Extra spending 'has led to cleaner rivers': Rivers authority seeks pounds 900m for further improvements

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THE PURITY of rivers in England and Wales has improved significantly in the past few years, the Government's water quality watchdog said yesterday.

Monitoring by the National Rivers Authority shows that people are now getting cleaner rivers for their extra spending on water. Over the past five years, water bills have risen by an average of 42 per cent above the rate of inflation.

There are also cleaner beaches. The NRA published figures last month which showed a slight increase in the proportion of English and Welsh bathing waters meeting European Union standards.

But Lord Crickhowell, chairman of the NRA, pleaded yesterday for pounds 900m of further expenditure on rivers over the next five years. He said that investment went beyond what was demanded by European Union water quality laws, but was essential if hundreds of miles of severely polluted rivers in densely populated areas were to be improved. The NRA places rivers and canals in six water quality classes based on chemical monitoring - two 'good' classes, two 'fair', one poor and one bad - the latter two categories support little or no fish.

In all, 10.7 per cent of the total length of rivers and canals moved up a class between 1990 and 1992, and the NRA's most recent monitoring shows the improvement continuing through last year. Although changes in rainfall may be part of the explanation, the authority believes sewage treatment improvements are the prime reason.

The good news follows a marked decline in river quality in the 1980s, the result of severe cuts in investment in sewage treatment under the last Labour government and the Conservative administration which won power in 1979. Only in the NRA's Yorkshire and Northumbrian region was the recent trend of improvement bucked, with both the proportion of rivers in the two 'good' classes falling and the proportion in the 'poor' and 'bad' classes rising. But the organisation's regional officials believe this may be an anomaly which does not reflect a real increase in sewage pollution.

The NRA's announcement comes as Ofwat, the water industry's regulator, is in the final throes of deciding how much bills can rise over the next 10 years, starting next spring. Ian Byatt, Ofwat's director-general, believes anything more than 2 per cent per year above the rate of inflation is unacceptable.

But before Mr Byatt can make his decision, due at the end of the July, the Department of the Environment still has to tell him how much of the NRA's pounds 900m list of national priority schemes can be funded. This programme on 170 sewage works dotted around England and Wales goes beyond the larger spending commitments which already flow from European water quality directives on bathing beaches, tap water and sewage treatment standards.

But Lord Crickhowell said the public would notice and welcome the improvement to dozens of rivers and streams which this extra spending would reap. It would add pounds 3 to bills over a five-year period. 'Several of these schemes were regarded as priorities back in the 1970s,' he said. The companies wanted to fund them because they would be popular with anglers and other members of the public. River quality was in danger of deteriorating in some places unless the schemes went ahead.

It is understood that the Government will sanction four sets of flagship improvement schemes costing pounds 200m on the Aire and Calder in Yorkshire, the Mersey, the Stour in Hereford and Worcester and the Norfolk Broads.

But the remaining pounds 700m has still to be decided. Robert Atkins, Minister of State for the Environment, said: 'As ever in these matters, it's a case of balancing costs with the environmental gains.'

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