The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is dead - long live the Environment Bill?

16th November 2020

It’s no secret now that government will have us diverge from the Water Framework Directive (WFD), especially so since we’ve missed many of the legally binding targets set by it, and indeed would likely miss future targets as well. 

As Boris Johnson said in a letter to Donald Tusk (former president of the European Council) in 2019, “Although we remain committed to world-class environmental, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy” – a sly politic-speak sort of way of saying that maybe we won’t be quite as prescriptive about what environmental goals must be achieved in the future, the key word here is of course “Although”.

According to figures from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, “35% of the UK’s surface water bodies are in good or better condition, well below the target.  When it comes to rivers, the situation is even worse, with just 14% of the UK’s rivers meeting good or better status.  This figure has actually fallen steadily since 2014, when it stood at 17%”.  What’s more, the UK Environment Agency have published the results of their 2019 assessment of 4,679 rivers, lakes, estuaries and other surface water bodies and incredibly none, yes that’s 0% received good chemical status so none of them are meeting legal water quality standards.  In other words 100% of surface water bodies are polluted with anthropogenically derived chemicals and agricultural pollution.  

We’ve been working on priority substances for ages it seems, but the goalposts got moved and whilst we were seeing 97% of the surface water bodies passing the chemical pollution test in 2016,  now that we’ve added new substances to the assessment list, such as PFOS/PFAS family compounds, and brought in new standards for substances in aquatic wildlife, we have a renewed and onerous challenge ahead of us.

The government has set out plans for a new environmental watchdog – the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – but this institution “will not have the power that to impose hefty fines on the government” – we should also look at what is being proposed under the new Environment Bill (updated 19th August 2020).  This is the first time in decades that the UK will determine its own environmental policies so it would be nice if we took the opportunity to achieve high quality in our aquatic environment rather than just see this an opportunity to reduce cost and set a lower standard that we might think is more easily achieved than would otherwise be required by the WFD.  Bear in mind though that this will all go to consultation so if we have concerns we really should certainly express them at that time. 

As things stand, air quality, biodiversity, water, and resource efficiency and waste reduction, as well as a target for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are what’s on the table, so we’ll have a set of interim targets and aim to meet the requirements to be set out in a long term plan.  This target-setting philosophy is a bit similar to the WFD at least. 

There are a number of focus areas in the new thinking, like “at least three quarters of our waters to be as close to their natural state as soon as is practicable” (we’ll believe that if we see it – if our performance as a country couldn’t even meet the WFD milestones then what chance the new aims and policies will prove better?). 

For instance, as has been said of the water companies in a recent Government policy paper “despite the significant investment made, progress has flat lined in recent years” - 36% of water bodies are currently affected by pollution from wastewater.  I think we also need a multi-stakeholder-led approach if we’re to see improvement over other environmental impacts such as levels of agricultural pollution, including nitrates and phosphates, and we need to continue to “encourage” the water companies to continue to invest in pollution-reducing technologies (whilst at the same time continuing to work on future resilience) - and working with the planning system so that we deliver sustainable and responsible future development. 

There are encouraging things happening though, like the Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP) initiative (a set of actions that the Environment Agency have requested all twenty water companies operating in England, to complete between 2020 and 2025, in order to contribute towards meeting their environmental obligations).  Indeed we should be able to rely on support in this direction – as Environment minister Rebecca Pow said recently “We need to go further and faster on reducing the environmental impact from storm overflows and other sources of pollution including chemicals and agriculture”.  She didn’t exactly explain who the “We” are, but we should have a realistic take on all this and not pre-suppose that the onus for policing it can fall upon the few, and funding is a fundamental in this scenario if we are to achieve the improvement we need  – as The Salmon and Trout Conservation group said recently, cuts to the Environment Agency’s monitoring work were partly to blame for the current condition of our water bodies, an opinion shared by others must be said.

So, we’ll see, but the jury isn’t out yet – in fact it’s not even sat yet, so to be honest I think it will take a very skilled crystal ball-gazer to predict the sort of future water environment that might be a result of these changes. 

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