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Chamber and committees

Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Environmental Regulation, Environmental Standards Scotland


Contents


Environmental Regulation

The Convener

The second item on the agenda is an evidence session with Scotland’s statutory environmental regulators. I refer members to the papers from the clerk and the Scottish Parliament information centre.???

Earlier this year, the committee agreed to hold a one-off evidence session with environmental regulators to take stock of environmental law and regulation post-Brexit as well as other recent developments.

I welcome our witnesses. Jo Green, acting chief executive, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, and John Kerr, operations manager of protected areas, innovation and data, NatureScot, both join us remotely. Mark Roberts, chief executive, Environmental Standards Scotland, joins us in the committee room. I thank you all for accepting our invitation to attend.

Members will ask questions in turn. It would help broadcasting staff if members could direct their question to a specific person on the panel or set out a running order for answers.

I will ask the first question, which I direct to Jo Green. At the beginning of last year, and in the course of this year, SEPA struggled with data breaches that led to immense problems with its computer systems. Could you bring us up to speed on how you have resolved that situation and whether you are now working online and are back to your previous form?

Jo Green (Scottish Environment Protection Agency)

Good morning. We were the subject of a significant and sophisticated cyberattack on Christmas eve in 2020. It was a serious incident and we are still in recovery from it.

It is fair to say that we had a fairly quick recovery period early on, so we were immediately able to reinstate services such as our flood warnings service, which is a critical service in Scotland. We decided not to simply build back all the old systems but to develop and build new systems for the future.

In the early months, we provided service updates so that people could understand the services that we were able to deliver. As we speak, our services are still being delivered—it is just that we have a lot more building back to do on the new systems. At the moment we are perhaps working a bit inefficiently because we do not yet have the modern new systems that we need. We are still in that process.

The Convener

I have two further questions to follow up on that. You lost a significant amount of data, much of which I understand cannot be recovered. Is that delaying your ability as an agency to respond to requests for information in all the spheres in which you operate, or are you past that stage?

Jo Green

Immediately after the attack we had little access to data, so your assessment is spot on. However, we have made really good progress on data recovery. It has required hard work and detailed effort, but we have now recovered more than 85 per cent of our data.

Is the agency responding to requests for information as quickly as you were doing prior to December 2020, or are you still behind?

Jo Green

One of the challenges that we had was that of access to our old records to be able to respond to things such as freedom of information requests. That was one of the most challenging service areas but, again, we are making progress on that backlog. If the committee wants, I can write with the most up-to-date position, but we are in a much better position than the very difficult position that we were in.

The Convener

Rather than push that point, I will go to Mark Ruskell for questions, but it would be helpful if you could brief the committee in writing on exactly where you are on that issue. I am a farmer, and I hear from farmers and landowners that SEPA still struggles to provide the information that they require. Whatever the answer is, it would be helpful to have it confirmed in a letter.

Jo Green

I am happy to set that out. I am not painting a picture where everything is rosy; the attack on us was hugely difficult, and recovery and rebuild are still under way. We will write to the committee on the points that you raise.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

We could see a bonfire of European Union environment law in the months and years ahead due to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which is currently working its way through Westminster. In your respective roles in your organisations, what work are you doing to consider what the impacts of the bill might be, which laws should be saved and which could be legitimately replaced?

John Kerr (NatureScot)

To be honest, we have just started getting to grips with what the bill means in the past couple of weeks. It is clear that the European habitats regulations are key for our protected area work. Elements of species protection are also involved—for example, in the European protected species regulations.

The other key piece of European legislation, which is rarely used in Scotland, is the environmental liability regulations, which implement the environmental liability directive—the polluter pays principle. Along with SEPA, we are key investigators under that piece of legislation.

The key legislation is the habitats regulations that implement the birds and habitats directives. As currently written, in Scotland as across the rest of the United Kingdom, the regulations still implement the obligations of the directives. That has been a great benefit following our exit from the EU, and we do not see any need to drop it.

We are starting to look at the overall implications of the bill. The sunset clause is challenging, but I understand that there might be the ability to restate some key regulations. We are concerned by the implication that it will take up a lot of the parliamentary time that would otherwise be dedicated to other pieces of legislation that would help us to address the nature and climate emergencies, for example. I am mainly thinking of the natural environment bill and the agriculture bill that are to go through the Scottish Parliament.

Those are the key concerns for us. Having to tidy up something that comes from Westminster gets in the way of our ability to look forward.

Have you set up a special unit to look at the issue? What are the resourcing implications? There are 570 environmental laws that might be covered by the bill.

John Kerr

We have not done that within NatureScot yet. We will no doubt be speaking to the Scottish Government. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England are doing a lot of the work, but we are involved. I am involved in various United Kingdom interagency groups, as are the other devolved Administrations. We are keeping tabs on the work with our colleagues from south of the border.

The work in DEFRA only started over the summer, although it apparently also did quite a lot of work on the green paper that was released in the spring.

Jo Green, what is your view?

Jo Green

There is not yet enough detail for us to be able to understand the implications of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill for SEPA’s work. Many of the environmental laws under which we currently operate have their origins in EU directives. Our statutory purpose is to protect and improve the environment and to contribute to social and economic success. We seek to deliver effectively, within the law that is set by the UK and Scottish Governments.

In general, we would expect there to be no loosening of environmental standards and no regression. That would not help Scotland to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergencies and the complex environmental challenges that we face. We would also want to see sufficient flexibility in any approaches that are developed, so that they reflect and respect the Scottish position.

It is difficult at the moment because there is no detail about what the bill will look like. As that detail becomes available, we will work with the Scottish and UK Governments on that and will look at the implications.

Is SEPA looking at any areas of concern at the moment?

Jo Green

That is really for the Government. We will work with Scottish Government colleagues on the common frameworks on matters such as best available techniques, radioactive substances or emissions trading. We are quite actively involved in the common frameworks in a number of areas but are less involved in the bill because there is not very much detail for us to get a grasp of at the moment.

There is a lot of uncertainty. What is the ESS view on this?

Mark Roberts (Environmental Standards Scotland)

I echo much of what Jo Green and John Kerr have said. Part of ESS’s remit is to look at the effectiveness of environmental law, so the proposed legislation is very significant.

We are actively monitoring the bill’s progress at Westminster. We are in regular discussion with our counterpart south of the border, the Office for Environmental Protection, about its work in monitoring what is happening, because that has a UK-wide effect. We are speaking to Scottish Government colleagues about how they plan to handle that within the devolved context.

I emphasise what John said about the scale and timetable being particularly challenging, given the timetable that has been set out, because of the time that the Government will have to spend on dealing with the bill and the need to use parliamentary time to scrutinise any changes to legislation.

ESS will look at particular pieces of legislation and particular regulations in the context of our on-going monitoring work. John Kerr mentioned the habitats regulations, which are critical for biodiversity and nature loss. That will be a key priority for us in the near future. To echo what Jo Green said, there is still a lot of uncertainty about exactly what will be involved. However that manifests itself, it will be key for our future work.

Do you have any indication of when there might be more certainty?

Mark Roberts

The simple answer to that is no.

Are you finished, Mark?

Yes.

09:45  

I am sorry—there are two Marks. That is confusing. I thank Mark Roberts for answering that question and Mark Ruskell for confirming that he is finished.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the panel. I was really interested to hear those answers.

I know that drilling down to get some examples will not be easy, but how might the potential divergence in environmental standards across the UK impact on the ability to tackle cross-border environmental issues or undermine the effectiveness of initiatives in Scotland? If you could touch on some examples, that could help the committee.

John Kerr

We do not have many cross-border cases in our protected areas and protected species work. There are only three cross-border European special area of conservation and special protection area sites. Two of those—in the Solway and on the Berwickshire and north Northumberland coast—are marine; the Tweed is the third. Cross-border work is therefore a very small part of our day-to-day casework.

It is clear that having regulatory divergence across the border will not help decision makers, competent authorities or developers. An example might be offshore wind developments in Scotland with a grid connection in England. That is an inevitable consequence of two Administrations being involved in such a scheme.

We already have a degree of cross-border divergence for our sites of special scientific interest suite. We have slightly different legislation on each side of the border. There are other areas in which there is slight divergence. I have already mentioned the environmental liability regulations—they are very subtly different in England. There are already instances in which the legislation or process on one side of the border is slightly different from the legislation or process on the other side.

As I have said, that does not currently really cause us a huge amount of difficulty. It is a matter of having communication links with our counterparts on the other side of the border.

Jo Green

On divergence, as a practitioner environment agency, we are already familiar with working within two systems at the UK level—for example, through UK regulations such as the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations 2007—and on environmental matters in Scotland that are primarily devolved. We are used to working practically at the UK and Scottish levels.

As John Kerr mentioned, divergence is not new. Strategic environmental assessments have a broader scope in Scotland than elsewhere. Divergence is not new in that context.

It comes down to us working with agencies and other bodies across the UK on a practical basis to make things work as well as we can. A key interest is in ensuring that we can simply, effectively and practically apply environmental law. There is a complexity issue for businesses that operate across the UK, and clarity is needed for people who are being regulated on what they need to comply with. They need to have sufficient time to adapt if changes are coming through. The issue is more about that practical level, but divergence is not brand new to us as a regulator.

Monica Lennon

I will press you with a supplementary. Would there be any resource implications? You have talked about some of the practicalities. It sounds like more of an operational issue. Would it require additional resource?

Jo Green

There are some resource implications for SEPA arising from EU exit. That is related to the common frameworks. There is a need for us to provide more advice to the Scottish Government in technical areas such as emissions trading to support its policy development in those areas. That reflects its role in them. It is a new need for us to provide that expert advice to Government in Scotland and the UK—previously, that would have been done at a European level. There is more pressure on technical expertise.

Mark Roberts

As John Kerr and Jo Green said, regulatory divergence exists but there is potential for there to be greater regulatory divergence in the future. We will quickly get into hypothetical discussions about what might happen.

We said in our letter to the committee that we are supportive of the establishment of the common framework mechanism as a way of resolving potential difficulties. It remains to be seen how well that will operate in practice but it is very encouraging that those mechanisms are in place.

John Kerr mentioned protected areas that operate across borders. We also have two river basins that operate naturally across the border between Scotland and England—the Tweed and the Solway—and, as I mentioned in my answer to Mark Ruskell, we could conceivably do work on that with our counterparts in the Office for Environmental Protection in England and Northern Ireland. We have a memorandum of understanding with them but it would depend on whether we collectively felt that there was a case for doing that work. However, that mechanism exists and is available to us.

Monica Lennon

My next question is aimed at SEPA and NatureScot, so I will return to John Kerr and Jo Green. Will you advise the committee whether the current system of environmental assessment is fit for purpose? To get a further steer on that, I will go to Jo Green first.

I think that there is a slight delay with BlueJeans at the moment, which is showing in our WhatsApp as well. Jo, I do not know whether you heard that question, but you are under the microscope now.

Jo Green

I caught the tail end of it. Was it about environmental assessments?

Yes. I was asking for SEPA’s view on whether the current environmental assessment system remains fit for purpose.

Jo Green

Okay, yes, I understand.

Thank you for the question. Basically, the answer is yes, but we are always open for discussions about how the approach can be improved.

We are a statutory consultee for environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments, which are important for protecting Scotland’s environment and are required for developments, plans and decisions that might lead to significant impact on the environment. It is important to recognise that they are also mature processes that are well understood by developers and regulators.

We are always open to approaches that make assessments simpler, as long as they do not reduce the outcomes that we achieve from them. Any changes should be at least commensurate with the environmental standards and protections afforded by the current approach to assessments.

In part 5 of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, it is not clear what the proposed changes are and how the new approach to environmental outcomes reports will work, so it is difficult to express a view at this stage on what will happen in the future. As I said, at least the current approach and assessments are well known and well understood. Any changes just need to be clear.

I understand. Do you have any recommendations or suggestions for the Government or the Parliament on how the system could be improved?

Jo Green

I do not have any in relation to the current approaches, which we have been working with for a while now, but I can check with colleagues and come back on that question. As I said, we are always open to improvements. On the environmental outcomes reports, it is just that there is uncertainty about what improvements people are looking to drive through the new approach.

I put the same question to John Kerr. What is NatureScot’s perspective?

John Kerr

Broadly, I echo what Jo Green has said. The current provisions for environmental impact assessments, strategic environmental assessments and habitats regulations appraisals are well understood and are broadly fit for purpose. However, as Jo Green said, we are always open to various improvements.

One of the criticisms that could be made about EIAs relates to proportionality. There is a tendency for very long environmental reports to be produced, which must cost a lot of money for some developers. We, as regulators, then need to work our way through those reports. A lot of time and work is involved in that, which is fine for the right development but perhaps not for every proposal that comes along. Most of the changes that we might suggest relate to implementation rather than legislative fixes.

The British schemes are generally very well understood. Others have said that there is quite a large industry of consultants producing such reports. That is a good thing; it means that the quality of the reports that regulators have to look at is generally pretty good.

That is helpful. In the interests of time, I will pass back to the convener.

Perfect. The next questions are from the deputy convener, Fiona Hyslop.

Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

Good morning. My first question is for John Kerr from NatureScot. I want to focus on the new system involving environmental outcomes reports. You have already indicated that there is not much detail about that in part 5 of the bill. What would be the positives and the negatives of that system? How might it affect your role in the process?

After John Kerr answers, I will ask Jo Green the same question.

John Kerr

In relation to EIAs and SEAs, it could be quite positive to have an outcome to aim for through the report that is produced. In the current system, a quite detailed analysis of the impacts is produced, but there is no fixed outcome. However, there is an outcome in the HRA process. An appropriate assessment must involve an HRA being carried out in relation to the conservation objectives that are set for each protected habitat or species at the relevant site. The ultimate outcome is achieving favourable conservation status. There is no such outcome for EIAs and SEAs.

I do not think that the committee will be surprised to hear me say that the negatives relate to the uncertainty. We do not know the details or what the final regulations will give us. There are a lot of rather vague provisions that allow the secretary of state to do all sorts of stuff, and we do not yet know how far those will be taken either now or in the future.

10:00  

Having said that, section 129 of the bill suggests that some of the existing regimes might be retained. Adding into the process an additional assessment against an outcome will make the whole process a bit longer. At the moment, that is as far as we can take things, because we simply do not know the detail of what changes might happen.

The other point to make is that most of the provisions in that part of the bill relate only to English legislation and English provisions. Therefore, significant changes would have to be made, otherwise it would not make much sense from a Scottish perspective.

I put the same question to Jo Green.

Jo Green

At this stage, there is little detail about the potential new approach or what might be expected in the environmental outcomes reports. The definition of “outcomes” is an important aspect, but there is no detail on that, so it is tricky to express a view.

Any replacement should provide a robust and effective evidence-based approach that provides consenting authorities, consultees and affected communities with clear information about the environmental impacts of a proposal.

I come back to the point that Scotland is more ambitious and progressive in some key areas of environmental protection. That is clear from the 2045 net zero target. We want there to be sufficient flexibility in any new approach to reflect and respect the Scottish position. That is potentially both a negative and a positive, depending on how things pan out.

As John Kerr said, one of the negatives is the uncertainty and the potential complexity of the new system. If change is coming, it must be clear what that change is, and sufficient notice must be given to allow people to adapt to it.

Fiona Hyslop

How might SEPA’s role in the process be affected? You are guardians of the environment for Scotland. Do you think that you would have enough control in the new system? What consultation has the UK Government undertaken with you to discuss the plans to implement the new, outcomes-based system in Scotland?

Jo Green

I am not aware of the UK Government engaging in any consultation with SEPA on any of the detail of what is proposed. Given our formal role in the process, it is clear that we have a strong interest. We are a statutory consultee on the current environmental assessment approaches, so we have a real interest in this area, but there is uncertainty about how things will pan out under the new approaches.

How might the new arrangements affect NatureScot’s role? What consultation has the UK Government had with NatureScot to discuss the new, outcomes-based system as it would apply to Scotland?

John Kerr

We are in a position that is similar to SEPA’s, in that the UK Government has not consulted us at all on the new system.

I scrutinised the proposed legislation again this morning, and I could see nothing in it that would ensure that statutory consultees would be part of the EOR regime. There is a vague reference to other public bodies being involved, but there is no explicit requirement for statutory consultees. That might change, depending on how the final regulations are formulated, but, given that we are a statutory consultee under the EIA, SEA and HRA processes, we would expect to be a statutory consultee under whatever new process comes along.

At the moment, we do not know for sure what our role would be. We hope to be involved in setting the environmental outcomes, for example, but that is not explicit in the bill, either.

Fiona Hyslop

Of course, the bill just talks about consulting the Scottish ministers and not about seeking consent. That might be an issue that you will want to take further, convener. However, I am conscious of the time, so I will hand back to you.

Thank you very much. I think that Jackie Dunbar has a question to ask.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

Good morning. I was going to ask a question about the consultation, but the issue was covered in the answers that were given to Fiona Hyslop’s questions. I would therefore like to ask Jo Green and John Kerr another question. What involvement have SEPA and NatureScot had in the development of the environmental common frameworks, and what will be entailed in the future?

Jo Green

That is an area in which we have been more actively involved. As I said before, we are used to joint working at both the UK and Scottish levels. We did that as part of the EU, too.

We have rules and mechanisms that support joined-up working under the common frameworks. For example, we are a core member of the radioactive substances policy group, which was established in September 2018 and which provides a forum for the review and development of proposals for change with respect to policy, strategies, legislation, regulatory standards and good practice on radioactive substances. That forum provides national oversight and facilitates the exchange of information and views on that policy area. It is not a decision-making body—we are a practitioner. SEPA has a number of such roles across a number of areas, such as best available techniques, in the different groups and networks that we engage with under the common frameworks.

We operate under the common frameworks. An example of that relates to the UK emissions trading scheme. Since 2018, we have worked in collaboration with the Scottish Government, the UK Government and the other devolved Administrations and regulatory bodies to plan, consult and implement the UK ETS in Scotland. We are a member of a number of working groups to facilitate that. SEPA has supported the Scottish Government through the change of governance around the UK ETS, which was previously a reserved matter. We helped to support a smooth transition from the EU ETS into the new UK ETS in 2021 for around 100 operators, including two aviation operators that are covered by the scheme in Scotland. That is an example of what we are doing at a practical level under the common frameworks.

That sounds like an awful lot to be getting on with. I put the same question to John Kerr.

John Kerr

We have not been involved in any of those areas, because none of those common frameworks covers our remit. SEPA has been the lead for all that.

The next questions will come from Liam Kerr.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Good morning. I want to change the topic to water quality and sewage overflows. Jo Green, only 10 per cent of sewage overflows are monitored in Scotland, whereas 80 per cent are monitored in England. Why is there that disparity? Should that be changed?

Jo Green

Over the past 20 years, SEPA has made significant progress, in general, in improving rivers under a wide range of pressures through targeted regulation and partnership work. More than 2,000 Scottish water courses are classed as “high” or “good” under the water framework directive.

Our combined sewer overflows are an integral part of Scotland’s sewerage system. They are designed to discharge at times of heavy rainfall to prevent sewage from backing up and flooding houses, and SEPA regulates discharges to the environment, including discharges from CSOs.

Climate change is leading to an increased frequency of high-intensity rainfall events, and there is a risk that the number of unsatisfactory sewer overflows will increase. It will be neither effective nor, in some cases, feasible for Scottish Water to continue to build bigger pipes and storage tanks for combined sewer overflows under the ground. As a result, we are working with local councils and Scottish Water on new approaches to managing rainfall that use blue-green infrastructure to absorb rainfall, reduce flood risk and minimise sewer overflow spills. That is the bigger picture.

I will give a bit more detail. We are taking a targeted and prioritised approach in Scotland. There are 3,667 combined sewer overflows in the 50,000km of the network—

Liam Kerr

Forgive me for interrupting. My question might not have translated well. I asked specifically about the 10 per cent of sewage overflows that are monitored, which is markedly less than the proportion being monitored in England. Why is there that disparity? Why are we monitoring only 10 per cent of overflows? Is it your view that we should be monitoring many more?

Jo Green

Monitoring is really important. In December 2021, Scottish Water published a route map for improving urban waters. As part of that, Scottish Water is committed to installing approximately 1,000 monitors on network and treatment work CSOs that discharge into the highest priority waters. There is a prioritisation approach. That will improve understanding of how the CSOs are operating and will provide transparent information about their performance. Scottish Water is currently responsible for 3,667 CSOs, of which 34 are being monitored. There have been improvements, and we are taking a prioritised approach to monitoring.

Liam Kerr

If only 10 per cent of overflows are monitored, and given that overflows have increased by 70 per cent since 2017, to about 563,000 hours, does that suggest that the problem of sewage overflows is actually far worse than the data currently suggests?

Jo Green

We already have data on that. As I outlined, a lot of work to improve monitoring has been planned, with up to 1,340 monitors, so we will have better information over time.

Liam Kerr

I will stick to the same topic in my question to John Kerr. In October, The Courier reported that raw sewage had been pumped into Loch Leven. At the time, NatureScot called that a “serious pollution incident”. The report asked the minister for a response, but she appears to have declined. A spokesman talked about historical investment and some general on-going investment. Given that incident, and the statistics that I just put to Jo Green, is it NatureScot’s view that the issue is not being taken seriously enough? Do you think that anything will change?

John Kerr

I am not completely familiar with the incident at Loch Leven, although, historically, quite a lot of pollution has affected that vulnerable protected area and a national nature reserve that we are quite involved with. I cannot answer the specifics of your question, but I might be able to come back to the committee on that if necessary. It is not an area that I am familiar with.

Liam Kerr

I will slightly rephrase my question. NatureScot called it a “serious pollution incident”. Does NatureScot think that we are getting sewage overflows right in Scotland? Given that the evidence shows that there has been a 70 per cent increase in overflows in the past five years, does NatureScot not have serious concerns about that?

10:15  

John Kerr

We do not see that issue impacting all that often on the protected areas that we are involved in monitoring. However, as I have said, Loch Leven is a bit of an exception to that. We do not have a lot of information about the effects on protected sites and species, so we do not have a firm view about the effect on our interests.

Liam Kerr

Some might suggest that the lack of information is due to the fact that only 10 per cent of the overflows are monitored, but the committee will no doubt discuss that.

Mark Roberts, ESS has set out several priorities and has carried out eight baseline evidence reviews. Do those baseline evidence reviews incorporate your priorities of

“Progress on climate change adaptation, including planning for extreme weather events”

and/or the assessment of

“Sewage discharge into the aquatic environment”?

If not, when do you anticipate having those baselines?

Mark Roberts

You are absolutely right. We did those reviews of the evidence across the range of our remit and published them over the past year. The impact of sewage on the aquatic environment will be one of our work priorities, and we will look at what is going on. We are engaging with Jo Green’s colleagues at SEPA and with colleagues in Scottish Water to look at what data is available, and that will be one of the priorities that we take forward. Obviously, the overlap with the impact of the changing climate and changing rainfall regimes will form part of that work. That is quite a long answer for “yes”.

Very good. Is there an issue with basing those reviews only on publicly available data, given, for example, the lack of sewage overflow data, which we examined earlier?

Mark Roberts

We want to explore with Scottish Water whether it has any additional data from its longer-term monitoring or greater range of monitoring that it could look at, and we will also speak to SEPA about the prioritisation of the most vulnerable and sensitive water environments. An on-going piece of work for us is to explore the full range of available data.

The Convener

I think that Liam Kerr might have some further questions on a slightly different subject, but before we come to those, I have a question for Jo Green on this subject. Sewage discharge is an interesting issue. Did SEPA lose all its records of every sewage discharge into a watercourse in Scotland? It collected that data, so do you have those records? If so, can you publish them, and do you monitor them?

Jo Green

That is a very specific question. I will take it away and come back to the committee on that, as I have committed to do on data more generally.

The Convener

That is fine. Thank you—I will take that.

There are some questions on changing weather and extreme weather conditions. How are SEPA and NatureScot monitoring and reacting to extreme weather conditions? We seem to get massive downfalls of rain, which overload every system and watercourse, and then periods of drought, as we had this summer. My understanding is that a lot of the restrictions on water abstraction were in place because, in some cases, waters were being transferred from one catchment to another, based on legislation from 1953. Will you very briefly explain to the committee whether the system of abstraction from watercourses is operating effectively, given the extreme weather conditions? Should we review the system to take into account extreme droughts? I will bring in John Kerr and then Jo Green.

John Kerr

Again, that is quite a specific question. I have not been involved in that. We do not routinely monitor at that level the impact of extreme weather on, for example, protected habitats and species. We have had a couple of cases in which extreme weather has had an impact. For example, when there are extremely low water levels and high temperatures, there can be an impact on freshwater pearl mussels or salmon trying to enter rivers. That has led to a couple of cases in which we have had to see what emergency works we can carry out. However, we do not have much experience of water transfer between catchments. I think that SEPA will know more about that.

The Convener

Before I come to Jo Green, I make it clear that the reason why I ask the question is that I have an interest in and knowledge of the issue—I know that 40 per cent of the River Spey is abstracted and sent down to Fort William, which puts extreme pressure on water resources. I make no bones about the fact that I benefit from those water resources, as they provide drinking water for the lower parts of the Spey catchment. Given that water levels were so low this year, there was an almost impossible situation. I therefore wonder whether you are on top of abstractions and whether you think the old legislation relating to them is right in today’s modern age.

Jo Green

On water scarcity and climate change, this summer was the driest in the east since 1940, so we are starting to experience the impacts of climate change. SEPA manages water scarcity events in line with “Scotland’s National Water Scarcity Plan”, which is based on five levels. The action within those levels is informed by our monitoring network. With severe water scarcity of the type that we experienced, the action moves to suspending abstractions. We had an unprecedented situation in Scotland over the summer. At that severe end, we start to suspend abstractions.

As a general point, such conditions will become more frequent and more severe. England has more experience of managing that type of weather. The key message is about the resilience of businesses and resilience within catchments, which is about the storage and efficient use of water. It is also about the ability to do more to join up within catchments to share water. From this summer, there is a lot of learning for a lot of people on how we approach things in future and on resilience. It was the first time that Scotland had faced such a situation on that scale.

The Convener

I think that the first time was in 1978, when we had a very dry summer—or perhaps it was 1976; I can never remember which year it was. As far as I am aware, we have had catchment management plans for 12 years, and it appears that they are not moving forward. Maybe we can develop that conversation later.

The next question is from Monica Lennon.

That was before I was born, convener—but maybe I should not have said that.

Now I am feeling my age.

Monica Lennon

I turn to the issue of waste. What are the key challenges to and priorities for ensuring policy coherence in delivering waste targets and policies in the context of a wider shift to a circular economy and achieving net zero emissions? I will let Jo Green catch her breath, so maybe Mark Roberts wants to answer. The ESS strategic plan has proposals on illegal disposal and management of waste, progress against waste and recycling targets and developing a circular economy.

Mark Roberts

Briefly, that is one of the priority areas for our future monitoring and analytical work. We are also conscious that the Scottish Government is planning to introduce in the near future a circular economy bill, which will obviously change the governance arrangements in that respect. We will be keeping in very close contact with Scottish Government colleagues on that.

That is probably all that I can say at the moment. We do not have any active plans to carry out investigatory work on waste but, as I said in response to Liam Kerr, that is one of the areas that we will be taking forward over the next few years.

Monica Lennon

That is helpful. We have had some discussion with the cabinet secretary on the illegal disposal of waste on quite a massive scale and the role of organised crime in that. Do you have anything to say to the committee about that? How much of a concern is it?

Mark Roberts

It is absolutely a concern. It can affect individual communities in a significant way. Again, we will be drawing together a broader picture of what is going on in that area of policy, and we can of course always respond to representations from individuals, organisations and communities. If they came to us, that would trigger our doing some investigatory work.

That is good to know. Over to you, Jo.

Jo Green

We are strongly supportive of a circular economy and we will continue to work with Government on that. After all, we have to manage the fallout of not having it.

The issue cuts across a range of SEPA’s interests, one of which is the involvement of serious organised crime in illegal waste disposal and landfilling in Scotland. That has been—and will continue to need to be—a significant focus for us, working with partners, because it is a significant issue in Scotland.

More broadly, we are operating on a number of levels on this issue. There is the transition in respect of landfilling in Scotland, and we are working with the Government on the new deposit return scheme to support the move to a circular economy. We are working on this on a number of fronts, and we are strongly supportive of the circular economy and preventative approaches, given the significance of the issue in Scotland.

Monica Lennon

Sticking with you for a second, Jo, I know that you will be aware that the amount of Scottish household waste that was landfilled in 2021 increased from the previous year and that it was the first time in 10 years that there had been no decrease. Are you able to give some explanation for that?

Jo Green

I will come back to the committee on that specific point, if that is okay.

That would be good. Does NatureScot have a view on the question?

John Kerr

It is not really covered by our core remit. Obviously, we support a circular economy and any initiatives to prevent or reduce the illegal dumping of waste in some of our interests, but it is not core to our work.

Thank you.

The Convener

I will call Mark Ruskell to ask a specific question in a minute and I will then call other members to ask about finance, but first I want to make abundantly clear what is clearly set out in my entry in the register of members’ interests: I farm in Speyside and have an interest in a fishery in the River Spey. My questions were more general rather than being specifically about the Spey, but I want to ensure that there is no dubiety or question about this and to make it clear that that is where my knowledge comes from.

Mark Ruskell

In its early work, ESS has had a very welcome focus on air quality and on whether we have the right monitoring and regulatory frameworks in place to tackle poor air quality. I note that one of the report’s recommendations is that we need better monitoring, with bodies that can carry out such monitoring and then take very quick enforcement action over air quality breaches.

I ask Mark Roberts to reflect on that and Jo Green to reflect on whether SEPA has an active role to play in that work. Is an active conversation taking place about how the remit of a body—or bodies—could be strengthened or changed as a result of that ESS recommendation?

10:30  

Mark Roberts

The recommendations in our improvement report on air quality are under consideration by the Scottish Government, and it has six months to come back to the Parliament with what it proposes to do to respond to them. We have not yet had discussions with the Scottish Government on what its options are or what its thoughts might be about the monitoring body. I will not steal Jo Green’s thunder, but SEPA is obviously one option as it has the strength and power. However, we need to work through the discussions between SEPA and the Scottish Government during the next few months.

Okay. Jo, do you have any thoughts on that?

Jo Green

My thoughts are similar to those of Mark Roberts. We support the recommendations in the ESS report. SEPA has had a significant role in data and air quality and in supporting local authorities and others on low-emission zones so, as Mark said, that needs to be explored.

Natalie Don (Renfrewshire North and West) (SNP)

Good morning, panel. I have been waiting patiently. My first question is directed to Jo Green and John Kerr. How are reductions in budgets impacting SEPA and NatureScot at a time when they are required to take on additional regulatory and statutory functions resulting from EU exit and the demands of tackling the climate and biodiversity crises?

John Kerr

It is challenging. We continue to speak to the Scottish Government about tackling the nature and climate emergencies, which are our core priorities at the moment.

The budgetary situation in the coming years means that we are looking closely at how we can deliver some of our regulatory work and better utilise staff on cases where we are properly adding value, rather than just providing assurance to other competent authorities. We are also trialling an online process that uses artificial intelligence to help and provide more advice and information about specific cases. We hope that that will take some of the pressure off some of our staff and provide more clarity and information to regulators and developers. The whole purpose of that is to utilise our staff better and become a little bit more efficient. However, it is challenging.

We have been lucky to secure additional peatland action funding and nature restoration funding, which are separate from our core funding. As I said, however, we continue to speak to the Scottish Government about that.

Jo Green

We are conscious that the public sector faces resource restraints. We face uncertainty around that, and SEPA is not alone. Our two sources of funding are grant in aid and charging, and for this year grant in aid funding came largely from what we call a flat-cash settlement. That means that we got the same amount of grant in aid funding, but this year we have had to absorb increased pressures relating to pensions and, significantly, pay, so there are pressures on that funding.

We understand that the Government is in a difficult position as it does not have the certainty for the future that would allow it to plan what the likely level of grant in aid funding will be. As ever, it is therefore good to see the focus on environment in the programme for government; that is a good thing.

The second piece of that for us is the capital allocation from the Scottish Government. We have greater certainty about the capital allocation for future years for SEPA, which is welcome. That is partly to support the reform of services and digital reform. We are comfortable at the moment with the level of capital allocation that has been committed to us.

I will make a third, broader point. We are one public body within a bigger picture, which is the scale of the transition and adaptation that Scotland needs to go through in the coming years. We cannot all rely on public money, so what are the different funding mechanisms that we might have for investment in the future? They might involve bringing a bit of public money together with private funding, but what are the mechanisms for shifting the approach to investment and the transition within Scotland? I know that the Government is considering that as well.

Natalie Don

I direct my next question to Mark Roberts. I understand that the ESS budget has increased, and ESS has stated that the increase is to cover operating costs and staff. Will you confirm whether ESS has now recruited its full complement of staff and whether it anticipates that it will require any additional budget for operating at full capacity?

Mark Roberts

We are still in the process of recruiting up to what we aim to have as our full complement. Indeed, interviews are going on for posts this week. Our full complement was identified as 24 and we are still working through that. The process has been slightly slower than we hoped, but we are comfortable with our current level of resourcing.

The overwhelming majority of our expenditure is staff costs and we are comfortable with where we are at, given the current level of demand for our work. Of course, I make the caveat that, given everything that we have discussed about the changing legislative environment, demand might look different in the future.

Fiona Hyslop

I point out that I am a nature champion for Scotland’s extraordinary blanket bogs.

How might a cut to NatureScot’s capital budget impact its ability to achieve targets for peatland restoration and other areas of work? Peatland restoration is key to us meeting our climate change and biodiversity crisis targets.

John Kerr

Our capital budget is part of our overall grant in aid and it is not spent on matters such as peatland restoration. We administer the separate peatland action fund, which is the key fund for peatland restoration work. Our capital budget is spent on our capital assets such as our information technology systems, vehicles and capital items on our estate—our offices and a large extent of national and other nature reserves. The change to the capital budget that the Government proposes will not have an impact on our ability to fund peatland restoration work because that comes from a separate fund.

Will that ring fencing of peatland restoration protect that important fund?

John Kerr

It should do and I hope that it will. Ring fencing the money is probably the best way to get us towards that because it is so important. That is the ambition.

Liam Kerr

I have a brief supplementary question for Jo Green. Natalie Don asked an important question on the subject, but I am not sure that I heard the answer.

Jo, you said that SEPA is comfortable with its capital allocation, but I note that the capital spending review cuts it by 53 per cent, which is around £3 million, and the overall budget allocation represents a real-terms cut of about 7.3 per cent. I put to you the question that I think Natalie Don was getting at: how will such a cut impact on SEPA’s ability to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, or will it not do that?

Jo Green

I am not familiar with those figures. The figures that I have for the capital budget are £4.1 million for this year, £6.1 million for next year and £6.4 million the year after. We might need to follow up with the committee after the meeting on where the figures come from and provide any clarification that we can. At this stage, however, we are comfortable with what we know about the capital budget that has been allocated to us.

The Convener

Thank you, Jo, for volunteering to provide that extra information. There have been one or two offers to provide further information to the committee and we look forward to receiving that in due course.

I thank all the witnesses for taking part and sharing their expertise with us. The committee will go on to discuss the evidence that they have given us later in the meeting. We will write to the Scottish Government on the common frameworks in the near future and the clerks will ensure that members see that letter before it goes.

We are all getting used to Zoom meetings, but when the technology does not work at quite the speed that we hope it to, it sometimes lets us down. I thank everyone for working through it.

I will suspend the meeting briefly to allow a change of witnesses.

10:42 Meeting suspended.  

10:46 On resuming—