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Water is a key part of the natural environment which provide valuable goods and services to people. It is important for many reasons, including human health, farming and food, healthy wildlife and habitats, bathing, fishing and other leisure activities. The Office for National Statistics estimated the asset value of freshwater services (including water abstraction, recreation, fishing and pollution removal) for the whole of the UK at £39.5 billion.

EU requirements

Efforts to improve the quality of water bodies in the UK have been underway for a number of years. Most work in managing and protecting water bodies in the UK is currently governed by the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) which was adopted in 2000. This is complemented by a number of more specific EU Directives including those relating to bathing water, drinking water and nitrates.

The overall aim of the WFD is for member states to achieve ‘good’ status of all water bodies by certain deadlines. In accordance with the WFD, surface waters are assessed against their ecological and chemical status; groundwater is measured by its quantitative and chemical status. The key source of information on the measures being taken to improve water quality in a particular area is the relevant River Basin Management Plan. Monitoring of water quality is a devolved issue so separate approaches are taken in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, compliance with European requirements is measured by the UK’s overall status classification.

UK progress and approach

In 2016, 35% of surface waters across the UK were classified as ‘good’ or better. There has been very little change in this overall status classification since 2008. There are no UK-wide data available for overall groundwater status.

The Defra Secretary of State confirmed in May 2018 that “around one quarter” of water bodies in England will not meet ‘good’ status and have been set lower objectives. He also noted that most EU Member States will realistically find it a challenge to meet the ambition of the WFD. Latest available EU-wide data on progress by other Member States showed that 43% of surface water bodies (which make up the vast majority of water bodies across Europe) were in good or better ecological status in 2009, expected to rise to 53% in 2015.

Brexit and 25 year environment plan

In the context of Brexit, the Government has stated that it “will not weaken environmental protections when we leave the EU” and the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 aims to provide the framework to convert EU requirements into domestic law from exit day.

The Government’s 25-year environment plan (published in January 2018) sets out the Government long-term approach to the environment, including a goal for England to achieve clean and plentiful water by improving at least 75% of waters “to be close to their natural state as soon as is practicable”. The Secretary of State confirmed this is intended as “a direct translation of the commitments of the WFD”. The plan states this will be achieved by:

  • Reducing damaging abstraction of water from rivers and groundwater;
  • Reaching or exceeding objectives for rivers, lakes, coastal and groundwaters that are specially protected for biodiversity or drinking water;
  • Supporting Ofwat’s (the water industry regulator) ambitions on leakage in the water industry;
  • Minimising by 2030 the harmful bacteria in designated bathing waters and continuing to support the cleanliness of our waters.

Unless otherwise stated, this note focuses on England. Information on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is included where possible. Further information is available for MPs and their staff by getting in touch with the Library.

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