'A fresh water future' report has been launched

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Three quarters of public say next government should reform water regulation after general election, finds major water management study

  • A major public poll finds 81 per cent of people are worried about the health of the UK’s nature with a majority believing it has got worse over the past ten years. Almost three quarters believe government must do more than it is now to address pollution and nature decline. 65 per cent said it should be a priority for the next government to examine and potentially reform how water is regulated, with a further 11 per cent believing this should be a new government’s main priority.

  • A major parallel survey of water experts (including those working for water companies) identifies widespread dissatisfaction over water company ownership and operations. Only six per cent were supportive of a continuation of the current ownership, corporate governance and regulation approach. However, there was no clear preferred alternative model, with not-for-profit, nationalised and for-profit, public interest companies all popular. More widely, water experts warn that without transformational change in resolving water challenges spanning water company, farming and urban pollution and drought issues, declines in water health and resilience will accelerate over the next government’s term in office, in the face of growing pressures.

A Fresh Water Future brought together the views of over 4000 members of the public (via focus groups, immersive on-location research, deliberative online communities and a major, nationally representative public poll) with those of more than 400 experts and stakeholders (via a major survey, workshops and interviews). These identified perspectives, concerns, potential solutions and appetite for change on how the UK’s water is managed. Both public and professional water managers were aligned in calling for a far greater level of priority to be attached to recovering nature and water resilience by the next government.

The project’s ten recommendations start with a comprehensive, independent review of water policy and regulation, instigated by the Cabinet Office as soon as the next government takes office after a general election. This should report inside the first year so recommendations can be implemented over the remainder of its term. Over thirty years on from water privatisation, with widespread urbanisation and agricultural intensification a fresh approach – including potential reform of water regulators – is needed, it argues.

With levels of trust in water companies impacted by repeated reports of pollution and profiteering, both public and water practitioners want more transparency and assurance that companies are acting in the interest of society and the environment. The public did not anticipate the scale of water bill increases proposed in company draft business plans last year and 40 per cent said they would struggle to afford an increase of 25 percent. There was low confidence that water companies would spend money effectively on improvements, with 60 percent of the public expressing misgivings on this.

Key additional recommendations include:

1. The establishment of a Defra ‘water assurance taskforce’ to oversee a programme of ‘open book’ reporting transparency, governance and legal compliance by water companies.

Under this, water companies should be required by their licence conditions to reconstitute as purpose-driven organisations before the commencement of the next round of water company business planning (PR29). This should be backed up with strengthened regulators able to conduct more monitoring and enforcement. Operator self-monitoring of wastewater and sewerage operations should be ended with prior regulator monitoring approaches and capacity restored, as a minimum.

2. More nature-friendly farming support alongside greater monitoring and enforcement of farming regulations.

Only a third of the public were aware of the impact of agriculture on the water environment. However, most said they would in principle pay a little more for food to support enhanced farm regulation and improvements in practice. More strategic planning and permitting of water for agriculture, along with enhanced, landscape-scale soil management was considered essential to cope with droughts as well as floods.

3. A national nutrient monitoring and management programme and a beefed-up, independently governed ‘catchment system management’ approach.

These would enable targeted action on pollution hotspots and blend currently siloed funding pots to tackle activities causing most damage on a catchment-by-catchment basis, in a more efficient, multi-functional way. Planning policies and environmental permitting for intensive livestock production must be improved and enforced to prevent further ecological devastation such as that witnessed on the Wye and other catchments. Meanwhile, more innovative, circular economy approaches to managing manures from intensive units should be developed.

A Fresh Water Future project lead and CIWEM director of policy Alastair Chisholm said: “The message from the public and experts is resoundingly clear: Our waters are under grave threat from all sides. The pressures are increasing. People want to see real action and leadership on water from the next government. Not fine words and posturing but real, committed action to tackle pollution and increasing climate pressures head-on.”

Chisholm continued: “The public get it. They understand how important water is. In their homes, in their local environments. But they see pollution all around them and big corporates and government saying one thing then acting like water is an afterthought.”

On A Fresh Water Future’s recommendations, Chisholm commented: “The sad irony in this work is, there’s nothing fresh here. None of it is rocket science. All of it is known. All of it has been said many times before by water managers and campaigners. But most of it has been paid lip service, ignored or delayed, perceived and presented as a cost-burden to growth not a fundamental underpinning of it. What’s changed is how clear the consensus is, from a big and diverse sample, that this neglect can’t go on. We need a fresh water future.”

Read Alastair's call for a fresh water future in full here.

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