Delayed River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) to be published this week

Delayed River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) to be published this week

Under the Water Framework Directive Regulations, the Environment Agency (EA) must review and update River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) every six years for approval by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The latest, 3rd Cycle Plans were due by December 22, 2021. 

Defra informed the OEP that the EA made its proposed, final RBMPs public on October 21, 2022 with the aim that they are approved by the Secretary of State by 22 December 2022 

Helen Venn, Chief Regulatory Officer for the OEP, said: “We have written to Defra about this delay as it is essential that effective plans are finalised and implemented as a matter of urgency given the poor state of our rivers and the water environment more broadly.

“The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan goal for water is that at least 75% of our waters are close to their natural condition - “good ecological status”. The Water Framework Directive Regulations set various legal targets including for each body of surface water (other than an artificial or heavily modified water body) to achieve good ecological status by 22 December 2027. However, information from the EA indicates that only 16% of surface water bodies in England currently achieve good ecological status or potential.”

Defra has explained to the OEP that ‘due to delays arising from a diversion of the Environment Agency’s resources to address the exceptional national emergency of the Covid-19 pandemic, the third RBMPs were not published in 2021.’ It said that some of its key stakeholders, including water companies, were also diverting resources to deal with the national emergency. Other stakeholders were furloughed. They had requested an extension to the second statutory consultation on the third cycle RBMPs to give them more time to respond.

Defra also said that river basin management planning was an ongoing, continuous process. There were no gaps in the process and the second cycle (2015) plans remain in place until the third cycle plans are published and implemented. Defra does not accept that the delay will have any significant impact on the effectiveness of the measures in the plans.

Given the circumstances, Helen Venn of the OEP said: “We will take no formal enforcement action at this time over the missed deadline. We will continue the work under our wider functions to scrutinise the plans to assess whether they are sufficiently ambitious and effective to meet government ambitions in the 25 Year Environment Plan and the major legal target of good ecological status by 2027, only five years away. We will also assess and report more broadly on the implementation of environmental law, including regulatory governance, that supports inland water quality.”

River basin management plans (RBMPs) describe the pressures on the water environment, set legally binding objectives for water bodies and summarise programmes of measures to achieve those objectives. There are 10 River Basin Districts (RBDs) in England, each of which has an RBMP. Two of these RBDs are partly or largely in Scotland (the Northumbria and Solway-Tweed RBDs) and two are partly or largely in Wales (the Dee and the Severn RBDs). These cross-border RBDs each have a single RBMP, respectively, jointly approved by the Secretary of State and the devolved administration ministers.

The OEP’s correspondence with Defra on the delays to RBMPs can be found here. 

In Northern Ireland, DAERA is similarly required to publish RBMPs and also missed the deadline of December 22, 2021. We continue to engage with them to monitor progress in getting them in place. The OEP’s correspondence with DAERA can be found here.


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