Government Water Plan’s systems-approach is a foundation to build on, not a pre-packaged solution

Built Environment, Flooding, Management & Regulation, Natural Environment, Processed Water, Water Resources

Government’s Plan for Water follows closely after the water components of January’s Environmental Improvement Plan so its timing is a little strange. But what makes it more interesting are the technocratic bits away from the headlines: A more systems-focused, catchment-heavy model for coordinating priorities, funding and investment, better recognising the way water actually works says Alastair Chisholm.

Media headlines when the plan was launched this morning focused on a proposed ban on plastics in wet-wipes. Social media reactions – pointing out that it had taken five years since pledges in the original 25 year environment plan to look at a ban to actually commit – perhaps underlined the main problem facing water: Not enough priority attached to it most of the time, followed by crisis, knee-jerk reactions and then a lapse back to political apathy again. It’s a cycle many in our sector are depressingly familiar with.

What’s needed, instead, is something comprehensive and systematic that drives and maintains long-term sustainable water management. There are indications in the plan that government gets this – but it needs to build a lot on what’s been set out.

Sewage gets the money

Headlines about unlimited fines for water companies who pollute were leaked over the weekend, presumably to defuse Labour’s agitation on its proposed plan for water. And Coffey made no bones about it: Water companies are on the hook for pollution and they need to pay for clean-up.

With new powers (subject to consultation) the Environment Agency should be able to levy fines considerably higher than currently without recourse to the courts. That money would then be ring-fenced into a Water Fund to support delivery of environmental recovery projects and the work of catchment partnerships.

Meanwhile Ofwat is cracking down on companies’ ability to pay dividends to shareholders if there is poor environmental performance and can ensure any executive bonuses are paid by shareholders if it deems environmental performance doesn’t warrant them.

£1.6 billion extra investment is being fast-tracked into the current water company investment period to tackle storm overflows. With sewage such a political issue and May local elections drawing near it’s no surprise Ministers were keen to emphasise – in front of an audience containing many water company CEOs and senior execs – they’re taking it very seriously.

Catchments get (some) more money

What’s genuinely new in the plan is its focus on making things work better at the catchment scale. Catchments have been a natural focus for water management to a greater or lesser extent for decades. Water companies, the Environment Agency, catchment partnerships all focus on particular catchments and river basins for the very reason that these geographic features define where water flows.

But the plan recognises that within catchments the wide range of stakeholders and issues don’t always mesh together effectively. Too much fragmentation exists between drivers, priorities, funding pots and more.

The plan describes the framework underpinning management of the water system as “clear and robust” but then says that the current water and floods legal framework has developed incrementally over time, leading to more than 15 different plans and strategic management frameworks it says will be streamlined.

Greater join-up between flood and water planning is promised, with link-up to Local Nature Recovery Strategies and the forthcoming Land Use Framework. This is fine ambition and reflects a long-standing frustration of Rebecca Pow over the number, lack of alignment and synchronicity of watery plans.

The vehicle for this will be reform of river basin management plans and flood risk management planning, with improved integration with water company plans. Priorities for catchments will be set out in new long-term catchment action plans setting strategic priorities against which other more granular plans will be developed.

In money-terms, that would hopefully put the big pots on a more aligned footing to unlock economies of scale and co-delivery, with great potential existing around multi-functional nature-based solutions. But it does sound like adding another type of plan into an already busy mix.

Beyond plan alignment though, and from a grass-roots delivery perspective, the experience and successes of catchment partnerships is finally being recognised. These entities – often operating on a shoestring – have been successful in leveraging wider funding from other organisations in the catchment to deliver water outcomes. But commonly too much of their time is spent on existing beyond their seed funding.

Government commits to “increase funding for catchment groups and improve their capacity to deliver improvements through the right tools, data, and approaches.”

Distinct from the big-money headlines on sewage, no figures have yet been attached to what this funding increase might look like.

Perhaps that’s a decision which shouldn’t be rushed as this has the potential to unlock something more powerful than currently exists in terms of catchment coordination. It needs to be got right to be transformative.

A raft of wider system pressures acknowledged

Water has the ‘everything everywhere all at once’ kind of feel and as such, much of the plan feels like a conglomeration of system-wide water pressures name-checked for acknowledgement but needing considerable future thinking.

Potentially further along this journey is the pledge to “design towns and cities for water sustainability”. Ministers and Defra officials were at pains to stress that this is more than a Defra plan; it’s been round government and has the buy-in of a number of departments.

In the urban context, Department for Transport and the Department for Levelling-up, Housing and Communities are critical players.

Alongside pre-existing commitments to finally implement Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act, the need to get a grip on pollution from highway runoff is also acknowledged. The plan commits to consider where government can bring forward or reprioritise actions in the next Road Investment Strategy.

The role of planning in influencing better consideration of both surface water flood risk and local supply need through dual pipe systems and reuse are mentioned, along with proposals to consult on making water companies statutory consultees on certain planning applications.

Microplastics feature in a way which feels rather tokenistic and lacking in any targeted outcomes. Aside from being recognised as a major impact of road transport, the influx of microfibres to the water system through laundry processes are flagged. “It’s important to stop microplastics entering the water system in the first place” the plan states. It points to laundry filters as a possible, but expensive solution that government “expects” industry to solve.

Another strand recognises the ability of wastewater treatment works to remove up to 99% of microplastics. However rather than acknowledging that the sewage sludge those fragments end up in is then commonly recycled to land – from where it generally migrates to water – it asserts that the 1% not initially removed at treatment works is the challenge. Clearly some bits of the plan were better thought-through than others.

Water resources form a major part of the plan, with last summer’s drought clearly fresh in officials’ minds. The emphasis is on holding water companies to account on leakage, enabling major water infrastructure delivery as quickly as possible and delivering the Roadmap to Water Efficiency.

Likewise agriculture’s contribution to water pollution features well, though the mechanisms unsurprisingly focus on what is being developed through the Environmental Land Management Schemes.

And whilst support for slurry management, Catchment Sensitive Farming and farm inspections are increased, you’re left thinking that compared to the mega-bucks being spent on sewage clean-up, investment on managing what is the bulk of our land-area sustainably for water is lacking still.

Sea-change or drop in the ocean?

What’s encouraging about this plan is the tone of recognition it gives to the multitude of challenges often not acknowledged in a noisy media debate focused on one or two high profile issues.

It’s genuinely, importantly broad in scope. And it barely scratches the surface of what might be done through better integration of clean and plentiful water with too much of it – in the flood risk management space.

What doesn’t really feature though is the capacity-building which needs to be done to deliver against much of the ambition the plan points towards. Big headlines on capital expenditure programmes are always popular with politicians but it’s the operational side of things which will really make a systems-approach work in practice.

It takes people to make partnerships and coordination work and there’s no evidence of any new capacity to go into local authorities for example, to help ensure practice matches theory.

So with this in mind here at CIWEM we plan to create new guidance and learning resources on how to unlock successful partnerships for water management. This will cover engagement, governance and collaborative leadership alongside other key components of effective strategic collaboration.

Good practice will be drawn from examples of partnership working within water and environmental management. So we want to hear from all those delivering water outcomes on the ground – from river and wildlife trusts to water companies and flood risk managers.

Respond to, and share our survey here.

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