Abstraction reforms, bolstering Ofwat’s powers, long-term targets and joined up planning all featured in the water measures set out in the new Environment Bill, introduced by the government last week.
An accompanying policy statement set out the key water measures, which it said were being introduced in light of climate change and more extreme weather patterns.
The Bill reforms elements of abstraction licensing to link it more tightly to the 25 Year Environment Plan goal of restoring water bodies to as close to natural state as possible. It enables the environmental regulator to propose the variation or revocation of abstraction licences without liability for compensation if they are causing, or risk causing, considerable environmental damage and / or if they consistently abstract less water than their licensed volume.
Water resource and wastewater/drainage planning
The Bill introduces additional requirements for water company planning for future water supply and wastewater and drainage networks, enabling more resilient solutions to drought and flooding. Powers to direct water companies to work together to meet current and future demand for water “will make planning more robust.”
The Bill provides new powers for Ofwat to amend water company licences.
The Bill creates a power to update the lists of substances and their respective standards which are potentially harmful to surface waters and groundwater, to ensure regulations protecting water quality keep pace with scientific and technical knowledge.
The Bill creates a power to amend the governance arrangements in the Solway Tweed river basin district, which straddles the border between England and Scotland. “This will bring greater efficiency for Scottish and English environment agencies and better reflect devolved competence.”
Internal drainage boards
The bill will facilitate the updating of valuation calculations, to improve the funding and therefore enable the expansion/creation of internal drainage boards.
In a speech given the day the Bill was published, environment secretary Theresa Villiers, described water as a “fundamental pillar of this Environment Bill”. She said: “The water companies who manage this most precious natural resource must make good on their plans to halve leakage by 2050. They must show real progress on getting there, and I applaud the work the Environment Agency in all the work they do in keeping up pressure in relation to the water sector and ensuring that they live up to their environmental obligations.
“I think it is vital that we see from the water sector greater determination to prevent the pollution incidents that kill thousands of fish, animals, and plants, damage ecosystems and ruin water quality. In a changing environment, where droughts and floods will threaten in equal measure. This Bill will help government ensure improved, long-term water resources. It will also help wastewater planning and I hope leave us better equipped to secure clean, safe, abundant water for all.”
Outside of the water specifics, the Bill will:
enshrine environmental principles in law;
as with water, introduce measures to improve air quality, tackle plastic pollution and restore habitats so plants and wildlife can thrive;
create legally-binding environmental improvement targets;
establish a new independent Office for Environmental Protection to scrutinise environmental policy and law, investigate complaints and take enforcement action against public authorities, if necessary, to uphold environmental standards. DEFRA said the OEP will be based in Bristol with a 120-strong team and that its powers will cover all climate change legislation and hold the government to account on its commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050;
put the 25 Year Environment Plan on a statutory footing and go “beyond the key government commitments outlined earlier this year by confirming powers to enhance nature and habitats and combat the devastating effects of plastics on our natural environment” - including by introducing charges for a number of single use plastic items; and
champion nature-based solutions and restore and enhance nature including through ‘biodiversity net gain’ policy for developments, and by supporting a Nature Recovery Network by establishing Local Nature Recovery Strategies and giving communities a greater say in the protection of local trees.
DEFRA said while the Bill applies only to England, more than half of its measures are designed to apply across the UK, with the consent of devolved administrations.
The government called the legislation a “landmark Bill…to tackle the biggest environmental priorities of our time”. Greenpeace however highlighted a “loophole” which it said could result in an “18-year lag” for the Bill’s legally binding targets. The campaigner said while the Bill requires the government to set at least one legally binding target for each of air and water quality, plastic pollution and nature restoration: “The deadline for setting legally-binding targets detailed in the Bill is 31 October 2022.
The four environmental priority areas, with the exception of air quality, must then set a date for meeting these targets "no less than 15 years after the date on which the target is initially set". This means that no legal action could be taken against the government on any potential environmental failings on water, plastic, waste or nature restoration until 2037, at the earliest.”
Head of politics at Greenpeace UK, Rebecca Newsom, said: “What good are legally-binding targets if they can’t be enforced for almost two decades?” Greenpeace demanded tough, legally binding targets be set much sooner than 2022, “in line with the climate and nature emergency that we are facing”.