On the 1st of February this year, Trust director, Dr Dylan Bright, travelled to London to give evidence to the House of Lords EU Select Committee inquiry on EU Freshwater Policy. During the hour-long session, Dr Bright was quizzed intensively on his views on the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and its delivery both here in the UK and across Europe.  The Lords listened with evident interest as Dr Bright explained how the Trust’s approach to water, land and environmental management, through Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes, could help deliver WFD objectives. He also explained that such an approach could deliver a good proportion of the UK’s biodiversity and recreational aspirations, as well as improving flood and drought defence and carbon sequestration capabilities. The Lords were particularly interested in the potential of applying the Trust’s PES catchment management approach in the wider European context. Dr Bright emphasised to the Lords the importance of good, well-informed rural spatial planning and how through engagement of local communities, businesses and organisations it is possible to develop a workable and strategic catchment management plan. This plan can then be implemented through the creation of appropriate economic markets at a local level.

Dr Bright cited the Trust’s work with South West Water on their Upstream Thinking initiative as “the best example so far (that) I have of this (approach). We have been able to work up evidence with the water company to demonstrate that it is about 60 times more cost-effective to look after raw water quality pre-abstraction, in the rivers in the catchment, than it is to pay to filter that water post-abstraction”. Consequently, South West Water are funding catchment scale restoration projects, the largest of which the Westcountry Rivers Trust is delivering through targeted advice to farmers and landowners and the provision of capital infrastructure grants. Land management advice, coupled with improved farm infrastructure, significantly reduces pollutants entering the river. This improves water quality, riparian habitats and biodiversity, while also being of financial benefit to the farmer, the water company and, ultimately, the bill payers.

When questioned by the Lords on potential measures the government might implement to support this approach, Dr Bright stressed the need for simplified but more effective regulation. Alongside better regulation should come an alignment of incentives, such as the redirection of CAP payments and agri-environment subsidies, into locally approved catchment plans. He also suggested that a new governance structure could be created in order to give catchment management plans a democratic mandate, recognising catchment boundaries as planning units for rural spatial planning and supporting the creation of new local economic markets for ecosystem services. In the Chairman’s final remarks, Dr Bright was asked to provide further details on aspects of the Trust’s work and vision for the future and the Lords thanked Dr Bright for “a most stimulating session”.

Upstream Thinking is just one of the Westcountry Rivers Trust’s PES and catchment management projects in the South West. The Westcountry Rivers Trust is leading the way in the design and delivery of PES schemes in the UK, aimed at improving land management, water quality and the wider environment at a catchment scale, while also delivering multiple benefits for society.