You are here:

House of Commons Library

Water Framework Directive: achieving good status of water bodies

Published Friday, November 27, 2015

This Commons Library Briefing Paper examines the requirements of the Water Framework Directive, including the requirement that the UK achieves 'good' status of all water bodies by 2015. It sets out some facts and figures for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, explains how water quality is measured and discusses what happens if the requirements are not met. The actions being taken by the Government to manage and improve water quality are also explained and a brief explanation of the offence of water pollution is included.

Jump to full report >>

Unless otherwise stated, this note focuses on England. Information on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is included where possible. Further information is available for MPs and their staff on an enquiry by enquiry basis.

Recent developments

  • A Defra consultation on new basic rules for farmers to tackle diffuse pollution from agriculture in England ran until 24 November 2015. The rules aim to improve the efficiency of farms and help to reduce water pollution from agriculture, with a focus on phosphorus. If the proposals are taken forward, Defra's aim is to introduce legislation during 2016/17.
  • The High Court has granted permission to WWF-UK, the Angling Trust and Fish Legal to bring a judicial review over implementation of the Water Framework Directive in four protected Natura 2000 areas: Poole Harbour in Dorset; the river Eden in Cumbria; Marazion Marsh in Cornwall; and river Lugg in Herefordshire. In a court settlement on 19 November 2015, Defra agreed to consider introducing mandatory water protection zones alongside voluntary measures by farmers.

Why is water quality important?

Clean water is a significant, and often undervalued, resource. It is important for many reasons, including human health, farming and food, healthy wildlife and habitats, bathing, fishing and other leisure activities.

Efforts to improve the quality of water bodies in the UK have been underway for a number of years.

Legal requirement to improve water quality

The EU Water Framework Directive requires the UK to achieve ‘good’ status of all water bodies (including rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwater) by 2015.

Surface waters are assessed against their ecological and chemical status; groundwater is measured by its quantitative and chemical status.

The key source of information on the measures being taken to improve water quality in a particular area is the relevant River Basin Management Plan. These are currently being updated and are expected to be published in the UK by the end of 2015, once approved by the Secretary of State.

Bathing Water

Bathing waters require special protection as they are classed as protected areas (in accordance with the Water Framework Directive and the Bathing Water Directive). A new Bathing Water Directive introduced a new stricter classification system from 2015.

Bathing water quality is monitored throughout the bathing water season (15 May to 30 September in England and Wales). Water quality information for bathers is available online from the relevant regulator. Defra reported that a total of 97% of England's bathing waters passed the new minimum standard in the 2015 bathing season; and 63.6% met the new excellent standard.

From the 2016 bathing season, every local authority which controls a bathing water must display the bathing water classifications provided by the relevant regulator.

Drinking Water

In addition to the relevant source of drinking water achieving 'good' status under the Water Framework Directive, the resulting drinking water must also meet the requirements of the Drinking Water Directive. Water quality is checked and regulated by independent drinking water inspectorates.

The latest reported figures for drinking water compliance in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all above 99%.

What is the status of water quality in the UK?

In 2012 only 36% of water bodies in the UK were classified as ‘good’ or better. There has been very little change in this overall status classification since 2008.

Monitoring of water quality is a devolved issue so separate approaches are taken in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, overall compliance with European requirements is measured by the UK’s overall status classification.

The latest breakdowns of reported status of water bodies across the UK are:

  • in England, 21% of water bodies are classified as being of 'good' status (2014) 
  • in Wales, 42% of water bodies are classified as being of 'good' ecological status (2014)
  • in Scotland, 52% of water bodies are classified as being of 'good' status (2013)
  • in Northern Ireland, 22% of rivers and streams, 14% of lakes and 80% of coastal waters were at least a 'good' standard in 2012.

What happens if the 2015 deadline is not met?

The Water Framework Directive recognises that, in specific and limited circumstances, the 2015 deadline of achieving ‘good’ status may not be met. The UK may therefore rely on relevant waivers (known as derogations) to allow it to extend the deadline (to a maximum of 2027) or meet less stringent environmental objectives.

A temporary derogation can be granted if the water body is affected by an exceptional natural cause or force majeure which could not be reasonably foreseen (for example, flooding or prolonged drought).

The Directive is binding on all Member States. The European Commission can start a process if it is concerned that Directives are not being implemented which can end with the matter being referred to the European Court of Justice as a breach of European law.

This process is described in detail in the Commons Briefing Paper on How the EU fines Member States.

Government action to improve water quality

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is taking a number of actions to manage and improve water quality, including:

  • Ensuring catchments are managed economically and efficiently;
  • Reducing agricultural pollution (otherwise known as diffuse pollution);
  • Controlling urban pollution (otherwise known as non-agricultural diffuse pollution);
  • Monitoring and reducing chemical pollutants; and
  • Managing waste-water, sludge and septic tanks.

The Environment Agency is aiming to achieve good status in at least 60% of waters by 2021 and in as many waters as possible by 2027.

Water pollution offence 

In England and Wales, it is an offence to cause or knowingly permit pollution into water, unless specifically authorised by an environmental permit. This includes any discharge of poisonous, noxious, polluting or waste matter or any trade or sewage effluent into any water body.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7246

Author: Sara Priestley

Topics: Agriculture and environment, Environmental protection, Pollution, Water

Share this page

Stay up to date

  • Subscribe to RSS feed Subscribe to Email alerts Commons Briefing papers

House of Commons Library

The House of Commons Library provides research, analysis and information services for MPs and their staff.