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  • by Karma Loveday

Defra sticks with draft Environment Act water targets

Defra has published an unchanged set of final water targets to be delivered under the Environment Act 2021 from those consulted on at the start of the year – except that the delivery year has been moved from 2037 to 2038, presumably to take account of the short delay to the statutory timetable in publishing the decisions.

The final water targets are in water demand, nutrient targets, reducing phosphorus loading and metals from abandoned mines.

Water demand

Reduce the use of public water supply in England per head of population by 20% from the 2019/20 baseline reporting year figures, by 2037/38.

Nutrient targets

Reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution from agriculture to the water environment by at least 40% by 2037 against a 2018 baseline.


Reduce phosphorus loadings from treated wastewater by 80% by 2037 against a 2020 baseline.

Abandoned metal mines

Halve the length of rivers polluted by harmful metals from abandoned mines by 2038, against a baseline of around 1,500 km.

The water targets form four of 13 green targets that will be laid through statutory instruments, also covering air quality, resource efficiency and biodiversity. Defra minister Lord Benyon said: “We will set out more details about our plans to deliver them in our Environmental Improvement Plan: our manifesto for the environment for the next five years. We publish this by 31 January, as required by law.” This plan will include for each statutory target a non-statutory interim target, of up to five years in duration.

While the existence of statutory targets is welcome, many voices have noted shortcomings. Wildlife and Countryside Link, for instance, highlighted the lack of targets for protected sites and overall water quality. Chief executive Dr Richard Benwell said: “Environment Act targets are more than political aspirations. They are meant to provide legal certainty, clarity for business, and shared purpose across Government. So a package without targets for protected sites and overall water quality is a job half done. Ministers are in Montreal now promising to protect 30% of the land and sea for nature by 2030. To publish targets at home without a commitment to improve the condition of our most important wildlife sites is a world away from that rhetoric.

“In January, Defra is legally required to review whether the targets would deliver a significant environmental improvement. The 2030 target to halt the decline of species is a real positive, but without protected sites and water quality targets, the package does not live up to that test. DEFRA should commit to consult and fill these gaps without delay.”

Many have criticised the water targets in particular for failing to lock in the 2027 Water Framework Directive objectives, as well as omitting targets for storm overflows, river health, flood resilience, priority substances, chalk stream protection and more.


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