates on the then Environment Bill heard the promises made at that time by the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, about focused and ambitious targets that would be truly transformative, yet all that seems to have come to nothing. These water targets appear to focus on very partial elements of the overall water quality challenge. It is not clear to me why these particular targets have been selected. As the OEP identified in its report, there is already a proliferation of targets to which the Government need to bring some sort of order; again, noble Lords have made reference to those other targets. What we need now is an ambitious, long-term, overarching statutory target that provides a proper direction and pulls all the other targets together so that there are proper priorities for our environmental challenges. However, these water targets completely fail to do this.
I agree with many of the submissions to the consultation that what we need is an overall water quality target. That should be the focus of our statutory obligations. We know that not one English waterway, including rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters, is in good ecological and chemical health at the moment. Tackling agricultural pollution is one part of the solution but so is tackling the ongoing crisis of sewage pollution from water treatment works, which we have heard about this evening. This is being exacerbated by the impact of climate change: a mixture of record-breaking temperatures and higher rainfall is leading to the increased use of storm overflows to release raw sewage into rivers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said, storm overflows have become a constant flow rather than occurring as a result of any particular temperature or weather impact.
If the Minister’s response to all this is that there are other measures in place to tackle water pollution, can he please explain how they add up to a total water quality target? What is the overall target and how are we to measure progress on it? That is what is missing from the targets set out in this document. Based on the current trajectories, we are not going to see healthy rivers and lakes in our lifetime.
The Government also make the argument that they already have targets under the water framework directive but, of course, they are proposing scrapping all those European pieces of legislation under the REUL Bill. Can the Minster explain what the longer-term intention is for the water framework directive and, indeed, all the other water directives to which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, referred? I would have thought that they are essential for us to protect and take forward our environmental ambitions for water in the longer term. Can the Minister clarify whether the Government intend to keep all that legislation?
As my noble friend Lady Hayman said, Greener UK and Wildlife and Countryside Link made the point that the specific water demand target is relative and based on water abstracted, divided by population numbers. The Government have already admitted that it may measure and improve water efficiency levels, but this does not necessarily mean that there is any environmental improvement. Why was this target not linked to a parallel target focusing on controls on water abstraction, with an overarching outcome of improving water quality? That is what we are looking for: a “big picture”, overarching target.
The targets we are debating today are just one example of the inadequacy of the Government’s target-setting process. I hope the Minister and the Government will heed the advice of the Office for Environmental Protection and come back with more ambitious and coherent targets for the future, so that we can see real progress in reversing the environmental crisis we have heard about this evening. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I apologise for not being in the Chamber when the Minister spoke. I came in only during the speech by my noble friend Lady Hayman. However, I rise because of the date of 2063, when the full regulations will eventually be in. I am going to be interrupted and told that I am out of order, am I?
My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord missed the entirety of the Minister’s opening speech, where he referenced the 2063 date. I suggest that he reads it in Hansard.
I do apologise, but I wanted to remind the House of the 1880s, when London sewage was all put into the River Thames and there was such a stench that both Houses of Parliament had to rise early for the Summer Recess.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their valuable contributions to this debate.
The water targets put forward in this statutory instrument meet the requirements under the Environment Act to set at least one target in the area of water. As the Act requires, the Secretary of State has sought appropriate advice from independent experts and is satisfied that these targets can be met. The targets set out in this instrument will complement our existing water regulatory framework and the actions that the Government are taking on multiple fronts to address specific pollutions in the water environment.
For example, and to clarify my previous statement, we are driving Ofwat to challenge water companies to achieve zero serious pollution incidents by 2030. This includes the amendment to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to reduce phosphorus discharges from treated wastewater and reducing nutrient pollution from agriculture by doubling funding for advice and support to farmers through the catchment-sensitive farming scheme and our new slurry infrastructure grant. That grant addresses precisely the point that the noble Baroness made in relation to slurry lagoons. We are putting money into this area, where there is a specific point-source pollution problem, because we want to solve these problems.
I have not mentioned environment land management schemes—
I talked about that part of the levelling-up Bill because I am slightly confused. Departments usually are not brilliant at talking to each other. How will this work and who takes precedence on this? Does DLUHC take that bit? I do not understand the set-up.
I hope that I can reassure the noble Baroness. I spend a lot of time talking to other departments on this. Part of the problem on the River Wye is a planning issue. The customer said they wanted free-range eggs, the market responded, but the planning system was not in place. I know this from a previous role that I had. Perhaps I should declare an interest: I was a campaigner on trying to clean up the River Wye. That is the angle that I come from in this debate. The problem over decades has been the mismatch between the demand of the customer and the planning, which has not addressed it. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that these matters need to be controlled. Not only do we deal with DLUHC every day but they are in the same building. We spend our time, at an official and a ministerial level, working very closely with colleagues.
Without these actions, we will see shortfalls in water supply across England and significant strain on the water environment from nutrient and metal pollution. This target, alongside the suite of Environmental Act targets, will ensure that we meet our commitments to leave the environment in a better place than we found it.
I hope that this will clarify the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hacking. There is a mistake in the amendment to the Motion, which the noble Baroness did not touch on. It notes that
“these targets must be considered in the context of the Environment Agency’s decision to postpone the deadline for improving the quality of England’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters to 2063”.
No, we are not. That simply refers—and it also addresses the point made by the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench—to existing measures that are within the water framework directive. If we were still in the EU, these would apply. These are persistent toxic metals and chemicals that cannot be removed by any action that the Government can take now.
These matters will have to be dealt with over the coming months, years and decades to be resolved. They cannot be within the targets we want, because our ambitions are very high. These waste metals are in the environment, and you cannot remove them. That is why they are in the water framework directive. If we were still in the European Union, we would be abiding by this. I absolutely reject the line that we have somehow reduced our ambition since leaving the European Union. That is not true. The 75% figure that was quoted was decided before we left the EU and is an EU target. We are compliant with the water framework directive and, in other ways, we are more ambitious.
Through the way we support farmers in environmental land management, we are trying to give them incentives to change the way they treat soil. In preventing run-off of chemicals, pollutants and soil into our rivers, soil can be our friend. You only have to look at photographs from space, or with your own eyes when standing beside a river: when you see a river in a time of flood, it is very often brown because of the water that is flowing into it.
On the question of environmental laws and the rule Bill, there is no way we will get rid of regulations and measures that will help us hit our targets to reverse the decline in biodiversity by 2030. Many of those species exist in and around our waterways and rivers. There is no way we are going to get rid of regulations that help us to achieve our 25-year environment plan; and there is no way we are going to get rid of regulations that help us fulfil our international obligations, achieved with great effort at the CBD COP 15 in Montreal, with the United Kingdom Government at the heart of that process. There is no way we can do what we want to achieve while getting rid of regulations. So I hope that noble Lords will be reassured on that.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh made a good point about the impact of housing on rivers. A large part of the pollution problems we face comes from individual households that may have poor connections, or from the sheer number of houses that have been built in communities without the infrastructure to support them. That is why, with these targets, we will see hundreds of improvements to sewage treatment plants up and down rivers in this country.
My noble friend will be pleased that we are taking forward the, I grant her, long-delayed SUDS provisions in the Flood and Water Management Act. I am very happy to give her more details on that. She is also right to point out that sewage, if handled in the right way, is a resource. I refer her to emerging technologies around sustainable fertilisers, which can use waste products such as treated sewage to create prilled fertiliser that farmers can put on their land in the certain knowledge of its quality. It stands up against the inorganic, synthetically produced fertilisers that have been part of the problem with pollution, run-off, damage to the environment and the farming sector’s inability to hit its target of achieving net zero by 2040. So, technology is our friend in this field.
I was very interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, talk about the River Colne, which I was beside this weekend. It is beautiful. If amounts of sewage are being released into it and it is illegal, some of the environmental enforcement agencies, including the new ones we have created with the extra investment we have put into the Environment Agency, will be able to take that water company to court and issue fines, as we have on many occasions, some of which were very large fines indeed.
One of the reasons that £1.3 billion is being spent on a new sewer a few feet from where we are standing is the failure of a previous Government to hit the urban wastewater treatment directive targets. Those targets still exist, and we are cleaning up rivers such as the Thames not only in order to comply but because we want to achieve that.
I turn to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on COP 15. Water and biodiversity targets go hand in hand. Our new legally binding targets to halt the decline in species abundance is a good proxy for the health of wider ecosystems. These targets will drive domestic action. She asked about weakening the water framework target. I hope that I have covered that. It is categorically untrue that the Government have reduced in any way the water framework directive regulations since Brexit. All EU nations have exempted some water bodies from the target where it is neither practically nor technically feasible to meet it, and I have covered that. The 75% target was set before we left the EU, and we remain committed to it.
Turning to the baseline issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, the water targets do have different baseline years. This simply represents the latest years for which we have robust data. It reflects the different reporting cycles for these targets and it is important to use the most recent data. That is why, on occasions, there are different baselines. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, also raised issues regarding the OEP. The OEP commended several of the targets, including on waste reduction, agricultural water pollution and particulate matter pollution.
We all want to do things as quickly as possible. If I was on any side of the House, but not on the Front Bench, I too would be pushing the Minister of the day. I do not resile from, or have any less respect for, any Member of this House who pushes the Government on this. I want things to be done as quickly as possible, but let us do it on the right basis. The way this 2063 target has been used in this regret Motion is totally inaccurate, and I hope that noble Lords understand that.
We have been consistently clear with water companies that they must act rapidly to prioritise action on sewage-overflow pollution. Water companies are investing £3.1 billion to improve storm overflows between 2020 and 2025. Our storm overflows plan balances ambition and pace with the impact on consumer bills. Our plan will see £56 billion of capital investment and an estimated £12 average increase in customer water bills between 2025 and 2030. To promote sustainable solutions, green infrastructure projects, started before 2027 and delivered as quickly as possible, will count towards the completion of targets. This is a huge opportunity for the natural environment to see large amounts of private sector money being put into the environment. I will add, on enforcement, that, since 2015, the Environment Agency has concluded 59 prosecutions against water and sewerage companies, securing fines of more than £144 million.
I will now address the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, on our targets and ambitions on water use. We want to be serious about this and we want to be effective in reducing it. A cultural change needs to take place. We use potable drinking water to water our plants and wash our cars, as well as for household needs. I am not suggesting that there is an easy cure for this, but, in a changing climate, where there are real pressures, we want to make sure that we are driving down water use, helping those on low incomes to understand that this is a way they can save money—not in a preachy, patronising way but with real assistance. I have seen this at first hand, where a water company shows people how, through small additions to their households, sometimes provided free, they are able to achieve this.
My last point is on the perennial issue of water companies and their status, whether in the private sector or the public sector. I have seen independent evaluations which have shown that water bills would be higher if water companies were still nationalised, and everyone knows that if they were nationalised businesses, they would have to get in the queue outside the Chancellor’s office behind the health service, the Armed Forces, the police and hospitals. Any money that was left available in the tin would trickle down, and it would be much less than they are able to leverage on the markets in the way a private company does. Now, am I here to defend all private water companies? No. Some of them have behaved badly, and we have the means to deal with them when they do, but the model is right. The model is a way of ensuring that we get the investment we need to be spent on what people in this country want, which is continued supply of clean water for them at little or no damage to the environment. We want to make sure that these targets fit within that framework, so with those comments, I commend these draft regulations to the House.
Before the Minister sits down, can I take him back to the need for an overall ambition and overall target? The Environment Act says that it should be long-term. We understand that is what the Government are doing, so we might have other targets—and there is an awful lot of targets being floated around at the moment—but we also have the hope of a long-term target for water. So let us say within 15 years, which is what the Environment Act is talking about, could we say, notwithstanding pollutants that are leaching into the water that you cannot do anything about, which the Minister was specific about and will take longer, could we then have a guarantee that we will have clean water in our rivers, waterways and coastal waters within that 15-year deadline? That is doable, I would have thought, and I do not know why the Government do not say that and do not actually set that out as an ambition.
That will, of course, be our aim. Dates are just dates; they are moments in time. The idea that we are going to allow pollution to carry on and then it is suddenly going to fall off a cliff is of course nonsense. Whoever is responsible, whether it is the Government, their agencies, private landowners, water companies, farmers or whoever it is will be tackling this either because they are forced to do it or because they are incentivised to do it, and they will get the graph moving, as they have already, downwards. They will deal, like we all do, with the low-hanging fruit first, and then they will move on to the more difficult and the hardest to reach.
There is absolutely that target that we should achieve. We set ourselves a really difficult target with continuing with the water framework directive in its form because a river will be divided under that regulation into reaches. If it fails on one factor in one of those reaches, the whole river fails. That is why only 16% of our rivers qualify. Some reaches of those rivers are in quite good condition. I do not mind that target being demanding, but we need to understand that it is very hard to achieve what we are setting out. We think it is achievable and is doable, but if there is one point-source pollution incident resulting in a spike in phosphorus on one reach of a very long river, that river fails. So these are hard targets to hit, but we are determined to achieve that, and that is why I commend these regulations to the House.
I would like to thank the Minister before he sits down—although he has completed that act—for his very clear exposition over my concern about the postponement date of 2063. I offer my gratitude to the Minister.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this short debate. Regarding the date of 2063, which the Minister has got so exercised about, I reiterate that this came from the Wildlife Trusts, an organisation that I greatly respect. I also greatly respect the Minister. I thank him for his time in going through the different parts of the regulations that we have been discussing today.
My amendment says that I regret the lack of ambition and urgency contained in the regulations. I am afraid the Minister has not reassured me on that—I am sure that he is not surprised to hear it—but I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
House adjourned at 7.50 pm.