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Our take on the government response to ‘Water Quality in Rivers’

By Dilys Merry
2nd June 2022

Early this year the House of Commons Audit Committee submitted its Report on Water Quality in Rivers to the government. There were many excellent ideas suggested by the report under the chair of Rt. Hon. Phillip Dunne MP for Ludlow. After a four month wait we now have the government’s response.

We find this response disappointing in its lack of ambition and urgency. A timeframe of 2035 to 2040 is simply moving the problems into a distant future way beyond any accountability of the agencies of today. When science is telling us that parts of the Wye Catchment are only two years away from a tipping point of nutrient overload we say more effective action – and sooner – is essential. 

A single accountable regulator

The government does support some of the recommendations but they are ducking many of the big decisions. They are putting more pressure on the Environment Agency to take on extra monitoring and enforcement work and regulatory intervention. However they don’t give any mention of an increase in funding for this.

This is a golden opportunity to provide a clear and enforceable direction for catchment-wide management which the Wye desperately needs throughout its length. We need a single executive post with effective power and accountability so that performance is measurable. Until this happens all cross-border regulators, councils and governments will continue to blame one another and avoid responsibility. The government response implies support for the concept but provides no plan to implement it.

We think the government is over-reliant on persuasion and co-operation as a pathway to improvement. We recognise this is a preferable route and worth following if effective. However, both Environment Agency and Natural England conclude it hasn’t worked quickly enough in similar pollution problems. We continue to call for much greater enforcement and action against polluters. Disappointingly, DEFRA seems to listen to the considerable lobby acting for land owners who today get the benefit of the doubt.

Intensive poultry

We’re still waiting for the “Elephant in the Room” to be addressed. Firstly, the steady increase of intensive poultry units, now on an industrial scale. Secondly the spreading of chicken manure, rich in phosphate, on land which is already saturated with it. We’re disappointed the government won’t support an immediate halt to planning permission for these units with the reduction in phosphate production that would follow.

We’re delighted to see that the report recognises and praises our valued Citizen Scientists as an integral part of monitoring and improving the environment within catchments.

Within this Government response words come easy but action is so much harder to deliver. If you have a spare moment please read the report and our government’s response and form your own opinions.

River Wye near Leabrink
River Wye near Leabrink Philip Halling