Greener UK
< Back to Risk Tracker

Water

June - September 2017

Summary

The government is failing to act in a number of EU policy areas relating to water, particularly around land management, phosphorus and abstraction, and its reluctance is concerning as an indication of its likely approach to water quality after the UK leaves the EU. Michael Gove’s speech at WWF headquarters was encouraging, as he highlighted the urgency of tackling water management problems, but it remains to be seen whether his words result in action.   

Verdicts key:

  • Low risk
  • Medium risk
  • High risk
  • Click on the icons for more info
Principles & strategies
The government intends that the EU Withdrawal Bill will “ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect”. However, as currently drafted, the bill fails to carry 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 bill also fails to carry across the directives that set the policy frameworks, and the strategies that set out trajectories for achieving policy goals.

The UK government is working on a 25 year plan for the environment that is expected to set out the direction for future water policy after the UK leaves the EU, and which could provide an opportunity to deal with gaps in existing policy, if given a statutory underpinning. However, the plan’s publication has been beset with delays for more than a year and there is still no confirmed date for its publication.
Legislation
The government intends that the EU Withdrawal Bill will “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 water policy. The bill also contains extensive powers for ministers to alter that law during the two years following the UK’s exit. We remain concerned about the level of scrutiny given to statutory instruments used in the conversion process, particularly given the short timeframe. However, Defra has, in meetings, said that there will be full public consultation and that it sees no issues with bringing over all the water-related directives.
Capacity & funding
Defra is due to see a 15 per cent reduction in its resource spending between 2015 and 2020, although more civil servants are being drafted into the department. The EU environment, agriculture and fisheries acquis are extensive, and it is unclear whether Defra will be able to cope with any additional workload associated with, first, the transposition of that body of EU law into domestic law, and then the monitoring of existing policy and creation of new policy. Most of this effort has happened at EU level thus far.

We remain concerned at proposals to cut long term monitoring to save money. Without EU requirements for monitoring delivery of the directives we fear national comprehensive monitoring could be reduced further.
Governance
There are currently a number of infringement cases being undertaken by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) relating to water quality and in the past it has been invaluable in delivering change in the UK. The EU Withdrawal Bill envisages that existing EU case law will apply up to exit day, but that decisions of the ECJ made after exit day will not be binding on domestic courts. In addition, the role currently played by the ECJ together with other EU institutions in providing monitoring, oversight, accountability and enforcement will no longer apply. The UK government has not yet set out an adequate plan for filling this governance gap.
 
We are concerned about Ofwat’s proposals for environmental investment to deliver the policies under the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). Ofwat’s options will either require a secretary of state to act in a way that explicitly raises bills, or it will require a rate of change in the last few years of the investment period, which would make it almost impossible (and very costly) for companies to scale up the delivery of water quality improvements. This suggests that Ofwat is predicting a reduction in government ambition to deliver its EU-derived water policy objectives in the lead up to Brexit.
Co-operation
The Prime Minister’s speech in Florence stated that the UK and EU share a commitment to high environmental standards, and outlined her preference for a new economic relationship that is underpinned by those standards. However, the UK’s recent position paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland made only one mention of the environment, simply referencing it as one of the six areas of co-operation agreed by the North South Ministerial Council as established under the Good Friday Agreement. As such, it failed to fully appreciate the broad range of cross-border environmental matters, such as cross-border river basins, that could be affected by Brexit. Although the latest round of Brexit negotiations apparently saw a recognition on the UK side that cross-border co-operation between Northern Ireland and Ireland is built on the EU legal framework, the details of the UK’s position on how such co-operation can be maintained post-Brexit remains unclear.

Land management is vital to the health of the aquatic ecosystem, so any new land management policy needs to work across all UK countries for people and the environment, and co-operation regarding cross border water bodies needs to continue.