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Downing Street backtracks over water claims

The Government was forced to backtrack yesterday on claims that it had won major concessions at the European Summit to relax tough environmental standards and slow the rise in water bills.

The Department of the Environment has admitted that nothing agreed at last week's summit would change the price of water or the rules governing its quality for several years to come.

As for any future changes, those will depend on lengthy and awkward negotiations between the European Commission, the European Parliament and ministers of member states when it is far from certain that Britain will get its way.

Sunday newspapers, briefed by Downing Street, said the Government had won important concessions that would benefit water company customers. Environmental organisations angrily condemned the Government for destroying hard-won 'green' gains.

But yesterday the environment directorate of the European Commission said the press misrepresented the situation. Paul Garrett, of the Water Services Association, which represents the big 10 companies of England and Wales, said: 'We're not sure there are any implications for the capital expenditure programme or for consumers in what happened at the summit.'

The president of the commission, Jacques Delors, presented a report to the summit proposing that 28 directives should be reformed and simplified, largely on the grounds of subsidiarity. Six of these are concerned with water quality, including the key drinking water and bathing water directives, responsible for multi-billion pound increases in the cost of providing fresh water and disposing of sewage along the coastline. They are the leading reason why water bills have risen much faster than inflation since privatisation.

Mr Delors proposed that these six should be changed into four framework directives, which give more scope to member governments when implementing the laws and monitoring whether companies are complying with them.

But the new urban wastewater directive, which will cost about pounds 11bn to implement in Britain, was not covered by the Delors proposals. This legislation enforces a further round of improvements in sewage treatment and will be the main reason why water bills are to continue rising sharply through the second half of the 1990s. Britain is now pleading for the implementation of this directive to be delayed from 2000 until 2005.

In any case, the reform of the bathing and drinking water directives will leave the key issues affecting human health - such as the concentration of pesticides allowable in drinking water - as matters for the European Union to decide as a whole.