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We deal with all aspects of water policy in England, including water supply and resources, and the regulatory systems for the water environment and the water industry. These include drinking water quality; the quality of water in rivers, lakes and estuaries, coastal and marine waters; sewage treatment; and reservoir safety.

We work closely with:

  • the Environment Agency, which manages water resources and enforces water quality standards;
  • the Drinking Water Inspectorate, which regulates the quality of drinking water; and
  • Ofwat, which is responsible for economic regulation of the water industry.

Water White Paper

Supporting a strong and sustainable green economy, resilient to the effects of climate change is one of Defra’s top three priorities, as outlined in the Department’s Structural Reform Plan. A key commitment under this priority is the publication of a Water White Paper by early summer 2011.

Draft Waste Water National Policy Statement

Consultation on the draft Waste Water National Policy Statement finishes on 22 February 2011 – Don’t miss the chance to respond. Read the consultation document, FAQs and annexes…

Ofwat Review

The Ofwat Review is examining:

  • value for money for customers, particularly compared to other regulators,
  • how far Ofwat’s remit should extend beyond pure economic regulation,
  • whether Ofwat’s statutory duties are fit for purpose and meet future challenges;
  • how Ofwat has contributed to sustainable development; and
  • how to reduce the burden on business.

The review received evidence from a range of key stakeholders including water and sewerage companies and their investors, the wider value chain, water customer representatives and other economic and water regulators.

 The call for evidence has now closed and the review team would like to thank all those who contributed. The evidence is publicly available from the Defra library or by emailing ofwatreview@defra.gsi.gov.uk. The review will report to Ministers in Spring 2011.

The Flood and Water Management Act 2010

The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 will help tackle bad debt in the water industry, improve the affordability of water bills for certain groups and individuals, and help ensure continuity of water supplies to the consumer.

Water and climate change

Climate change presents a major challenge to water, with projections of rising temperatures, wetter winters, drier summers and increased climate variability. Ways need to be found to use water more sustainably and efficiently if high quality standards and security of supply are to be maintained. Demographic changes, such as increasing population, suggest higher demand for water in future, while expected changes in when and where rain falls will lead to increased pressure on water supplies and water quality problems – for instance, as a result of extreme weather.

Sustainable and efficient use of water is therefore essential. Water usage has a significant carbon footprint, owing to energy intensive supply and treatment processes, so more efficient water use will also help cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The government and the water sector need to address the problems arising from climate change through both efforts towards mitigation – using less energy in supply and treatment, as well as reducing domestic use – and adapting to the changes taking place.

Water Resources Planning

  • 10 December 2010 – Call for evidence: Water Resources Management Planning Review
  • It is a statutory duty on the 21 water companies based wholly or mainly in England to produce 25-year water resources management plans.
  • These plans aim to secure a long-term sustainable supply and demand balance for the supply of water.
  • They take into account, amongst other things, the implications of climate change and changes in population.
  • Plans are reviewed annually by the water companies, who must consult on new plans every five years.
  • The first round of plans cover the period to 2035, with 18 of the 21 now published and the remaining three subject to public inquiries held in 2010 or to fresh consultation.


  • All water companies have statutory drought plans which must be reviewed, consulted on and republished every 3½ years.
  • These plans set out how water companies will deal with droughts.
  • The regulatory framework provides water companies with a range of actions to be implemented to put in place increasingly stringent controls, as follows.
    • Hosepipe ban provisions were widened in the Flood and Water Management Act and introduced in October 2010.
    • Drought permits and orders provide a temporary mechanism for managing resources to help avoid risk to public water supplies and the environment.

Abstraction licensing

  • One of the ways the Environment Agency manages water resources in England and Wales is through a system of issuing licences for abstracting (removing) water, which they have had in place since the 1960s.
  • The Environment Agency’s duties include the regulation of water abstraction from sources of supply including rivers, lakes, canals and underground sources through a system of licensing, to minimise damage to the environment.
  • The Restoring Sustainable Abstraction Programme was set up by the Environment Agency in 1999 to identify and catalogue those sites which may be at risk from abstraction.
  • The Environment Agency has Catchment Abstraction Management Strategies to provide a consistent and structured approach to local water resources management, recognising the reasonable needs of abstractors and the needs of the environment.
  • To find out if you need a licence and how to apply for one see the Environment Agency’s website.
  • Abstraction statistics
  • Abstraction licence policy

In 2009, Defra and the Welsh Assembly Government consulted on:

  • the removal and creation of various exemptions from licence control. The proposed new Regulations to bring these proposals into force will implement the remaining abstraction provisions of the Water Act 2003.
  • on proposals for mandatory time limiting of water abstraction licences in England and Wales.

Private sewers in England and Wales

It has been estimated up to 50 per cent of properties in England and Wales are connected to a private sewer. A private sewer is one which is not a ‘public’ sewer (ie owned by a statutory Water and Sewerage Company) and is generally collectively owned and maintained by the owners of the premises it serves. Often it extends beyond the property boundary into the public highway.

There are no comprehensive records of where private sewers are located or what condition they are in. Following an extensive review of private sewer ownership, the government has published a consultation draft regulations to effect the transfer of existing private sewers and lateral drains (part of the pipe running from the property boundary to the main sewer) that connect to the public network, into the ownership of the statutory Water and Sewerage Companies in England from October 2011. Water is a devolved issue and the consultation is being undertaken jointly with the Welsh Assembly Government.

Unless a problem occurs householders are often unaware they are responsible for the maintenance and repair of their private sewer (sometimes jointly with others). This different ownership of the sewerage network causes difficulties for long term planning, which is important in adapting to the effects of climate change and housing growth.

The government considers transfer provides the only comprehensive solution to a range of private sewer and lateral drain problems faced by householders. It will also significantly help address a lack of integrated management of the sewerage network as a whole, and provide greater efficiency of effort, environmental stewardship and expenditure. The government also proposes to ensure all new sewers connecting to the public sewerage network are built to a specified standard and automatically adopted as part of the public network. The costs of transfer will be met by an increase in the sewerage element of bills across the nine sewerage companies currently estimated to be around 6 pence to 27 pence a week.

Page last modified: 2 March 2011