Part 5 of the Environment Bill, contains a number of disparate proposals relating to water – which could have major implications for many. Senior associate Joanne Sear and solicitor Grace Mitchell take a look at some of the key points in the Bill.
Water resources planning
According to its explanatory notes, the Bill is intended to “improve… water resources planning” and “facilitate… collaborative regional planning”. The proposals require and encourage water companies to work together, recognising that strategic thinking needs to be done at a regional and even national level. Water companies should not be silos. To this end, there is a new power for the Secretary of State (in England) and the Welsh ministers (in Wales) to require water undertakers to produce joint proposals for water resources management plans, and drought plans. Until now, water companies have been working together on a voluntary basis to meet current and future demand for water, but the Bill proposes that this be put onto a statutory footing, meaning co-operation will be mandatory. Early indications are that the proposals are welcomed by the water industry.
Internal drainage boards
Internal drainage boards (IDBs) are public bodies that manage water levels in defined areas, known as internal drainage districts, where there is a special need for drainage. IDBs play an important role in managing water levels and reducing the risk from flooding within their districts. They maintain and improve watercourses and related infrastructure. They also have powers to make local byelaws. The Bill allows for the creation of new IDBs or the expansion of existing IDBs where there is a local desire to do so. This is a welcome move for those areas of England and Wales where topography predisposes land towards flooding – for example, the Fens and the Somerset Levels. It increases the scope for decisions about flood risk management to be made at a local level.
The Bill also increases the powers of the Environment Agency (EA) to vary and revoke water abstraction licences in England. Although the EA has existing powers to vary and revoke abstraction licences, where it exercises these powers over licences that were granted many years ago (when there was less pressure on water resources) it will ordinarily have to pay compensation to the licence holder. The new proposals will allow the EA to vary or revoke an abstraction licence without payment of compensation, where the modification is necessary to protect the environment, or where the licence or a portion of it has not been used for a period of 12 years. These proposals are understandably controversial, particularly in the agricultural sector. Many farmers rely on an abstraction licence for the provision of water. There is, however, an exceptionally long transitional period proposed - the new powers are not intended to come into effect until January 2028.
These disparate proposals all reflect the increasing importance of managing both the threat from flooding, and conversely the need to conserve water in an increasingly unpredictable climate. There is a recognition throughout that these issues need to be tackled by a combination of local and national input and strategies.