No let-up in the quest for quality

Just because price cuts are imminent, argues Michael Meacher, don't imagine environmental standards

Just because price cuts are imminent, argues Michael Meacher, don't imagine environmental standards will be allowed to slip

Much reporting of the current Ofwat price review has focused on environmental investment versus price cuts, as though it were impossible to provide for both. But that debate is false: I believe that all interests can benefit. The government's proposals for an ambitious £8 billion investment programme have been widely reported. So, too, have Ofwat's plans to make scope for a significant price cut. But the real story is in the difference we make to the local environment and the pockets of customers.

Over the past ten years the environmental record of the water industry has improved. But there are still some key areas where we want to see improvements: beaches, sewage treatment, rivers and nature conservation sites.

Much more must be done to raise the standard of bathing beaches. I want to see consistent compliance not only with the mandatory standards for bathing waters but also with higher guideline standards so that more of our beaches achieve blue-flag status. In 1998 only 36 per cent of our coastal waters achieved blue-flag quality - about half the European average. This is unacceptable. I expect significant improvements, especially at key holiday resorts, as it makes them more attractive for visitors and helps the local economy. People who holiday in this country have a right to expect clean bathing water.

Water companies must also ensure that all significant sewage discharges receive at least secondary-level treatment. We do not think it right to pump raw sewage into the sea and just hope that the tides will disperse it. In particular, secondary treatment will be the minimum requirement for all coastal discharges serving populations of 2,000 or more in England and Wales (not merely those serving populations of more than 10,000, as before). I have told water companies to install secondary treatment at major coastal discharges by the end of 2000, wherever possible. In some cases more stringent tertiary-level treatment will also be required - for example, to protect bathing beaches or sites of special importance for nature conservation.

Earlier this month I announced the designation of 76 new shellfish waters and the extension of the existing 17 designations in England. This is very good news for the shellfish industry and for public health, but more importantly it will bring further improvements in water quality around our coasts and in estuaries. Water companies are already planning for the necessary investment to ensure tighter standards for discharges.

River-quality objectives provide a basic measure of river quality across England and Wales. The Environment Agency and I attach considerable importance to improving standards, not only raising compliance, but also ensuring that, once achieved, standards do not slip back. So far 82 per cent of river stretches meet the objective set for them. We have set a target of more than 90 per cent compliance by 2005.

Coastal and river quality can be adversely affected by the output of intermittent discharges from storm outflow pipes. These deposit unhygienic and distasteful solids and undo the benefits from other improvements. At the present rate of progress it would take until 2015 to deal with all the unsatisfactory discharges. The public should not have to wait that long. The programme we have announced will mean nearly 18 improvements to intermittent discharges coming on line each week in the five years to March 2005.

Many important nature conservation sites are affected by water abstraction or effluent discharges. These areas represent the best of our national heritage of wildlife habitats, geological features and landforms. We are determined to stop damage being done to these precious sites: 102 schemes have been identified for action by water companies to protect sites from the effects of sewage discharges, in most cases by combating phosphates enrichment. One river, the River Beult, in the Kentish Weald, is affected by 13 sewage works. Other key areas to be protected include high-quality rivers in Cumbria - the Eden, Ehen and Derwent - and the Fal and Helford estuaries.

We are also making vital improvements in raising further the standard of drinking water, for example by cutting lead levels, reducing the risk from cryptosporidium, phasing out the use of untreated sewage sludge on agricultural land and reducing the incidence of low-flow rivers.

As well as overall average price cuts, two further aspects of customer interest are important. First, regional price differences. Different prices do not just reflect the scale of environmental investment; they also depend on the customer base, the efficiency of a company and other local factors. It is inevitable that the price limits will vary between companies. But we have to take account of the pressure of prices on local customers in deciding the environmental programme for each company.

The second aspect is the profile of bills. Many customers have said they do not want to see a large price reduction in April 2000 followed by rising bills in subsequent years. They would prefer an initial price cut and then prices held constant in real terms. This is a matter for Ian Byatt at Ofwat, but I have sympathy with these views and have drawn them to his attention.

Michael Meacher is the environment minister