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River Action welcomes Government efforts to strengthen the Environment Bill– but there’s a long way to go yet

The UK Government last week tabled further amendments to the Environment Bill in response to some of the issues raised by peers during the Bill’s House of Lords Report Stage before summer recess.

The new amendments include welcome commitments to an increased role for Parliament in scrutinising the new Office for Environmental Protection and a legally-binding target to halt the decline of nature – albeit only by 2030. This just may be too late for ecosystems such as the River Wye catchment – which has seen another summer of horrific nutrient-fed algal blooms, the near total disappearance of key indicator species Ranunculus, and ever less wildlife recorded across the valley.

A number of the newly announced amendments also build on previous steps by the Government to tackle sewage discharges into rivers –

  1. Water company accountability and transparency: requiring water companies to publish near real-time Event Duration Monitoring data when storm overflows are operational and to publish continuous monitoring information on the water quality impacts of their assets.
  2. Storm overflows elimination report: requiring the Government to publish a new report setting out the actions which would be required to eliminate storm overflows entirely.
  3. Sustainable Drainage Systems: a review of legislation to make sure these are constructed to ministerial standards on new developments,to reduce pressure on existing sewage systems.

While any action to address the river pollution crisis (and provide the data required to do so) is welcome, and indeed long-overdue, unfortunately the proposed amendments do not go anywhere near far enough.

Firstly, it is vital that measures are targeted not just at eliminating sewage pollution but also agricultural pollution, which is an equivalent contributor to this crisis. As a new post-Common Agricultural Policy subsidy system comes into place, it is particularly vital that public money is not funding practices destructive to freshwater biodiversity.

Secondly, we must not forget that responsibility also lies with the food processing companies and retailers purchasing from farmers and who generate huge profits from branding and sale of agricultural goods. At present, there is so little monitoring and enforcement along our rivers that polluting agri-businesses know there is very little chance they will be inspected, caught and penalised if they pollute watercourses. There is far too little incentive for them to invest in change.

Finally, monitoring and enforcement are so currently limited and largely ineffective because the budgets of our environmental protection agencies have been decimated over the past decade, with England’s Environment Agency experiencing a 75% cut in real terms. Until this situation is resolved, any commitments to change, such as the recent amendments outlined above, are functionally meaningless and the Government’s entire domestic environmental agenda remains under threat. This is why River Action started our petition calling on the Government to restore funding to our Environmental Protection Agencies.

As the Bill returns next week, we therefore call on parliamentarians to continue to push the Government to commit to a doubling of the grant-in-aid provided to the Environment Agency for environmental protection agencies, as a foundational basis for all other action.

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