Wednesday, October 06, 2004

A question of priorities

Politics, so we are told, is about choice. Currently "choice" is one of those buzz words, a touchy-feely word that all politicians aspire to. But politics is also about decisions – making them.

Given limited resources, politicians must decide where to spend the money they take from us – do they pay nurses more; do they build new hospitals; do they spend more on the army; how may more police can they afford? There is inexhaustible demand and limited supply, and a case can be made for every claim. Thus, politics is also a question of priorities.

It is in this context that today’s news that "Most British rivers will fail new EU water purity rules" is particularly aggravating. According to the Guardian despite £12bn spending by water companies on sewage and storm water treatment works over 14 years, 95 percent of British rivers will fail to meet new European standards for water quality if further work is not done.

However, it is not that our rivers have suddenly suffered a catastrophic decline in standards. In fact, since the privatisation of water companies in 1990, there has been a dramatic improvement in the quality of water in rivers, with fish returning to areas which had been dead for 100 years. No, the reason why most rivers will "fail" is because the EU has moved the goal posts and refined the definition of water purity.

In its new water framework directive, (2000/60/EC), instead of just using chemical content and dissolved oxygen as a way of measuring the health of rivers, the EU is demanding much higher standards of river management, including maintaining water flows and diversity of life, and the removal of hormone disrupting substances which are turning thousands of male fish into females. Furthermore, the directive also applies to lakes, estuaries and coastal and ground waters which were previously not measured.

Although the new rules do not come into force until 2015, the new targets are so stringent that work must start now in order to reach them. But, from a review of the literature, it appears that no one has any idea how much it will cost. The DEFRA website merely discusses methodologies for determining costs and the consultation on this does not close until December of this year.

Some estimates, however, suggest £16 billion - on top of the £12 bn already spent - although that is likely to be on the conservative side. And, if we do not meet the standards, we will be exposed to fines from the EU.

According to the Telegraph, Sir John Harman, the Environment Agency’s chairman, said it was not clear how many rivers would have to fail and by how much for Britain to incur fines from the EU. "We don't yet know how high the bar will be set," he said.

Now all of this is fine and dandy, and I am sure the bunny-huggers are delighted, but compared with all the other demands on the public purse, this surely cannot be the highest priority in the land. What we have is queue-jumping, the Commission staking its claim to expenditure, over and above anything that our domestic politicians think are important.

Thus, Mr Blair, or Mr Howard – or even Mr Kennedy – may stand up on their conference platforms and tell their adoring audiences where their party’s priorities lie, but the truth is that the real priorities are set in Brussels. Only when we have satisfied EU demands can we spend money on schools, hospitals, police, etc., etc.

That is a measure of how far down the road we have gone, and why we cannot continue allow our government in Brussels to call the shots.

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