Abstraction reform activity is imminent

Defra has confirmed it will take steps to progress abstraction reform within the next few weeks.

A department spokesman last week told THE WATER REPORT to expect something on the topic “within a month”, as well as other material on the theme of wider resilience. He was unable to comment on detail, but draft legislation on abstraction reform is expected, as is a new Strategic Policy Statement.

We contacted Defra to ask about abstraction reform progress in light of both localised dry weather conditions in parts of the country and because reform-related activity that was expected has not yet materialised. The department is understood to have drafted the legislation for abstraction reform, and to have been out and about engaging with stakeholders. However the draft has not yet been presented to the EFRA committee for pre-legislative scrutiny, and WWF water policy manager, Rose O’Neill, reports that two February meetings (one for England and one for Wales) of the Abstraction Reform Advisory Group she sits on were cancelled with little notice and no explanation.

A new Water Bill could be slotted in to the Parliamentary timetable while there is space as a result of Brexit inactivity. Abstraction reform is widely considered low risk, given it has cross party support and stakeholders from water companies to environmental groups are keen to see it developed, albeit in some cases amended. However this won’t be possible without pre-legislative scrutiny and there is concern that too long a delay could result in the Bill losing the Parliamentary opportunity.

It is now over a year since Defra responded (in January 2016) to its December 2013 consultation: Making the most of every drop. Last month, WWF called on the government to “announce its intention to bring forward in the Queen’s Speech a Water Bill to ensure the long term resilience of freshwater ecosystems”. It said this should include measures to “comprehensively reform the water abstraction licence regime and to restrict abstraction to sustainable limits, by requiring effective environmental flow controls to be in place in every catchment across the country by 2027”.