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Environment Bill – recommendations by Water UK

Following the publication of the Environment Bill in October 2019, Water UK made recommendations for amendment and additions in a paper which provided the basis for our submission to the EFRA Select Committee Inquiry on 1 November 2019.

Water UK and our members have strongly supported the Environment Bill – and efforts to strengthen it – since its inception. We welcome its ambition, including the introduction of biodiversity net gain, conservation covenants, moves to tackle waste (especially plastics, which are a growing pollutant in our water sources) and the inclusion of provisions specific to the water sector.

The Environment Bill is crucial for allowing water companies to build on improvements made over the last thirty years. It facilitates a predictable, stable legal framework following Brexit; this is absolutely essential for enabling continued long-term planning, investment, and innovation.

We also applaud its potential to hold all industries, in addition to the water sector, to a higher standard than today. While water companies play an important role in protecting surface waters and preventing pollution, the majority of issues under the Water Framework Directive are today caused by more lightly-regulated sectors, so we welcome scrutiny of all those touching the water cycle.

As with much of this Bill, the Government’s true ambition may only be known through the detail of secondary legislation and the targets it chooses to set. The Bill as drafted also misses some important opportunities to further strengthen environmental outcomes. This particularly applies to its lack of ambition on empowering the public to become more water efficient, and its weak approach to integrated long-term planning for drainage and wastewater, issues set to grow in importance thanks to drought and flooding from climate change.

Both omissions are important for adapting to climate change and both are notable omissions given the extensive treatment in the Bill of other provisions for the water sector.

Adapting to more frequent drought

The latest analysis by the Environment Agency shows that one of the single biggest factors determining our future ability to meet water needs – and to allow us to reduce abstraction to the benefit of the environment – is whether we can achieve small changes in the amount of water used per person. The Bill should take the opportunity to introduce a mandatory national labelling scheme for water appliances like dishwashers and washing machines, coupled with minimum standards. This would empower customers by giving them the information to make informed purchase decisions and not waste water in the home.

Adapting to more frequent flooding

It is universally recognised that drainage (which is set to grow in importance thanks to expected climate change increasing frequency of heavier rainfall and population growth further impacting runoff concentration) is a shared responsibility that requires co-ordinated action across a range of organisations. Yet the Bill only places obligations on water companies to do what they are already doing (indeed, to continue following a process they themselves developed), rather than establishing a real and robust framework for genuinely integrated long-term planning. This does not reflect the scale of the challenge from climate change, and that drainage is universally recognised to be a shared responsibility, with other organisations also responsible for managing surface water – and that co-ordinated action is required across organisations.

These and other recommendations for improving the legislation, mostly focused on strengthening its environmental impact, are contained in the paper attached to this page.