Will Brexit make a difference to the UK Water Environment?

With the UK looking toward a future outside the EU, Mark Goodger asks whether there will be any difference in the way our water environment is protected, or whether it will be business as usual.

As the UK looks to a future outside the EU with a new Prime Minister at the helm and a new Environment Secretary in post, will there be any difference in the way its water environment is protected – or can we expect business as usual?

As Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom get to work, what can we expect in terms of future environmental policy and regulation, with Brexit negotiations, a National Flood Resilience Review and an English sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) review all in the pipeline?

What has European legislation ever done for us?

With the Referendum behind us, it’s fair to say I have mixed experiences of the European model. Having been involved first hand with EU projects, I know how drawn-out and bureaucratic European processes can be.

However, there are areas where the European model has worked effectively – and an important one of these is the water environment, and indeed the environment in general.

Since the 1970s, the EU has agreed over 200 pieces of legislation to protect the environment, including:

  • Water: the Water Framework Directive (WFD), the Drinking Water Directive (DWD), the Bathing Water Directive (BWD), the Floods Directive (FD), the Urban Waste Water Directive (UWWD) and the Nitrates Directive (ND)
  • Planning & Development: the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive (SEAD) and the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive (EIAD)
  • Nature & Biodiversity: the Habitats Directive (HD) and the Invasive Alien Species Directive (IASD)  

Graphic illustrating the EU Water Framework Directive

How is European environmental legislation reflected in UK law?

Most of the legislation is in the form of Directives as well as being devolved or transferred matters in the UK. The UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive have transposed the directives into law.

European legislation has also driven cross-border initiatives and cooperation, for example through the WFD river basin management plans and more recently Defra’s Catchment Based Approach. England and Wales share two river basin districts; England and Scotland also share a river basin district; while Northern Ireland shares three cross-border, international river basin districts with the Republic of Ireland.

So although the overarching principles are set and agreed at European level, the way in which they are enacted varies across the different constituent parts of the UK – right down to some parts of the WFD and Floods Directive being primarily enforced by local council planning policy and guidance in England.

There cannot be many starker examples of thinking on a global (or at least European) scale and acting at local and regional level. Of course, this does sometimes lead to a lack of consistency in approach, as I have discussed previously.

What happens next?

With such a large amount of the European legislation transposed into UK law, a number of policies and regulations are likely to remain unchanged, irrespective of if, when, or how Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is initiated and the UK begins its transition out of the EU.

However, the devolved governments may take the opportunity to further develop their own distinct approaches to policy and we could see more divergence in policies and standards across the UK.

The UK Government has already committed itself to review English SuDS policy. However, the cross-border implications of any policy changes would need careful consideration and continued cooperation.

What about product quality and standards?

Another important aspect of European influence is the control of standards for construction products. Assuming that trade agreements with the European Economic Area (EEA) continue in some form, construction products manufactured in the UK will still need to comply with the same health, safety and environmental protection requirements if they are intended for sale within the EEA.

Of course, EU regulations would also apply to products that originate outside of the EU, that are intended for sale in the EEA as well in the UK, as well as products originating in the EU and sold into the UK.

Indeed, the BSI (British Standards Institution) anticipates that its role as an EU Notified Body for Product Certification and CE-Marking under the Construction Products Directive (among others) will continue.

Will the UK environment still be subject to European scrutiny?

As far as water regulations are concerned, although we may no longer have the requirement to report, for example on WFD progress, directly to the European Commission, we may be subject to scrutiny by the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) Surveillance Authority.

The EFTA Surveillance Authority monitors compliance with EEA rules in Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. At the time of its 2015 Annual Report, the Authority was investigating the Norwegian Government over its decision to grant a permit to allow mining waste to be discharged into a fjord, potentially contravening the WFD. It was also working on a number of cases relating to the implantation and application of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive in Iceland.

All that is certain is uncertainty

One thing that the construction industry never likes is uncertainty. While we will surely endure short- to medium-term uncertainty, I believe the medium- to long-term outlook remains positive.

In the few short weeks since the referendum, the Home Builders Federation has released its latest Housing Pipeline report showing planning permissions at their highest level since 2008. The Government and HBF have agreed to continue to work jointly to ensure their shared ambitions to build a million more homes are met.

UK withdrawal from the EU is a step into the unknown and it is difficult to predict exactly how the future will look. For the time being, however, it would appear to be business as usual for the water environment sector.

By Mark Goodger, Regional Technical Manager, Hydro International

This article was originally published on Engineering Nature's Way.