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June 2016 - June 2017


The government is failing to act in a number of EU policy areas relating to water, particularly around land management, phosphorus and abstraction, and the government’s reluctance is concerning as an indication of its likely approach to implementing water quality standards after the UK leaves the EU.

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Principles & strategies

The Great Repeal Bill White Paper fails to give a clear commitment to carrying across the general principles in the EU treaties that underpin water policy, such as the goals of sustainable development and a high level of environmental protection, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle.

The government has signalled its intention to continue to follow a catchment-based approach, which was introduced under the Water Framework Directive (WFD). However, it has not yet clear whether the principle aim of the WFD — to achieve good qualitative and quantitative status of all water bodies — will guide the catchment-based approach.

The UK government is working on a 25 year plan for the environment that may set out the direction for future water policy after the UK leaves the EU. However, this plan has been beset with delays for over a year and there is still no confirmed date for its publication. It remains unclear whether the plan would apply to England only, or across the whole of the UK.


The government’s stated goal in the Great Repeal Bill White Paper is to “ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in domestic law”. This broad commitment is reassuring, yet it is stated elsewhere that the bill will only convert EU law into domestic law “wherever practical and sensible”, and it is not yet clear whether this could create gaps in environmental protections.

Implementation of EU water policy remains incomplete at UK level (see baseline), which raises concerns about the government’s likely approach to nature conservation after the UK leaves the EU. Rules such as the ‘one out, all out’ and the ‘no deterioration’ principles have come under pressure from industry (1,2) and government, leading to worries of weakening. There is significant risk that these aspects of the legislation will be lost after the UK leaves the EU.

Capacity & funding

Defra is due to see a 15% reduction in its resource spending between 2015 and 2020. It is unclear whether it (and Natural England and the Environment Agency, which receive funding from Defra) will be able to cope with any additional workload associated with the transposition of all EU rules to the UK, and then the monitoring of existing policy and creation of new policy. Most of this effort has happened at EU level thus far.

The Environment Agency is reviewing its monitoring strategy with the main approach being “more strategic” due to its need to make cuts. This could put some of the UK’s long term data monitoring at risk. As the UK leaves the EU there is even greater risk that monitoring will be reduced as EU requirements disappear. Furthermore, parliamentary and civil service time and resource for key changes such as abstraction reform and sustainable drainage systems reform are under pressure.


The Great Repeal Bill White Paper does not make clear what, if any, domestic governance arrangements will be put in place to replace the European Court of Justice and the role it jointly plays with other EU institutions in providing the monitoring, oversight, accountability, and enforcement functions required to ensure the effective implementation of water quality legislation.

The EU continues to advance infraction proceedings against the UK concerning breaches of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. Once the UK has left the EU, such infraction proceedings will cease and it is unlikely that much progress will be made in areas where the UK is currently failing to deliver. For example, in 2015 the UK was threatened with infraction if it failed to act on reducing diffuse pollution from agriculture under the WFD, particularly regarding phosphorus. There has been no government response, and it is unlikely that new efforts will be made to reduce diffuse pollution from agriculture before the UK leaves the EU.