The Environmental Audit Committee’s wide-ranging report into water quality in rivers is yet another illustration of the extent and scale of the chronic neglect of our water environment. It cites decades of inadequate political will and regulation to deal with the complex range of pressures on rivers, the poor state of which is indicative of how badly we manage what’s upstream of them.
On the eve of the publication of the EAC’s report came news that the Environment Agency had told its staff not to investigate low-impact pollution events. This was apposite timing given the critical role of regulation in this overall picture:
Water companies allowed over decades to engineer large dividends to shareholders whilst not keeping pace with the maintenance and infrastructure upgrades population growth and climate change demanded.
Pollution largely unpunished by an environmental regulator stripped to the bone of resource.
Farm inspections so infrequent that generations of land managers could finish their careers without ever having been paid a visit.
And house builders with the ear of ministers able to shut down the implementation of laws designed to manage water sustainably in developments on the spurious grounds of cost and red tape.
The EAC report tours all this sullied, impoverished watery landscape and more, laying bare the fantasy that our rivers are in a recovering state and better shape than they were. Sure, some that were biologically dead do have a few trophy species present and there are pockets of vibrant biodiversity, but examples are too thinly spread.
Rivers are the receptacles of all the over-use, exploitation, corner-cutting and lip service paid to the environment when we manage and live on the land. When rain falls – as it does more intensely now in our changing climate – all the crap (literal and metaphorical) and detritus is washed off our inadequately managed urban and rural landscapes and into them.
We can’t leave an environment in a better state for future generations or have nature in recovery as government espouses unless we factor it into the planning and thinking around everything we do. So it’s unsurprising that the scope of this report is wide.
It recognises the complexity of the picture impacting river water quality across England. It notes the importance of cross-cutting governance and for all those with responsibility for any one of the myriad activities impacting rivers to step up and not duck their duties.
The problem with this complexity is there are too many places for different actors to hide. Too many gaps through which malpractice and neglect can slip – or be slipped – without sufficient scrutiny and enforcement. The Committee cite lack of political will by administration after administration to let regulators properly regulate, and a consequent failure by these regulators to value natural capital stocks – such as biodiversity in rivers – highly enough in their decisions.
Regulation is a common theme when it comes to the environment. Necessarily so because the critical services nature provides are largely unvalued in classical economics, leading to their unsustainable exploitation and the nature and climate crises we’re up to our necks in. We need robust checks and balances to prevent abuse.
These now acute climate and nature challenges have water – and rivers – at their very heart. We need to manage water in a way which addresses the risks they pose to our future prosperity and delivers the widest range of benefits – for nature, climate, health and wellbeing – as cost-effectively as possible. We can do this, but it needs proper planning and consideration, and for leaders not to look away but instead properly value the vital role water plays in all aspects of our lives.
This robust recognition by Committee members of the failures of the past and the need for radical improvement is welcome and timely.
We have a new Environment Act, post-Brexit Environmental Land Management Scheme, a Planning Bill imminent and the policy framework for the next round of water company investment plans is being sketched out.
The time is right for a review of the adequacy of water regulation to manage modern-day pressures and deliver against public expectations for environmental recovery; a recalibration that puts our environment at the top of decision-makers’ priority lists and moves beyond a faintly blue-green-tinged version of business as usual.
Comment by Alastair Chisholm, CIWEM director of policy