HL Deb 08 February 1995 vol 561 cc13-4WA
Lord Brougham and Vaux

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to maintain recent improvements in river quality in England and Wales.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater)

We have in hand a major programme for water quality improvement. Between 1989 and 2005 the water companies are spending an average of some £3 billion a year, much of it of benefit to water quality. The National Rivers Authority (NRA) has since 1989 been able to bring a co-ordinated approach to discharge consenting and the other means it has of bringing about improvement. Other dischargers and farmers are taking steps that benefit water quality, much of the action voluntary in response to codes of practice rather than regulation. The results are shown in the more than 15 per cent. net improvement in river quality that the NRA estimates took place in 1990–93. These efforts will be continuing and we are going further than required by legislation, as is shown by the more than £500 million that water companies will be spending up to 2000 to bring about additional river quality improvement.

At the time of privatisation of the water industry in 1989, we provided a further mechanism for co-ordinating and prioritising improvement, in the form of statutory water quality objectives (SWQOs). Last May, the Government put in place the new classification system inter alia as the framework for SWQOs. We now intend to consult formally on proposals for a small set of SWQOs which will allow us to test the operation of the system on a pilot basis. The final details are being agreed with the NRA.

The proposals will specify the improvements to be achieved in each case and the timetable for achieving them. With the help of the NRA, the Secretary of State for the Environment will also identify the specific actions that will be needed, with a preliminary assessment of the likely costs and benefits. There will then be a three-month period within which any interested person or body may comment, including by offering further information on costs and benefits. The Secretary of State will then decide whether and in what form to make the SWQO. In controversial cases, he may arrange for a local inquiry before reaching our decision.

The implementation procedures, and practical operation of the statutory objectives in the initial limited pilot group of catchments will be assessed before any decision is made on whether SWQOs should be introduced on a wider basis. The Government are also considering the development of proposals for economic instruments for water pollution and abstraction. Our intention on both national water regulation, including SWQOs, and economic instruments will need to take into account the way in which water legislation is developing in the European Community.