Government’s ‘school report’ shows ‘must try harder’ for water

Ministers, MPs, NGO’s and members of the Water Sector met this morning for the launch of the Blueprint for Water Scorecard. The Chair of the Blueprint for Water coalition, Carrie Hume, Head of Conservation Policy at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, gave an insightful introduction before the key note speech was delivered by the Minister for Water, Richard Benyon.

This comes at a fitting time considering that Britain is currently experiencing its worst drought for over 25 years and yet with flooding events around the country. The importance of freshwater is undeniable and it is the blood of ecosystems around the UK carrying vital particulate organic and inorganic matter, fuelling terrestrial and coastal flora and fauna (including humans). However damaging abstraction processes, floodplain development and pollution are just a few anthropogenic impacts that are contributing to the insecurity of water supply. With climate change accelerating the frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding, it is necessary for us to restore the freshwater ecosystems to such a level that they are less vulnerable and can still meet growing demands upon them.

The Blueprint for Water was established in 2006 by a coalition of 17 leading environmental organisations, coordinated by Wildlife and Countryside Link. It contained ‘10 steps to sustainable water’ to be taken between 2006-2015, that would increase the health and security of the UK’s rivers, lakes and wetlands. During the International Year of Biodiversity, 2010, while the newly elected Prime Minister, David Cameron, committed to leading the ‘greenest government ever’ most of these targets went unmet. This stimulated the launch of a 2010 Blueprint for Water that re-evaluated the actions necessary to continue the restoration and management of freshwaters. Now, the Blueprint for Water coalition has systematically scored the Government and other organisations on the progress that has been made since 2010.

Carrie Hume Chair of Blueprint for Water Coalition
Carrie Hume made a positive start to proceedings by stating that she was ‘hugely impressed by the professional attitude and detailed knowledge’ that has been evident in collaborative efforts between members of the Blueprint for Water coalition, the Government and representatives from the water sector. These partnerships have evidently grown to facilitate the presenting and sharing of evidence and innovation, but must be continuously built on to enhance future actions towards long term outcomes.

Carrie Hume highlighted a universal feeling in the room that the Government ‘could do much better’, especially in areas where it could provide leadership, and that environmental NGOs should not have to wait until ecological disasters motivated action.

• The long term plans for abstraction reform have been brought to the forefront as the intricate link between economic and water wellbeing has been made more transparent; but there has been much slower progress on changes that require imminent action.
• The speed at initiating the universal metering scheme was deemed nonsensical as there seems to be a lack of commitment to the issuing of efficiency measures and guidelines for housing and water companies.
• The continued delay in actions concerning sewage pollution was disappointing; including the fact that Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) regulations have not been enacted and there is little obvious commitment to real-time monitoring.
• The 2011 White Paper ‘Water for Life’ contains some elements that are far from being implemented and the Blueprint for Water coalition has become actively involved partly because of this.
• The positive attitude and implementation of a catchment-based approach to management was well received but there is need to disentangle voluntary and regulatory actions.

With the next periodic Ofwat review of water pricing set for 2014, the Blueprint for Water coalition has published ‘Blueprint for PR14: Environmental outcomes for the price review’ after receiving input from 13 water companies and Ofwat. A new Blueprint for Water is set to be produced next year to update those targets that have still not been met and provide guidance for actions in the near future so that we might ‘continue to push boundaries, together’.

Richard Benyon MP, Minister for Water, Defra
Together we can achieve yours and my ambitions for a better more efficient water sector to protect the environment through good sustainable reasons that are parallel to economic growth.’

The Defra minister began by stating how valuable the Blueprint for Water coalition has been and that its rigour in discussions towards a better, more efficient water sector has been greatly appreciated. The Minister challenged the ‘harsh’ scoring applied to the Government’s progress by the Blueprint group. In particular:

• The ‘Water for Life’ White Paper set out a vision for UK freshwater including the proper valuing of the resource. Two universal metering schemes have already been initiated with a third with Thames Water on the horizon and metering now takes place in 85% of South West of England. Affordability is key and incentives for lower water usage and pressures to lower demand must be balanced to take into account low-income houses.
• The Government has made an amendment to the 2003 Water Act to allow damaging abstraction to be stopped without compensation; this has already returned 55 billion litres (equivalent to the water usage of Leeds) of water back into our rivers.
• There is progress being made using the catchment based approach as 66 catchment areas have already been initiated and 400 water bodies and habitats have benefited from the catchment restoration fund.
The Minister advocated strongly for the amount that can be achieved without legislative change, stressing that the reform of abstraction legislation will take time ‘to get it right’.

It was clear to all that Richard Benyon was passionate about the subject of water security and spoke with fervour about his local river, the Kennet, and the psychosocial role that rivers play in communities. He emphasised in particular his support for Defra’s ‘Love your River’ campaign. The collaborative work being achieved and discussed between Government, NGOs and industry on water security is certainly positive. However, from the scorecard and launch event today it is clear that some of the harder aspects are being dealt with more slowly by Government.

The British Ecological Society is currently compiling an Ecological Issues concerning the effects of extreme events of freshwater ecosystems for launch in summer 2013; if you should wish to be involved please contact