Policy paper

2010 to 2015 government policy: water quality

Updated 8 May 2015

This is a copy of a document that stated a policy of the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. The previous URL of this page was https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/improving-water-quality. Current policies can be found at the GOV.UK policies list.


We need to improve the quality of our open waters, also known as ‘water-bodies’. These include rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwater.

We need to do this as only 27% of our water-bodies in England are currently classified as being of ‘good status’ under new standards set down by the EU Water Framework Directive.

Improving water quality in our rivers, streams and other water-bodies has many benefits. These include:

  • safeguarding jobs and businesses which rely on good quality water-bodies
  • making natural habitats better for wildlife


Planning for better water

We’re working with partners across the UK to plan for better water quality and protect sensitive local areas such as bathing waters.

Managing catchments

A catchment is the area from which rainfall flows into a river, lake or other water-body. We work with local partners to make sure catchments are managed economically and efficiently.

Reducing agricultural pollution

Pollution from farms affects rivers and other water-bodies. We’re working with farmers to reduce this agricultural pollution.

Controlling urban pollution

Water in towns and cities can be polluted from a number of sources. It can be difficult to know where pollution is coming from. We’re working closely with the Environment Agency to understand urban pollution better.

Controlling chemical pollution

We’re monitoring and reducing chemical pollutants in open water and other water-bodies to protect the environment.

Managing waste-water, sludge and septic tanks

We’re working to make sure pollutants from waste-water, sludge and septic tanks are reduced and controlled.


Our work in managing the UK’s river and freshwater supplies is based on the European Water Framework Directive (WFD).

Appendix 1: reducing and controlling chemical pollution

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

The Environmental Quality Standards Directive 2008/105/EC sets out a list of substances that pose a threat to our water-bodies (which include rivers, lakes and groundwater).

These ‘priority substances’ should stay below levels that are safe for water-bodies and human health.

There’s a sub-set of the ‘priority substances’ list called the ‘priority hazardous substances list.’ All EU members must stop any discharge of these substances by 2020.

Heavy metals from abandoned mines

Water draining from mines often has a high metal content. This can include cadmium, zinc, lead, copper and iron.

Defra, the Environment Agency and the Coal Authority are working together to reduce this pollution.

Pollution incidents

The Environment Agency responds to pollution incidents whether they’re major events or have no environmental impact.

The Agency is set up to identify, trace and stop pollution as soon as possible. To report incidents, call the 24 hour emergency number below.

Call us on 0800 80 70 60

Appendix 2: reducing and controlling urban pollution

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Urban pollution – pollution in towns and cities – comes from a wide variety of sources. These include:

  • cars, trains and other forms of transport
  • construction and building
  • misconnections – waste water draining to the wrong place
  • ‘run-off activities’ – water from car washing, for example
  • discharges from contaminated land

The sources of pollution we regard as priority areas are:

  • misconnections
  • run-off activities
  • industrial estates
  • contaminated urban rivers

Urban pollution is often referred to as non-agricultural diffuse pollution (NADP) as it comes from many sources and it’s made up of a large number of pollutants.

We’re currently updating how we deal with NADP. We consulted on our approach in November 2012. A summary of responses to the consultation was published in summer 2013.


A misconnection is where the drainage from a building has been connected to the wrong sewage network. There are two examples of a misconnection. The first is when foul (contaminated) water gets into the surface water system, impacting on the water quality and the amenity value of the area.

The second type is when surface water (such as rainwater) goes into the foul sewer (a sewer that carries sewage from homes). This can cause sewer flooding.

Misconnections are considered to be a major source of urban diffuse pollution. Dealing with urban diffuse pollution is part of commitment 27 in the natural environment white paper.

To check if your property has a misconnection, or to find out more about preventing water pollution through misconnections, visit the ConnectRight – stop water pollution website.

Phosphates in detergents

Phosphate is a nutrient. Too much phosphate in rivers and lakes can cause ‘nuisance growth’ in plants and algae.

Algae is bad for water-bodies as it blocks light and uses up oxygen. This can lead to a decline in the quality of the water, known as eutrophication. Eutrophication harms a river or lake’s ecology and limits what they can be used for.

Phosphates often enter rivers in sewage. The main sources of phosphates in sewage include human faeces and urine, food wastes and detergents.

We’re reducing phosphates:

  • in laundry detergent in 2013
  • in dishwasher detergent in 2017

We’re also working with farmers to reduce the amount of phosphate that runs off fields and the water companies to reduce the amount released from sewage works.

For more on how we plan to reduce phosphates getting into water, look at the River basin management plans.

Appendix 3: reducing and controlling agricultural pollution

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Farms and other agricultural land management can cause diffuse pollution.

Diffuse water pollution is pollution that comes from many sources. These sources may be small individually but damaging collectively.

Diffuse pollution can affect water-bodies such as rivers, streams, lakes and some bathing waters.

The main elements of agricultural pollution are:

  • phosphates
  • nitrates
  • pesticides
  • sediment
  • faecal bacteria

All of these reduce the quality of the water we use to drink, swim and catch fish in.

Farming isn’t the only cause of these problems, but it does contribute around 50-60% of nitrates, 20-30% of phosphorus and 75% of the sediment getting into our water sources.

Taking responsibility

Farmers are responsible for reducing pollution on their own lands. Government is responsible for making sure advice and financial help go where they’re most needed. The Environmental Stewardship scheme is an important part of this. The scheme’s main aims include:

  • conserving wildlife (biodiversity)
  • maintaining and enhancing the quality of the landscape
  • protecting natural resources (water and soil)

We also run the Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) programme under the terms of the Water Framework Directive.

CSF aims to reduce the level of diffuse pollution in rivers, groundwater and other water-bodies that farming can cause.


Too much nitrate in water causes a range of harmful effects. We’re reducing agricultural nitrate pollution of waters through:

Slurry management and storage

A joint government and industry report recommending improvements to the management and storage of slurry has been published. It makes recommendations on improvements to the regulatory framework and provision of advice to farmers about the management and storage of slurry. The project looked at a number of contentious issues. This included investigating whether it was possible to introduce flexibility to closed periods. The Project Group concluded from the evidence available that it was not possible at present and recommended that any new evidence be considered.


There is a need to protect our water sources and drinking water from pollution by pesticides. We are reducing this risk by:

  • implementing a range of pesticide and water protection legislation, so as to meet drinking water standards under the Drinking Water Directive
  • encouraging the use of Codes of Practice and adoption of guidance such as that developed by the Voluntary Initiative for Pesticides
  • promoting catchment sensitive farming, or farming methods that minimise the chance of polluting a water course
  • developing ways to reduce the very small quantities of certain pesticides found in drinking water

Information on the safe use of pesticides is available at the Chemicals Regulation Directorate website.

There’s more on pesticides at the Environment Agency website.

Appendix 4: planning for better water

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

We’re working with partners to improve the quality of water in rivers, bathing waters and other bodies of water across the country.

The river basin management planning process provides a framework for agreeing objectives for the water environment and the measures needed to achieve them. The current river basin management plans were published in 2009 and they will be updated in 2015. The Environment Agency is consulting on the draft updates to the river basin management plans from 10 October 2014 to 10 April 2015.

Planning for better rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters

Much of our work in managing and protecting our rivers, lakes, coastal waters and other water bodies is governed by the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD). The WFD says that every EU member:

  • must reach ‘good water body status’ by 2015, and
  • cannot allow water body standards to drop

The deadline for achieving ‘good water body status’ can be extended to 2021 or 2027 if needed for ‘technical or economic’ reasons.

The Environment Agency is responsible for monitoring and reporting on the objectives of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) on behalf of government. They work with government, Ofwat, local government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a wide range of other stakeholders including local businesses, water companies, industry and farmers to manage water.

The Environment Agency produces a river basin management plan for each river basin district in England to address the main issues to protect and improve our water environment. A river basin is the area of land that runs or drains down into a river.

It published its first set of river basin management plans in 2009, along with an impact assessment. These are being reviewed and updated plans will be published in 2015. The Ministerial guidance for the river basin management plans is available.

Standards of water quality and the methods for applying these standards are in directions issued to the Environment Agency by Defra’s Secretary of State.

Technical specifications for chemical analysis and monitoring of water status are in a separate EU Directive. These have been issued in a separate direction.

Planning how to manage flood risk in relation to the EU Flood Directive is carried out at the same scale as river basin planning. Flood risk management plans produced under the EU Flood Directive identify flood risk and set out how to manage that risk.

Bathing water

A bathing water is a beach or inland site used by a large number of bathers. Bathing water in the UK is protected by EU Directive 76/160/EEC, now replaced by Directive 2006/7/EC. The new Directive sets higher standards for bathing water quality.

The Directive protects from faecal pollution in waters used for swimming. This includes pollution from agriculture, misconnections, sewerage and urban drainage.

Water quality is monitored throughout the bathing season. In England, this means from mid-May to the end of September. Water quality information for bathers is available.

Defra has overall responsibility for the Bathing Water Directives in England, where they’re administered by the Environment Agency.

The Environment Agency’s role is to:

  • monitor over 400 bathing waters and assess whether they comply with the standards of the current Bathing Water Directive (76/160/EEC)
  • identify the significant sources of pollution which cause individual bathing waters to fail and work with partners on plans to improve the water quality
  • work with the water industry and Ofwat to identify and prioritise improvements to sewage treatment works and sewerage infrastructure
  • work with others to find the best solutions to managing our bathing waters and reducing pollution through initiatives like catchment sensitive farming, bathing water partnerships, Combined Sewer Overflow alerts and misconnections campaigns
  • play a role in maintaining good quality bathing waters through the regulatory permitting process

If you have an enquiry about bathing water outside England, you should get in touch with one of the following:

In 2013, 415* bathing waters were monitored in England, 100 in Wales, 83 in Scotland and 23 in Northern Ireland, making a total of 621 bathing waters across the UK. Of these, 608 are coastal or estuarine waters and 13 are inland freshwater sites.

*The earlier figure of 416 bathing waters changed due to closure of one beach during the bathing season for footpath repairs. This meant that the Environment Agency was unable to take enough samples to make an assessment of water quality.

Shellfish waters

In the 2009 river basin management plans, shellfish waters were designated as protected areas under the Shellfish Waters Directive. Since then the Shellfish Waters Directive has been repealed and its requirements transferred to the Water Framework Directive.

When waters are designated as shellfish waters protected areas, the aim is to protect and improve water quality. This will support the growth of healthy shellfish (bivalve and gastropod molluscs) and contribute to good quality edible shellfish.

There are 98 shellfish waters in England. They all have draft action plans to describe the issues which affect them and work planned to address these issues.

Shellfish intended for human consumption

The quality of commercially harvested shellfish intended for human consumption must comply with EU Food Hygiene Regulations. There’s more about these on the Food Standards Agency website.

Sensitive areas for discharges from waste water treatment works

Our water bodies have to be protected from the nitrates and nutrients (specifically compounds of nitrogen and phosphorus) found in waste water. Nitrates, nutrients and similar substances can have adverse effects on water quality.

The Environment Agency reviews environmental waters (like rivers and lakes) every 4 years to check whether they’re affected by discharges of sewage or waste water.

Where this has happened, an environmental water can be defined as a ‘sensitive area’. This means that the relevant sewage plants in the area will have to reduce the amounts of nutrients they produce.

You can find maps of all UK sensitive areas on the websites of the relevant government departments and those of their environmental regulators. You can also find these maps in the ‘Wastewater treatment in the UK 2012’ report.

For fuller details, please have a look at our Table of UK sensitive areas. This includes:

  • information about each sensitive area
  • information on designations and de-designations
  • details of sensitive areas by UK nation
  • links to interactive maps

The law requires Defra to issue the Environment Agency with information about any changes in sensitive areas, and when those changes come into effect. This information is usually referred to as a notice. There’s a sample notice and a notice schedule below.

Drinking water protection zones and groundwater

Groundwater (underground water) is an important resource, both for drinking water and for providing water for rivers.

The 2006 Directive requires us to prevent hazardous substances entering our groundwater. It also puts limits on some non-hazardous substances going into groundwater. We must also prevent deterioration in water status. Our aim is to achieve ‘good’ chemical and quantitative status by 2015 in all groundwater bodies.

The Environment Agency has a duty to manage the use of groundwater. They balance the need to supply consumers with the need to preserve the environment, protect it from pollution and over-abstraction, and where it is already polluted they clean it up. The Environment Agency does this by:

  • promoting sustainable development
  • legislation and regulation
  • information and education
  • investigation and monitoring
  • research

The main legislation that protects groundwater are:

Other requirements of the 2006 Directive have been transposed through the Water Framework Directive Regulations and through statutory Directions in 2006, 2009 and 2010 to the Agency under section 40 of the Environment Act.

Nature conservation sites

Some nature conservation sites are sensitive to water pollution and must be included in river basin management plans. These are the Natura 2000 sites.

Natura 2000 sites have been designated under the EU’s habitats and birds directives. They’re called ‘protected areas’ under the Water Framework Directive.

The Environment Agency works with Natural England to protect and improve the quality of water bodies at conservation sites.

Appendix 5: working better together in river basin districts

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

A river basin is a geographical area where the majority of water bodies flow out into a particular estuary or length of coastline. A river basin district is made up of more than one catchment.

We believe the best way to manage a river catchment is by working with all the organisations, businesses and groups in an area that have an interest in the river basin. These can include water companies, farmers, councils, businesses, the Environment Agency and bodies such as Natural England.

River Basin Management Plans are strategic documents. They set the goals and targets that the Environment Agency and other parts of government must plan for and take into account. However they do not set out the detailed actions.

Catchment Based Approach (CaBA)

River catchment means the area of land that drains into a river lake or other water-body.

The Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) establishes local partnerships between those that have an interest in water and the wider environment to improve water quality in each catchment.

A river basin is made up of number of catchments. England is divided in to 83 operational catchments and has 6 catchments that cross the border with Wales.

We expect the EA and other Defra bodies to work locally with Catchment Partnerships and any other interested groups, to meet the management plan targets.

There’s more about how we manage river catchments on the website for the Catchment Based Approach.

We believe this strategy will help us meet the targets of the Water Framework Directive.

Water stakeholder forum

We run a forum 2 or 3 times a year where interested organisations can hear about how water policy is developing. They can also give us feedback on how we’re doing.

You can find papers from previous meetings at the Foundation for water research.

To get on the mailing list, please email us at waterforum@defra.gsi.gov.uk

Appendix 6: reducing and controlling pollution in wastewater discharges, sludge and septic tanks

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

Waste water discharges

All sewage water needs to be treated, whether it comes from a home or a factory. If not, our rivers, lakes and other water-bodies will end up contaminated.

EU legislation the Urban waste water directive (91/271/EEC) protects our water-bodies from untreated sewage. 99% of sewage works in England meet the standards of the directive.

Defra has responsibility for implementing the directive in England. The Scottish and Welsh governments are responsible for Scotland and Wales respectively. The Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland looks after Northern Ireland.

Septic tanks and small sewage treatment systems

Septic tanks and small sewage treatment plants are often used for domestic waste water systems, where properties are not connected to the main sewage network. These types of waste water systems operate by partially treating the waste water and sewage, and making a limited discharge of sewage effluent.

Septic tanks and treatment plants are required to have an infiltration system (secondary drainage field or soakaway system). Small sewage treatment plants are also known as package treatment plants. They can provide better treatment of the effluent in comparison with septic tanks, which provide a basic level of treatment. Badly installed and poorly maintained systems can pollute local water supplies.

There are controls to prevent pollution to groundwater and surface water (lakes, rivers and streams) from small sewage discharges. These have been updated from January 2015. This is part of a new approach to how small sewage discharges are regulated. There is new guidance on what you need to do if you have a septic tank or sewage treatment plant, or you are planning to install one.

The policy approach is described in the government response to a consultation in 2014.

The approach has three strands:

  • simplifying how we regulate small sewage discharges
  • taking a more risk-based approach to sensitive areas
  • communicating and engaging with rural householders, business and other stakeholders, as part of wider ongoing work to improve water quality.

It focuses on making sure septic tanks and sewage treatment plants are not causing pollution through poor maintenance or installation. It also makes sure that water resources, drinking water supplies, sensitive areas and rare habitats continue to be protected. We will be working with others, in the coming months and throughout 2015, to communicate what the new approach means to rural households and businesses.

The changes in regulations were announced in a written ministerial statement on 27 October 2014. The controls are set out in The Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2014. The controls are managed and enforced by the Environment Agency. General binding rules setting out the conditions that allow a septic tank or sewage treatment plant to be used without an environmental permit have been published. Defra have also published additional information to support these new rules. Further information is available from the Environment Agency.


Sewage sludge is organic material that’s produced during the treatment of domestic waste water. Treated sewage sludge can be used as fertiliser as it’s full of nutrients. It can also be burnt to produce energy.

Sewage sludge can contain chemical discharges or industrial contaminants so its use has to be regulated. This happens through the EC Sewage Sludge (Use in Agriculture) Directive (86/278/EEC). The directive limits the recycling of sludge to land to prevent harmful effects on vegetation, animals and people.