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The 12 days of water policy

Nik Perepelov, Senior Water Policy Officer at RSPB and Vice Chair of Blueprint for Water, reflects on the year in water policy.

December 2022

With 2022 drawing to a close, Blueprint for Water are pleased to present a festive bumper blog to look back at the year in water policy.

On the 12th day of Christmas, in water policy…

12 drummers drumming drains a-draining

2022 has seen the publication of the first ever round of Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans (DWMPs). DWMPs, which will form a statutory part of the next planning cycle, complement the more venerable Water Resource Management Plans (WRMPs), Regional Water Resource Plans and the plethora of other planning documents. These plans are intended to get water companies thinking about the long term whilst also informing investment plans for the next 5-year Asset Management Period (AMP) from 2025. We share the enthusiasm for longer-term planning and the transparency with which these plans are developed. However, there is much further to go in enabling co-design & co-delivery of Nature Based Solutions like treatment wetlands and SuDs, a sentiment that Ofwat recently expressed in their response to the DWMPs, which we think generalises to the planning framework as a whole. It also remains to be seen whether the newly revised WINEP methodology will lead to a step-change in moving from grey to green solutions.

11 pipers piping pipes a-spilling

Storm overflows take the gold medal for water issue of 2022. Long a feature of the sewage network, a combination of greater public awareness, roll out of monitoring and, in some cases, exposure of apparently unlawful activities, has seen sewage discharges onto beaches and rivers leach straight onto the front pages and news bulletins throughout the year. Water companies are investigating possible causes and solutions. The regulators are investigating the water companies. And the OEP is in turn investigating the regulators and Government. The Government’s response has been the publication of the Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan, which, following a couple of legal challenges, the courts may now be investigating.

Appropriately perhaps, this is the issue that won’t seem to flush and will continue to dominate headlines and policy discussions well into 2023.

10 Lords a-leaping Inquiring

Outrage about storm overflows and river quality saw water become a top tier political issue in 2022. The authoritative and wide-ranging Environmental Audit Committee report into water quality was published in January, bringing together a thorough assessment of the state of our waterways, the pressures they face and the reforms needed to put them into recovery. Various Blueprint members were pleased to submit evidence to the inquiry. The Lords Industry and Regulators Committee have more recently been interrogating the work of Ofwat. Hansard too is bursting with water related Urgent Questions and a Westminster Hall debate on sewage. Blueprint are pleased to see the perilous state of our waterways receive the political attention that they deserve and look forward to working with lawmakers in 2023 to ensure that words are translated into meaningful actions.

9 ladies dancing lakes a-blooming

Eutrophication continues to be a scourge to our waterways, with only 1 in 4 lakes meeting standards for phosphorus and fewer than half for nitrogen. Exacerbated by scorching temperatures and low flows (see below), our continued mismanagement of nutrients is creating a golden age for agal blooms. Following further advice from Natural England earlier this year, 74 Planning Authorities in England are now subject to Nutrient Neutrality advice, meaning that new developments need to bring forward mitigation before they can be built. Whilst frustrating for housebuilders and would-be homeowners, this is the starkest indication yet that even our most precious & protected natural sites are a few flushed toilets away from ecological collapse. Nature-based mitigation efforts are ramping up across the country, though these will at best hold the line and a well-intentioned but ineffective Government amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill may see such efforts crowded out by grey infrastructure and chemical-intensive techniques. Widespread integrated catchment management is urgently needed to efficiently and effectively manage nutrients and bring our protected sites back from the brink.

Eight maids a-milking more than 10m from inland freshwaters or coastal waters and more than 50m from any spring, well or borehole

Agricultural pressures on watercourses continue to be a major driver of poor water quality, though remain somewhat under the radar in public and media terms. Last year EA hired 50 new temporary and disempowered inspectors to enforce rules designed to limit nutrient and soil run-off. Previously, landowners could expect compliance visits every 263 years. With the new inspectors, landowners now can expect a knock once every 50 years – or once in a lifelong career, if you will. But do we really need all these heavy-handed inspections? Readers can decide for themselves, though we would note that EA's own inspection data suggests that when inspections do occur, the probability of finding compliance with Farming Rules For Water hovers around the 50/50 mark.

These inspectors’ jobs could be made all the easier if the disastrous Retained EU Law Bill makes it to statute books, however, potentially leaving them with no rules to enforce at all. Alongside the Farming Rules for Water, the REUL Bill put more or less the entire corpus of UK environmental law on arbitrary notice, with a tight deadline of December 2023 for EU-derived laws to be retained, refined, revoked or otherwise to lapse. Blueprint members led the charge with the #AttackOnNature campaign and will continue to fight this regulatory vandalism alongside Greener UK into the new year and beyond.

Further delays and rumours around the roll-out of the Environment Land Management schemes have been disappointing, with concern that potential post-CAP wins for waterways will not be realised.

Seven swans wild swimmers a-swimming

2022 also saw the publication of the inaugural round of monitoring data for England’s first inland river Designated Bathing Water. The River Wharfe at Ilkley, sadly though perhaps unsurprisingly, was assessed by the EA as being in ‘poor’ condition. Annual assessments are now mandatory after a tireless campaign by local swimmers and other users to achieve the designated status, which can then enter the price review sausage machine as a rationale for investment to clean the area up. After a hot summer (more below) Google data showed a 100% jump in searches for wild swimming in the UK, so we expect ever louder calls for safe, clean swimming spots through 2023,with more designations under considerations by Defra and many more applications expected. The water industry has shown some enthusiasm for these initiatives and NGOs have been leading the call nationally. Local decision-makers may be the last ones who need convincing.

Designated coastal bathing waters have been around much longer so can be assessed in terms of long-term trends but are also at risk due to the REUL Bill. This year's data confirmed a worrying three-fold increase in the number of sites in ‘poor’ condition, with beaches from Tynemouth to Somerset backsliding into being officially unfit to enjoy.

Six geese a targets de-laying

Environmental targets are the cornerstone of England’s environmental enhancement regime. Under the Environment Act 2021 Defra were legally required to publish targets – including water quality targets – by October 31st but failed to do so. Blueprint expressed grave concerns around the absence of an overarching target for water and have been further dismayed that the ‘world leading’ Environment Act hasn’t so much fallen at the first hurdle as failed to get out of the starting blocks altogether. Civil society is wondering what hope we have for meeting nature recovery targets on time if we can’t even set them on time. And nature doesn’t wait – with insufficient protections in place already, deterioration is the default and so any delays mean nature recovery goals are slipping further away.

Five golden rings-fence consultations

In the deepest recesses of the “wonk” end of the water policy spectrum, a world away from the glitz and glam of sewer spills, in the summer Ofwat published an innocuous-seeming, though formidably titled “Consultation on proposed modifications to strengthen the ring-fencing licence conditions of the largest undertakers”. The pulses of regulatory practice enthusiasts were sent racing as it became clear that this is Ofwat’s first ever (consultation on proposed) use of a new power to unilaterally amend water company licences, freshly acquired in the Environment Act. Blueprint were further encouraged to see that Ofwat’s proposals would see a closer link between water company dividend payments and environmental performance, bringing environment to the heart of the economic regulatory regime, with huge potential- if implemented effectively- to drive some of the radical change needed to put our waterways into recovery.

4 calling birds Chancellors, 3 French hens Secretaries of State

Jeremy Hunt MP had some big news to report on Friday 14th October. His Green Spaces campaign survey was in and the results were unequivocal – 1,660 residents supported a proposed boundary review of the Surrey Hills AONB. If that wasn’t enough excitement, later that day Mr Hunt was appointed Chancellor of Exchequer, the fourth holder of that post in 2022.

Defra has changed hands twice since George Eustice MP retired to backbenches to reconsider the merits of the Government’s trade deal with Australia. His successor Ranil Jayawardena MP had demanded answers on sewer spills from water company bosses on his first day. His successor Therese Coffey MP was back in Defra heading up the Department by the time the replies came.

Along with everyone else, Blueprint are hoping for a period of stability in 2023, so that Ministerial in-trays can be cleared (see targets above), and that the Government is able to focus on addressing the biodiversity issues that were troubling the new Chancellor on the day he was appointed to no11.

2 turtle doves total droughts

2022 was the year that the UK finally admitted that it is a hot country. Temperatures reached 40 C in Lincolnshire in July and a host of other unwelcome records tumbled throughout the year. Optimism and enjoyment of the pleasant weather soon gave way to warnings of adverse health effects and a tripling of wildfire incidents. Beyond the grave threats to people, water resources were a major casualty of the resulting drought, which remains in place as of December 1st . Summer rainfall was 2/3rds of its 30 year average and rivers across the country recorded low flows. The Thames’ source shifted 5 miles downstream of its usual location in perhaps the starkest sign of the effects of climate change in the UK. The Government’s National Drought Group was convened, though action to tackle the drought has been underwhelming.

With winter rainfall also expected to be below average, Blueprint urges Government and sector to act early and decisively to avoid a deeper and more damaging drought in 2023. England’s drought resilience rightly prioritises public water supply, but misses the environmental and economic consequences of water scarcity. Long overdue abstraction reform and water efficiency policies must be progressed at pace. Nature-based solutions can play a key part in securing ever-scarcer water resources into the future, so Government & regulators, regional and local resource management plans must ensure that we adapt to a changing climate and Build Back Wetter.

And a partridge in pear tree price review methodology

Alongside the tomes of planning documents published in 2022, the centrepiece of the PR Christmas table is surely the draft methodology itself and the final methodology (published as this blog was going to press- Christmas has come early this year).

Coming in at a cool 250 pages, with no fewer than 13 appendices taking the total page count to close to 1,000, the draft methodology cannot fairly be accused of sloth and a quick glance at the final methodology suggests it’s a veritable stocking filler too. In the draft, Blueprint members were pleased to see some positive moves towards unlocking Nature Based Solutions through bespoke cost recovery mechanisms and an expanded list of environmental common performance commitments. We look forward to further information on how these and ‘best value’ assessments for enhancement expenditure will work in practice.

The jury is still out on whether this will be enough to transform the sector into being nature-positive by default, or merely a small step in that direction. With storm overflows a significant latecomer to an already crowded field of environmental investment needs, we will particularly be interested in how the regulators and water companies interpret their environmental duties for the next AMP against the backdrop of record high inflation and the cost of living crisis. Another lost five years would be disastrous for the waterways and further undermine society’s fraught relationship with the sector. Ofwat will need to brave in allowing the sector to invest and start to build back the trust of its customers.

Without a rapid turnaround in fortunes, the sector is headed for fractious 2023.

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

Follow: @Natures_Voice

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

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