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River basin management plans – a levelling-up opportunity

Rob Collins, Head of Policy and Science at The Rivers Trust, explains how the huge levelling-up potential of River Basin Management Plans can be realised.

This week, Blueprint for Water will be exploring levelling-up opportunities within the water environment - and how these could be secured through amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill - in a series of blogs. Find these on our website here. 

August 2022

In 2021, our Blueprint for Water ‘Vision’ for the freshwater environment set out the importance of bold River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) to drive action for the entirety of the freshwater landscape, going beyond the building blocks of the Water Framework Directive to drive ambitious action at catchment and landscape scales.

RBMPs are vital. They set out how organisations, stakeholders and communities will work together to improve the water environment, and the actions that these stakeholders must take in order to bring our waters to good status. To achieve this, it is important that the actions and priorities set out in the RBMPs are integrated across and work with other policies, plans and legislation in order to holistically drive improvements for the freshwater environment.

Unfortunately, however, there is currently a disconnect between the RBMPs and most other plans pertaining to land and water management, including those drafted by Local Authorities. As a consequence, our approaches to addressing flood risk, tackling pollution, driving nature recovery and building climate resilience remain piecemeal, and unable to realise the multiple benefits for both the environment and people that are readily achievable.

Put simply, the huge potential of river basin management plans is not being realised.

The disconnect between RBMP and Local Authority planning means that opportunities are currently missed to create blue-green spaces in our urban environments, such as wetlands, ponds and wooded areas. Not only do these features help to reduce flood risk and improve water quality, but they also provide opportunities for local communities to access nature with proven benefits for health and wellbeing. Such features can be created in deprived areas with high levels of deprivation, thus supporting the levelling up agenda.

Water company drainage and wastewater management plans (DWMP) are also key in this regard. These require a collaborative approach to improve drainage and environmental water quality that is not only coupled to other risk management authority plans, RBMPs and Flood Risk Management Plans but also develops an understanding of wider catchment issues. Integration across all these planning processes is critical if we are to make the necessary step change in environmental improvement and build resilience to our rapidly changing climate.

Requirements for new developments to meet water and nutrient neutrality must not be applied on a piecemeal basis in order to rush through new housing. Instead, regard needs to be taken to the nutrient problem in its entirety, addressing all sources across the catchment, and a more ambitious target of nutrient reduction (rather than neutrality) be established. Similarly, water neutrality must account for the increasing pressure on our water resources under our rapidly changing climate, including an increased frequency and severity of droughts in future years. With both issues, a holistic catchment-wide approach is required that integrates the key elements arising from a plethora of plans.

Underpinning these solutions must be much greater implementation of nature-based solutions (NbS) such as wetlands, woodlands and SuDS features. These all act to hold water back, preventing it from discharging rapidly to the river network and building up water stores on land, in soil and groundwater. As result, NbS not only reduce flood risk, they also result in the slow release of water back to the river, buffering it in times of drought and ensuring sufficient baseflow to support the freshwater ecosystem.

A harmonised evidence base that all stakeholders can freely access and analyse is a key element in supporting the establishment of an integrated and cross cutting approach to water management. The catchment-based approach (CaBA), established nearly a decade ago to drive collaborative water management, provides this evidence base through its online data package. This contains more than 200 data layers encompassing water quality, flood risk, priority habitats and much more, all of which can be cut and analysed at any spatial scale, whether that be the river catchment, county boundaries or some other area of interest. This data package can and should provide the universal evidence base to underpin integrated land and water management.

As river basin management plans demonstrate, there are huge levelling-up opportunities within the water environment, from collaborative approaches to flooding and water quality, through to water demand and blue access. This week, Blueprint for Water will be exploring this through a series of blogs, setting out how amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill could make the most of these – currently missed – opportunities to deliver for our waters, our wildlife, and our communities. You can find the blogs on our website here.

Rob Collins is Head of Policy and Science at The Rivers Trust. 

Follow: @theriverstrust

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.