Wildlife and countryside campaigners are urging the head of the Environment Agency not to weaken key rules which are driving the clean-up of rivers in England.

Leading figures in the environmental sector have written to Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the EA,after a speech in which he suggested weakening the EU water framework directive now that the UK had left the union. To do so, the signatories to the letter say, would be a backward step.

The signatories are calling for more investment so that English rivers meet the target of 75% rated good by 2027. Currently just 14% of rivers are judged as good under the directive.

In a recent speech to business leaders, Bevan called for “thoughtful reform” of the directive, which sets strong targets to clean up pollution in rivers and enhance the watercourses’ biodiversity.

Bevan wants to abolish the “one-out-all-out” rule, which means rivers have to pass four stringent tests before being declared in good health.

Instead he suggests that the directive be “reformed” to allow rivers to be judged on one criterion rather than all four, to deliver what he said would be “even better outcomes”.

Surfers Against Sewage have accused Bevan of trying to “rig” the system “to give false results” with his weakening of the directive. The surfers’ group signed the letter to Bevan on Friday, along with environmental NGOs including Wildlife and Countryside Link, the Angling Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, and RSPB.

The letter says: “In light of growing public concern about water pollution, over-abstraction of sensitive rivers and streams, and serious ongoing shortcomings in water quality, any weakening of water framework standards would be a backward step.

“The water environment is a system, and all parts of that system need to be in good working order for it to operate effectively. That principle remains true and the clarity of the ‘one-out-all-out’ rule should not be abandoned.”

The letter said Bevan should instead endorse a strengthening of the rules by introducing a long-term target in the environment bill for “clean waters” of the highest quality, which would include an inland bathing water standard to give the public confidence in the highest standards of water quality.

The call for new inland bathing water standards chimes with the growing calls from river users who are demanding rivers clean enough to swim in.

The letter to Bevan acknowledges that the pass or fail test within the EU directive does not enable regions to show where river quality has improved. But rather than axe the more stringent one-out-all-out rule it says the government should introduce a new metric for “elements improved” that shows the steps being made on the journey to achieving good quality overall.

Under the directive the British government is committed to a core target of achieving good status and a healthy water environment by 2027. This target should not be weakened, said the signatories.

“To cherry-pick only those aspects of the water framework directive that can most easily or cheaply be achieved is not to meet the aspiration of the UK public for a cleaner, greener future,” they said.

The Environment Agency said: “We welcome the debate on how to improve environmental regulation now that we have left the EU. We agree with the NGOs that the aim should be to deliver even better outcomes for our rivers, lakes and coastal waters, and that we should consider amending the water framework directive to achieve that.

“As [Bevan] said in his speech, ‘if changing the law will allow us to regulate better and achieve higher environmental standards, we should always be open to that’.”

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