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A Bit Wet? Defra’s Plan for Water

Nik Perepelov, Senior Water Policy Officer at RSPB and Vice Chair of Blueprint for Water, reflects on the Plan for Water.

April 2023

Defra’s long-rumoured and hotly-anticipated Plan for Water was published this month. After all the build-up and hype, Defra Ministers may be feeling somewhat deflated by the lukewarm media response, which continued to focus primarily on sewage discharges and the fact that the proposed ban on plastic in wetwipes was old news.

Unfortunately, a closer look at the detail of the plan hasn’t thrown up any more reasons to be cheerful. The Plan was an opportunity to tie up and pull together the many policy loose-ends that the chaotic post EU Exit policy framework has generated. However, whilst there are some individually positive threads, we are still waiting to see a truly comprehensive plan that will pull this all together, built around a long-term target for the overall health of the water environment.

This blog sets out a few headline thoughts on the Plan for Water, and the changes needed to turn this into a truly comprehensive suite of actions that will drive the protection and enhancement of our waters.

Catch a Catchment Based Approach

The plan is appropriately, though superficially, wide in its scope. As others have commented, this is possibly the first serious attempt from Government to present the broad sweep of water policy issues under a single umbrella. Defra is now starting to join the dots but siloed thinking is baked into the regulatory framework via disparate and still-to-be-fully-defined sector targets and historic institutional baggage.

The plan acknowledges this, at least. We are promised yet more plans, this time “tailored long-term catchment plans”. Catchment level planning is an initiative we should all be getting behind; indeed, many CaBA partnerships have already produced exactly such plans (on heroically shoestring budgets), which could form the cornerstone of any move towards catchment level management. But despite a catchment-based approach being the “foundation” of the Government’s plan, the Plan doesn’t tell us whether the intention is to build upon and roll out the successful CaBA model to all catchment partnerships, or whether this is an altogether new tier of planning that Government will be redefining and imposing, even where a CaBA management plan already exists.

Our sympathies are firmly with the former, and promises of further funding for local groups suggests that this is Government’s intention. The Plan is more than a year in the making, so lack of clarity on this most fundamental point is a source of frustration. Crucially, the big unanswered question is whether catchment plans (and, importantly, an entity that oversees them) will be given some enhanced or statutory status in decision-making and policy delivery, for example, as a Local Plan functions in development control. Will there be delivery obligations attached to them or are they just another reference document (albeit a helpful one) for the existing suite of delivery bodies?

Formless Reform

The strategic planning framework for water is complex and unruly. As such, the intention behind the Plan for Water to make all the various strategies and plans for water work better together is positive. However, in the current climate of deregulation, promises of ‘streamlining’ cannot help but seem ominous. Further detail on the precise intent and, importantly, process for reform is sorely needed in the Plan to bring clarity and head-off these concerns. Most concerning in this context is a promise to review implementation of the legacy Water Framework Directive regime.

For example, Defra say they remain committed to meeting the current objective of getting 75% of water bodies into Good Ecological Status, or ‘GES’– though it should be noted that this is already a weakening of a prior target to get 100% of water bodies to GES. But Defra have not stated whether they will retain the current definition of GES following review, nor the current 2027 deadline. Their commentary in the Plan strongly hints at dissatisfaction with respect to the former and makes no specific reference to the latter. With 2027 looming and low confidence of achieving GES across the River Basin Management Plans, the Plan provides at best a promise to move the goalpost and hope for a win.

Instead of pre-emptively throwing in the towel, Defra should double down on efforts to ensure that the necessary financial and institutional resources are committed to getting to the target as it currently stands. Beyond that, they should be planning for the next big push to get to 100% beyond 2027, marshalling the new Environment Act targets and other available levers to get us over the line on GES and make rapid progress to addressing the insidious issue of chemical pollution.

Everything's fine

The Plan includes the heavily-trailed announcement that the cap will be lifted on the penalties that the Environment Agency can impose on water companies, and that the funds from these penalties will no longer disappear into Treasury coffers. Instead, the money will be channelled into a Water Restoration Fund, to be spent on things such as river restoration.

This announcement is welcome, though of course – as with much of the Plan - the devil will be in the detail. For example, we’ll need to see that the fines and penalties exceed the value of any environmental damage caused. It should not be profitable to pollute, and as such a key goal of these penalties should be to disincentivise environmental harm from happening in the first place. It is also important that funds for the restoration of our water environment do not stop here – nature’s recovery will require long-term, visible investment commitments that allow for strategic planning and institution-building, beyond just the Water Restoration Fund.

What's the plan then?

The Plan covers off an impressive list of other initiatives, old and new(ish). Most of these are insights into things under consideration and promises of further plans on land-use, chemicals, integration with Local Nature Recovery Strategies and so on. Integrating all of these various measures into a coherent programme is no mean feat, though as noted above, the Plan doesn’t yet achieve this.

These concluding remarks set out what is hopefully a more achievable and initially helpful integration exercise, and reflect some expectations from when it was first announced that a Plan for Water was in development. As an aside, the Plan itself was developed behind closed doors, with few if any opportunities for stakeholders including NGOs or others to offer a view of what it might usefully contain. The underwhelming response to the Plan may be a useful case study on this particular approach to stakeholder engagement.

The vital question that the sector is facing at the moment is how the barrage of targets, obligations, private and voluntary initiatives, green finance schemes etc. are meant to add up to a sustained and meaningful effort to improve the state of the environment and, in particular, achieve the Environment Act targets. There is a great deal of uncertainty about how the “old WFD world” is meant to morph into or merge with the “new Environment Act target world”. Providing clarity on this should be a priority for Defra, and the Plan for Water is a crucial opportunity to do this.

Finally, Defra cannot have failed to hear deep and sustained concerns that sector specific targets (and the assorted other measures they set out) are ineffective if not considered within the framework of a long-term apex target for the state of the waterways, a call reiterated here. This is in addition to clarifying the precise relationship between the WFD and Environment Act targets and ensuring that the relevant policy levers like ELMs are properly funded and actually pulling in the right direction. The Plan suggests, in line with comments previously made by the Secretary of State, that the 2030 species abundance target is the apex target that water targets are intended to be considered under. This target isn’t without its critics and is certainly less expansive than GES, which already covers species plus a range of other indicators. Again, further detail is needed.

In summary, the Plan for Water includes some good actions, but does not yet offer a truly comprehensive approach to the problems facing our water environment. Only a well-focused, well-resourced and far-reaching plan will turn the tide for nature – whether the Plan for Water can step up to the challenge remains to be seen.

Nik Perepelov is Senior Water Policy Officer at RSPB, and Vice Chair of Blueprint for Water.

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

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