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EU rules reveal English rivers run dirty and dry

February 2016

Why do UK Government plans promise such little improvement?

Yesterday, new River Basin Management Plans were published to protect and improve water quality. These plans are part of a European framework for the environment, setting ambitious targets for cleaning up our water so it’s better for wildlife and clean and safe for people. Yet UK Government plans will result in only a 3% improvement in the next five years, leaving us languishing behind other EU countries in achieving goals for cleaning up our water.

English rivers are running sick. And the list of causes is daunting: Ammonia, nitrates, phosphates; sediments, waste water, slurry, building, draining, and dredging. These are just some of the explanations for the deterioration in the quality of our water over the last ten years, and for the scant ambition set out in the new River Basin Management Plans.

The plans would see only 21% of water bodies in good ecological condition by 2021, despite the EU target for all of our rivers, lakes and wetlands to be in good condition by 2015.

On the day when the Prime Minister is fighting to reduce in bureaucracy in the EU, it’s worth noting that the Water Framework Directive lives up to the European principle of subsidiarity – that decisions should be taken at the right level. It sets out targets for water quality that will benefit nature and European citizens. It offers flexibility to take unique circumstances into account. It requires our Governments to report on how they’re doing.

It’s up to individual Member States to set out how they’ll fulfil those ambitions nationally and locally, and it’s at that point we’re failing.

It’s thanks to the EU that we know that four fifths of our water bodies have failed to meet good a decent standard for a decade and that plans for change will add up to a bare 2% improvement in the next five years.

The problem is that the plans set out far too few measures to make a difference.

After the first plans were published in 2009, the European Commission concluded that the UK was relying too heavily on voluntary measures, instead of introducing mandatory action to tackle damage like diffuse agricultural pollution. The new plans do little to improve the situation.

But they do show the scale of the challenge and areas where small interventions could make a big difference. There are ample opportunities for Government to take cost-effective action.

  • This year, Defra considers new rules to tackle diffuse agricultural pollution. These must be strong, with provision for natural solutions like constructed farm wetlands.
  • Government will contribute to EU reform on “greening” farm payments, and take a national decision on moving money from direct farm subsidies to rural development. Through these decisions, it’s vital that farms are supported financially to make the management decisions that will benefit nature and water quality.
  • Abstraction reform can control the amount of water we take from our rivers and streams, a crucial tool for maintaining healthy river flows.
  • In the Housing and Planning Bill, paving the way for hundreds of thousands of new homes, there’s an opportunity to require sustainable drainage that can help manage floods and clean up the water that runs off our roads and pavements into our streams.

All this will require joined up action across Government and the proposals for a new 25 year plan for nature provide a perfect vehicle to make this happen.

When the Prime Minister returns from EU talks, let’s hope he’ll hear the wake up call on water and his next big deal will be to make the environment a priority across Government.