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The Water Act: Will it improve the rivers of England and Wales?

 

The short answer is more than we expected! After significant campaigning by a motley crew of anglers, twitchers and local river groups, and with the support of committed Members of the House of Lords, a previously business and competition focused Bill has become an Act that at least addresses some of our concerns for the water environment.

The dried up river bed of the MimramThe dried up river bed of the Mimram

The welcome changes to the Act range from giving the Environment Agency more powers to help prevent over-use of – and damage to – our rivers and aquifers; to a new duty on the water regulator Ofwat to promote environmental resilience and water efficiency.

But the issue closest to the Panda’s heart – which sadly proved to be beyond our grasp in this Act – is reforming the water abstraction regime, the 1960’s system we have for farmers, the power sector and the water companies to take water out of the environment. We didn’t get what we wanted this time, but the Government has at least committed to report to Parliament on the progress of reforming the regime by 2019. We have campaigned for this for nearly 10 years and we’re girding our loins to do so for another five, but we are making headway!

River Nar in Sidcup, KentRiver Cray, Sidcup, Kent.

The other great failure of this Act was on water metering. In 2009 the Walker Review recommended a widespread switchover to metered charging, considering it the fairest way to pay, and the only way to address the affordability problems inherent in the current system. The Walker Review’s recommendation of 80 percent of households metered by 2020, remains unlegislated for. You can also read our own response to the Walker Review called Fairness on Tap.

So overall we have surpassed our expectations at the beginning of the long road that began nearly two years ago when the draft Bill was published. But this is all policy. When all’s said and done what is the impact on the ground (or in the water)?

We are already seeing results for two of our precious chalk streams, with new powers in the Act allowing Affinity Water to phase out abstractions altogether on the Mimram and the Beane in Hertfordshire. This should lead to these beautiful streams once again being allowed to flow through the rolling chalk hills of the Chilterns to join the Lea, and ultimately the Thames at Leamouth in Docklands.

We still don’t see a holistic vision from Government for the stewardship of our rivers in the decades to come, but we will continue to work to try and secure this in the new Water Bill due early in the next Parliament …when we’ll get to do all of this again!

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