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Environment watchdog outlines flaws in implementing water quality laws

In a report released today, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) warns that there is a high risk that the UK will miss its targets for improving water quality by 2027 due to poor implementation of key laws.

As part of its role to monitor how environmental laws are working in practice, the OEP has carried out a review of the key legislation regarding water quality — the Water Framework Directive (WFD) Regulations for England — and how they are being implemented by Defra and the Environment Agency through River Basin Management Planning (RBMP).

This report assesses whether the government’s plans to improve England’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters are likely to be effective enough to achieve the target of 77% in Good Ecological Status or Potential by 2027 – the Environmental Objectives it has set in the regulations.  These legal targets also play a significant role in the government achieving its wider environmental ambitions for nature and species recovery.

The report finds that the government and the Environment Agency (EA) are currently not on track to meet the Environmental Objectives. The OEP’s worst case assessment would see just 21% of surface waters in Good Ecological state by 2027, representing only a 5% improvement on the current situation.

Dame Glenys Stacey, Chair of the Office for Environmental Protection, said: “We have found that, while the relevant law here is broadly sound, it is simply not being implemented effectively. This means it is not delivering as intended and, as a consequence, most of our open water is likely to remain in a poor state in the years ahead unless things change. This is deeply concerning.

“While we know that there are dedicated and professional people working hard to improve the condition of our rivers, as in so many other aspects of the environment, government must now ensure substantial funding for a wider range of specific action, at pace and with ambition. Without such measures, we assess that the commitment by the government and the Environment Agency to bring 77% of surface water bodies to a good ecological condition by 2027 will be missed by a considerable margin.

“There is a significant need to strengthen how environmental law on water is applied to make sure it is working effectively and is making the important contribution that it needs to to achieving government’s wider goals and targets. There is a particularly urgent need for additional measures to be in place and for measures to be targeted at a local level, if there is to be any hope of achieving the 2027 targets. Government must speed up and scale up its efforts to protect and improve our waters.”

The regulations cover inland surface waters, for example, rivers and lakes, groundwaters, transitional waters (estuaries and lagoons) and coastal waters. The report identifies a number of serious barriers preventing their effective implementation, including: insufficient investment; improvement plans being too generic and not specific to locations; a lack of certainty, pace, and clear deadlines to implement measures; and inadequate governance.

The OEP makes 15 recommendations to Defra and the Environment Agency designed to increase the prospects of protecting and improving the water environment. These include recommendations in relation to the objectives that the government has set for achievement by 2027, and to strengthen the legislative framework and its governance and application in the longer term.

In the course of preparing the report, the OEP has identified a number of areas where the government and the EA may not have complied with the requirements of the regulations. These include: the setting of Environmental Objectives for water bodies with clear ‘low confidence’; the lack of specific information showing when and how objectives for individual water bodies will be met; the justification of approved ‘exemptions’ from the objectives in the regulations; and issues of public participation and consultation.

Dame Glenys added: “We now await government’s response to the report, which must be laid before Parliament within three months. This gives government a chance to set out its own view on these issues and any action it intends to take. Once we have seen that response and any further relevant information, we will decide what further steps may need to be taken.”


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