So the cat is out of the bag on Water Framework Directive (WFD)… Despite already extending the deadline to get our water bodies to good status from 2015 to 2027, and despite widespread use of loopholes to enable lower targets to be set for around 25% of our water bodies in England, it appears we are still expecting to fail.
So what is the proposed solution highlighted in Michael Gove’s recent letter to Mary Creagh? Not better, faster, fairer implementation, but further extensions to the deadline and further weakening of objectives and ambition. This is just not good enough. We believe the problem doesn’t lie with the legislation, which is progressive and fit for purpose. The problem lies with its patchy and inadequate implementation, particularly in the agriculture sector. It is this that needs to be urgently addressed.
The Water Framework Directive is one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation ever to have been adopted. It revolves around the idea that the environment is the source of water and we must protect and improve our water ecosystems if we want sufficient water of suitable quality to meet the needs of all users in the future. It enshrines in law key environmental principles such as “polluter pays” and “no deterioration”.
The Directive sets out what outcomes we want to achieve for our water environment and by when, but it allows great flexibility over how we do it, and this “implementation” challenge has been part of the problem.
Whilst the water sector in the UK has invested billions over the last 15 years to deal with pollution and to reduce harmful abstraction we just haven’t seen similar action or urgency in other sectors, particularly agriculture. Over 80% of the investment in WFD measures has come from the water sector and less than 1% from agriculture. Almost inevitably this patchy investment in implementation has meant we now still have far too many water bodies failing due to agricultural nutrients, pesticides and soil run-off and this is increasingly limiting progress in meeting the WFD objectives and deadlines.
So what is the solution……better, faster and fairer implementation would seem to be the obvious answers. However, Michael Gove in his recent letter to Mary Creagh strikes a more downbeat tone seemingly accepting we will miss the 2027 deadline and pointing towards solutions such as further “extending the WFD deadlines” and/or “revising water quality objectives” (i.e. weakening!)
Should we be surprised? Maybe not. In the couple of years up until 2016 the UK Government was very active in agitating for weakening of the WFD, along with Netherlands and Germany. Then came the Brexit vote and understandably since then they have been much quieter, leaving others to do the agitating as we sit in the EU departure lounge. The EU are undertaking a fitness check of the WFD this year which will look at whether it is effective, efficient, relevant, coherent and adds value. If the conclusion is negative then this critical legislation will be opened up and picked apart.
Although by the time the EU review is finished we may actually be outside the EU, any changes and tweaks to weaken the WFD will no doubt get reflected in the UK. So the Blueprint for Water coalition will be working with other NGOs across Europe to stand up for this critical piece of water environment law and to resist any attempts to weaken it. Watch out for our campaign later this summer. We will also be closely watching our own Government to see whether the fine words of the 25 year plan, and claims of a “green Brexit”, are worth the paper they are written on when it comes to the water environment.
Hannah Freeman, Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and Nathan Richardson, Senior Policy Officer, RSPB
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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