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Water Framework Directive

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 24 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to maintain their commitments to water quality, currently provided for in retained EU law such as the Water Framework Directive.

I beg leave to ask the question standing in my name on the Order Paper and draw attention to my interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, I too refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. This Government are committed to protecting and enhancing water quality. Reform of retained EU law will not come at the expense of our already high environmental standards. Our Environment Act has strengthened regulation since we left the EU. We have consulted on legally binding targets for the water environment, covering pollution from wastewater, agriculture, abandoned metal mines and reducing water demand. We are also the first Government to instruct water companies to significantly reduce storm overflows.

My Lords, while I welcome that Answer, of course storm overflows are one of the later pieces that will come into effect. We are in danger of creating a perfect storm: building 300,000 houses a year with nowhere for the wastewater and sewage to be safely disposed of. Does my noble friend agree that the European water framework directive, the drinking water directive, the bathing water directive and others played a great part in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher in ensuring the improvement of water quality in this country? Will he set out what the Government’s plans are, under retained EU legislation, to ensure that we maintain the highest environmental standards we possibly can, and that there will be no going backwards?

I can absolutely give my noble friend that assurance. The water framework directive is the retained measure of our performance in terms of water quality, but the vehicle that will deliver it will be the environment improvement plan, which is due to be published in January. It sets out the steps the Government intend to take to improve the natural environment. She will know that the Office for Environmental Protection is the UK’s independent statutory environment body, which will hold Governments and public authorities to account in their implementation of environmental law. The OEP has powers to scrutinise, advise, and enforce compliance, including the ability to bring legal proceedings against public authorities.

My Lords, I am so angry. The Minister knows full well that the water framework directive was a very precise, scientifically based measurement of ecological well-being that the Government quietly dropped in 2017. They have replaced that with this talk of “natural state” for 75% of rivers. What does “natural state” mean in scientific terms? I would argue that it is incredibly woolly and totally meaningless and that this Government do not have a suitable plan.

Well, I live to make sure that the noble Baroness is not angry and is reassured that this Government are absolutely determined to have the highest science-based evidence to support the targets that we will impose on ourselves and future Governments in this area. The Environment Act really is a very powerful piece of legislation and the structures it has created will do precisely that. Good environmental status has not been achieved in any country in Europe. We, along with other countries in Europe, are failing to meet the demands of the water framework directive. We are now able to produce standards bespoke to the United Kingdom that will be scientifically based and will be able to be scrutinised by your Lordships, by people in the other place, by civil society and by individuals, and implemented, if Governments fail, through the Office for Environmental Protection.

My Lords, Ministers have discussions—as the Minister has told us—with the Environment Agency and with Ofwat, company executives, farmers, and community representatives, but these happen at different frequencies and the various players do not necessarily all talk to each other. The Minister may not be able to solve the problems relating to water quality single-handedly. Does he recognise the power that he and departmental colleagues have to bring people together on this? Is he doing that, and is he formulating a comprehensive national plan that will command broad support?

Within the constraints of the fact that this is a devolved issue, we are certainly doing that in England. I hope that I have got across to noble Lords, in responses on 7 September, 25 October, 31 October, 2 November and 14 November, my and my department’s determination and commitment to make this work. We are precisely bringing these different organisations together. Interestingly, the reason why rivers fail is, first, because of physical modification—water is impounded, there may be weirs that have to be taken away—secondly, because of pollution from agricultural and rural land, and, thirdly, because of pollution from wastewater. There are also many other reasons. We have to work across society to make sure that this is co-ordinated, that the targets we will announce in January will be effective and that the Government can be held to account on them.

My Lords, the Minister refers to the power of the Office for Environmental Protection. This week, the OEP said that the retained EU law Bill should include a provision that no legislation should be revoked without an equivalent or enhanced level of protection. Do the Government agree?

Three weeks ago, I asked my noble friend what was happening to change building regulations to reduce the volume of water needing disposal, which would thus be an advantage with things such as storm overflows. My noble friend told me that there were discussions going on, but I realise that this is a cross-cutting matter between departments, and that always makes me nervous. I wonder whether my noble friend would write to me, and put a copy in the Library, about exactly what discussions are going on and what plans there are to change building regulations to reduce the capacity of water, and with some sort of timetable that is being given to developers to make sure that it is complied with.

This comes down to the thorny issue of nutrient neutrality. The problem that we have in this country is that most of our houses have mixed clean water and dirty water going into the same sewer. This is what is causing the problems in the sewage overflows. We have a new legal duty on water companies in England to upgrade wastewater treatment works. A new nutrient mitigation scheme established by Natural England is helping wildlife and boosting access to nature. But the cost to retrofit a separated system would be somewhere around £345 billion to £600 billion, which would be quite a considerable hit on individual households. But there has to be a plan to resolve nutrient neutrality, or the backlog of houses that are needed by people will not be able to be built—so I will certainly write to my noble friend.

My Lords, with blue algae sightings in the Lake District from farmland nutrient runoff and overflowing septic tanks, and with Derwentwater, Bassenthwaite, Ullswater, Loweswater and a number of reservoirs under threat—and Windermere actually dying—why cannot responsibility for water quality and pollution be removed from an overstretched Environment Agency and transferred to a new water pollution control authority with lay membership, similar to the regional flood and coastal committee structures that currently cover flooding issues? It is food for thought.

It is indeed. We are constantly looking at the whole landscape of how we deliver government through our agencies. Maybe there is room for changing certain parts of what we do in the wider Defra family. Windermere is a really interesting case: the Environment Agency monitors occurrences of algal blooms. We think that the largest reason for that is private sewage treatment, such as septic tanks and missed connections. There is of course an ongoing issue on a great many waterways where we have to look at it in the round. People like to find one villain when in fact there are many people at fault, sometimes ourselves. There will be people in this Chamber who have a badly connected or defunct system of sewage treatment which will be polluting a waterway. I might be one of them.

My Lords, the Brexit campaign promised us that leaving the EU would lead to a bonfire of regulations and massive deregulation, getting rid of unnecessary red tape. Does the Minister’s answer to my noble friend Lady Parminter mean that Defra has no intention of following through that promise any longer, but intends to maintain at least as high a level of regulation as the EU provided?

Yes, I absolutely say that, because we have commitments in the 25-year environment plan and the Environment Act and we have commitments to reverse the decline of species by 2030. We will not be able to achieve those commitments by just getting rid of regulations. What we want is better ones. We want ones that are not designed for an environment that goes from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. We want ones that are suitable for these islands. That is what we are seeking to do. We want at least the same levels of protection. We think that in many cases they can be better for both the user and the environment.