HC Deb 23 February 1995 vol 255 cc269-70W
Mr. Thomason

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what response he intends to make to the 16th report from the Royal Commission on environmental pollution on freshwater quality.

Mr. Gummer

The Government welcomed the commission's report as an independent and authoritative review of freshwater quality issues. It has made an important contribution to our understanding of the issues surrounding the control of water pollution; those remain essential as we seek to maintain progress in protecting the water environment. I am today publishing the Government's response.

We have accepted many of the recommendations made by the commission; others accorded with action and initiatives which were already under way. In developing our policies for water quality in the period since the report was published, we have taken careful note of its recommendations.

We share the concern expressed by the commission about the need to protect our best-quality rivers and to tackle those stretches of river which are currently of the worst quality. In implementing this approach, we have to take a wide view of priorities for improvement both in the water environment and the environment more generally and to make assessments of the associated costs and benefits so that the maximum benefit is obtained from the resources that are available for environmental improvement. The results are encouraging. In respect of England and Wales, the National Rivers Authority, the body that we have established to be the guardian of the water environment, estimates that there has been a net improvement in the quality of more than 15 per cent. of our rivers between 1990 and 1993. In Scotland, between 1985 and 1990, the proportion of class 1 rivers rose from 95 per cent. to 97 per cent. and in Northern Ireland 89 per cent. of river length is classified as of good or fair quality.

Provision was made in the price limits determination announced last year by the Director General of Water Services for a major investment programme for maintaining and improving freshwater quality, including £522 million of expenditure in the period 1995 to 2000 specifically intended to secure discretionary improvements over and above statutory obligations. In Scotland, the water and sewerage programme currently amounts to some £240 million per annum, about 60 per cent. of which is directed towards sewerage investment programmes and the Government will be considering longer-term needs in the context of the establishment of the new water and sewerage authorities in 1996. In Northern Ireland, the Government are undertaking a major capital works programme of some £80 million over the period 1994–96 aimed at improvements to sewage treatment.

I recently announced our intention to consult on proposals for a small set of statutory water quality objectives which will allow us to test the operation of the system on a pilot basis. We are also continuing to study whether the is a role for economic instruments in improving river quality. All these issues have, of course, to be seen in the broader context of the development of European legislation on water.

There is then good reason to believe that for the immediate future, with the work of the current environmental regulators being transferred to the proposed environment agencies for England and Wales and Scotland respectively and corresponding arrangements for Northern Ireland under consideration, the encouraging trends of recent years will be maintained and that the objective of the commission report—to secure an improvement in freshwater quality—will be achieved.

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