Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Water Environment, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Dumfries City Status


Water Environment

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

I remind members that Covid-related measures are in place and that face coverings should be worn when you are moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is a statement by Màiri McAllan on protecting and improving the water environment. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Minister for Environment and Land Reform (Màiri McAllan)

A plentiful supply of good fresh water is essential for life. It provides safe drinking water, sterile health facilities and food that is safe to eat. It is key to our environment through supporting a rich diversity of wildlife and plants, and it supports the sustainable growth of our economy. Indeed, our biggest food and drink export, whisky, takes water and turns it into the water of life.

Scotland is renowned worldwide for the quality of our rivers, lochs and seas, and our natural environment attracts millions of visitors every year. It would be too easy to take that invaluable national asset for granted. We must manage our water environment effectively to meet our social, economic and environmental needs.

River basin management planning allows us to do that. I announce today that we are publishing the third river basin management plans, which set out objectives and actions up to 2027. The plans are underpinned by scientific evidence, with action being targeted where it can have the greatest environmental benefit. I thank the Scottish Environment Protection Agency for its expertise in producing an ambitious yet achievable programme of work.

Before I set out what the plans will deliver, let me take a moment to note Scotland’s position today on water quality. SEPA’s most recent classification indicates that 66 per cent of Scotland’s overall water environment is already in good condition. In comparison, the average across Europe is around 45 per cent, with many areas being significantly lower, including our nearest neighbour, England, where the rate is just 16 per cent.

The overall classification is built on four separate themes: water quality, water quantity, fish migration and physical condition. I will address each in turn.

Water quality is already at its highest-ever level, with 87 per cent of our water environment meeting good standards. Our aim is to reach 92 per cent by 2027. Success in that regard reflects improvements. For example, better rural land management is reducing diffuse pollution from activities including spreading of slurry and pesticides.

Improvements have also been made through Scottish Water’s investment programme. Our public water supply and waste water treatment system is one of the largest industrial processes in Scotland, and the industry has dramatically reduced its environmental footprint in the past few decades. Since 2010, Scottish Water has worked with SEPA to upgrade 104 waste water treatment works and 279 storm overflows, with investment of £686 million.

However, there is more to do. That is why Scottish Water is publishing its “Improving Urban Waters—Route Map”, which, backed by £500 million of investment, sets out actions to continue improving Scotland’s waste water network.

Over the next six years, Scottish Water will invest approximately £150 million to improve the remaining 40 waste water treatment works and 24 priority storm overflows, which will benefit around 400km of Scotland’s rivers and lochs. The route map also sets out how it will develop solutions for another 235 storm overflows by 2031, which is also backed by £150 million. Scottish Water will also improve monitoring and public communication on more than 1,000 highest-priority overflows by 2024, with a further £50 million of funding. Those are ambitious plans that are backed by substantial sums.

One reason why we are able to protect and improve our water environment effectively is that the key bodies that are involved are national and public entities. Scotland’s water—through Scottish Water—is still in Scotland’s hands, which allows broad investment and democratic leadership. We also have, in SEPA, a public independent regulatory body. That synergy allows for challenge and coherence.

In recent months, Scottish Water and SEPA have undertaken a rigorous and balanced assessment of environmental evidence against a backdrop of understandable public concern about spills and debris, which have grown in recent years as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of storms. Of course, we also need to reduce the amount of rainwater that enters our sewer systems in the first place. The next 10 years will see a shift towards more blue-green infrastructure and away from impermeable concrete.

We have been considering urban areas, but rainfall in rural areas can also cause pollution. SEPA has built a strong working relationship with the agricultural industry and has visited around 6,000 farms since 2010. That work will continue alongside the introduction of new Government rules on slurry to help farmers to contribute to air, water and bathing water quality.

Speaking of bathing water quality, I point out that Scotland’s 85 bathing waters are now in the best condition since 2015, when tighter standards were introduced: 99 per cent of our bathing waters now pass environmental standards, with more than ever reaching “excellent” status. Two weeks ago, I was delighted to visit Ayr beach as its hard-earned step change to a “good” classification was confirmed. A lot of work was involved in that.

Water quantity sits alongside water quality. SEPA monitors water quantity to identify use and availability of water for all its vital functions. The flows and levels are generally at good condition in 90 per cent of Scotland’s lochs and rivers. However, climate change is affecting that. This summer we had the fourth-driest spell since 1884, which has caused scarcity in parts of Scotland. Over the next six years, SEPA will work with businesses that abstract water to help them to switch to more water-resilient systems.

Fish migration is the third pillar of Scotland’s overall water quality picture. Migratory species—in particular, Atlantic salmon and sea trout—are iconic for Scotland but face significant challenges from a number of pressures, including climate change, with droughts and higher temperatures threatening their survival.

In years gone by, economic development meant that dams and weirs were constructed. Those restricted the passage of migratory fish and prevented them from accessing good-quality habitat. The river basin management plans that have been published today commit to removing or easing 244 otherwise impassable man-made barriers to fish migration. Those actions will help to ensure that by 2027 99 per cent of our water environment facilitates fish migration.

The river basin management plans set out how we will work collaboratively to restore urban rivers and improve management of surface water during storms. Through the water environment fund, we have already helped to restore a number of urban river areas and have created blue-green corridors and spaces for active travel. The plans provide for SEPA, working with local authorities, to develop a number of new restoration projects to improve the ecological condition of rivers in Scotland’s towns and cities. That includes 17 projects that are already in development.

When it comes to Scotland’s water, we have so much to be proud of. Around two thirds of our water environment is in good condition, which is higher than the European average and significantly higher than the figure for our UK neighbours. Scotland’s bathing waters are at their best ever, with 99 per cent passing standards and more than ever assessed as excellent. Since 2010, our public water company has invested nearly £700 million in upgrading waste water treatment works and storm overflows while keeping customers’ bills the lowest in the United Kingdom.

However, we are determined and poised to do more. We will invest more than half a billion pounds in Scotland’s waste water network. We will continue to promote best farming practice in 57 priority catchments and we are introducing new slurry management regulations. In the next five years, 244 impassable man-made barriers to fish migration will be eased. Around £5 million per year will be spent, through the water environment fund, to remove redundant structures on rivers and to create urban green space.

The plans that are being published today will together seek to address all remaining major sources of pollution over the next six years. All that is in addition to our multi-annual £0.25 billion investment in peatland restoration, £42 million a year and an additional £150 million over the next five years on flood risk management, and a new budget of £11.7 million for coastal change adaptation. That is all taking place while we continue to tackle plastic pollution through the deposit return scheme, by banning harmful single-use plastics and by developing a marine litter strategy with a focus on microplastics.

After a decade and more of co-ordinated and concerted action, backed by hundreds of millions of pounds of investment, Scotland has a water environment the quality of which outperforms that of our neighbours. However, we are not complacent. Our plans identify and will solve persistent historical issues, while rising to new challenges such as climate change. I hope that we can all get behind those ambitions; I look forward to working with Parliament to achieve them.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. It will be helpful if members who wish to ask a question press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

I thank the minister for advance sight of her statement. Scotland’s waterways—be it our seas, beaches, canals, lochs or rivers—are important for our wellbeing and our environment, as well as having a significant impact on our economy. Tourism, fishing and aquaculture are all major contributors to the Scottish economy and, as such, support many livelihoods and communities, especially in our rural areas.

It is little wonder, therefore, that Scottish salmon farmers were warning recently that the Greens in coalition with the Scottish National Party would be catastrophic for our industry, especially after the Greens pledged to shut down open-pen salmon farming and to stop further growth in that sector.

Further concerns have been raised about the developments that are planned in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, some of which, we understand, have been given the green light without an environmental impact assessment, which seems at odds with protecting such an important ecosystem. Local residents are saying that their voices are not being heard.

With the supposed phasing out of landfill in Scotland being pushed back from this year, I must again raise the issue of Tarbolton landfill site and the continuing saga of significant quantities of leachate seeping out into the surrounding waterways, which has been happening for several years now without a resolution.

How is the Scottish Government constructively working with our aquaculture sector to ensure the continued and sustainable growth of salmon farming in Scotland? What safeguards does the Scottish Government have in place to ensure that any developments at Loch Lomond and similar sites are rigorously scrutinised, to protect such important natural beauty spots? Finally, what is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that waterway pollution such as that which is happening at Tarbolton landfill site will not happen at any other sites as they are shut down?

Màiri McAllan

Aquaculture is a vital part of our economy, and the Scottish Government is absolutely agreed on supporting it, but we—including the industry—would all agree that it must be done in a way that is as environmentally friendly as possible.

The member will know that, under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011, SEPA is responsible for regulating organic waste and chemical discharges from fish farms. In June 2019, SEPA introduced its new framework for aquaculture, which tightens the sea bed protections and standards for fish farms, uses more accurate computer modelling to assess development proposals and requires increased monitoring by operators of their effects on the environment.

In 2020, we transferred responsibility for the authorisation of discharges of medicine from wellboats from Marine Scotland to SEPA, meaning that SEPA can now regulate such medicine discharges holistically. I have the responsibility in Government for overseeing those matters, and I am in frequent discussion with SEPA and the industry on them. I work closely with my colleague Mairi Gougeon on the other aspects of aquaculture that are important to our rural economy.

I agree that there are concerns about Tarbolton landfill site and risks to surface water quality. That is why I am pleased to say that, with funding from the Scottish Government, SEPA has procured work to reduce the impact of Tarbolton landfill site on nearby water courses. Environmental specialists are undertaking detailed design work and are expected to begin construction of measures to prevent waste water from leaving the site in spring 2022. As I have done before, I commit to continuing to work with Brian Whittle. I know that he has a close interest in those matters, as I do, and I will be sure to keep him updated on that work.

I will allow my colleagues in the planning ministerial portfolio to address the matter of Loch Lomond with the member, but I assure him that the environmental impacts of all planning applications in Scotland are of concern to me and I keep them closely in my sights.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the minister for advance sight of her statement. Despite the positive picture that she painted, we know that sewage spills into Scotland’s rivers have increased by 40 per cent in the past five years, albeit that Scottish Water is required to monitor less than 3 per cent of overflows. Sewage overflow has become the norm rather than an emergency release valve during a storm, so any investment in improving overflows is welcome, but improving 6 per cent of nearly 4,000 overflows—just a third of those that are classed as unsatisfactory by Scottish Water—over the next decade does not go far enough.

As well as inadequate funding of infrastructure, we are also seeing the defunding of the regulator. The recent Green-SNP budget cut SEPA’s budget again, this time by £2.1 million. If the Government claims to be taking the nature emergency seriously, will the minister tell us how the Government can justify cutting the budget of the very agency that is responsible for enforcement?

Is it not time for tough, legally-binding targets to end sewage pollution backed by properly funded enforcement and infrastructure?

Màiri McAllan

I thank the member for a really important question. I point out that combined sewage overflow is a fundamentally important part of a water system. Its purpose is to prevent backup into homes and businesses during periods of heavy rainfall, which are increasingly occurring as the effects of climate change continue to bite. I also point out that the overflows are heavily licensed and that, when that is the case, an overflow, in and of itself, does not necessarily cause environmental damage.

Let me make clear what we are announcing today. Over the past decade, nearly £600 million of investment by Scotland’s public water company and independent regulation by SEPA have led to 104 waste water treatment works and 279 storm overflows being improved. That has taken us to a situation in which 66 per cent of water in Scotland is of good quality compared with 16 per cent in our nearest neighbour and the European average of 45 per cent.

Not complacent, and keen to rise to the challenges posed by climate change, we are investing a further £500 million over the next five or six years to continue that work. We will improve all the remaining waste water treatment works and, crucially, tackle in stages the highest priority storm overflows.

I understand the public’s concern about what enters their water environment and I take it very seriously. We have a lot to be proud of in what we have achieved thus far, but what we are setting out today is about identifying and tackling all remaining sources of pollution in what is already a very ecologically sound situation in Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Before I call the next member to ask a question, I point out that, although I have given front-bench members and the minister a bit of latitude, if we have more succinct questions and answers, we can get in every MSP who is seeking to ask a question.

Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a sitting councillor on South Ayrshire Council.

I thank the minister for the very positive update and the welcome news from SEPA about improvement works at the Tarbolton landfill site, which is adjacent to my constituency. It has been extremely concerning that the water quality at Ayr south beach has been classified as “poor” for four consecutive years. I put on record my thanks for all the collaborative hard work that has gone on since 2018 to improve the water quality. The water quality has been classified as “good” this year, which is very welcome. I also thank local groups including Ayr Rotary club, Alloway Rotary club and the don’t trash Ayr group—

Ms Brown, could we have a question, please?

What steps can the Scottish Government take to assist in continuing to build on that work and to ensure that protections are strengthened for our beaches, beach users and marine life?

Màiri McAllan

Like the member, I was absolutely delighted with Ayr’s classification. It now joins the 99 per cent of Scotland’s bathing waters that are passing our rigorous environmental standards. I visited Ayr and spoke to Scottish Government officials, Scottish Water, SEPA, NFU Scotland and South Ayrshire Council. I thank them all again for their efforts, and I thank the member for her efforts in her elected roles.

In addition to the intensive work that has already been carried out, SEPA and Scottish Water will, in partnership with the council, continue to improve the sewerage systems serving homes in the area and connect them to the public sewer system where that is possible. That work is backed by £3 million of funding.

More widely, we need to encourage the public to properly dispose of litter and not to flush inappropriate items, including wet wipes and cotton buds, which can block the sewers and cause spills. We are working to support and promote the development of the fine to flush standard, which will help in that regard. We were the first Administration in the UK to ban beads and buds, and we are moving on to address more problematic single-use plastics including cutlery and straws. We are also developing the deposit return scheme, which will combat beach litter, and tackling microplastic pollution.

In all those ways, the huge achievement at Ayr should be sustained by the actions that we and our partner agencies are taking.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Will the minister outline what funding and support is available to landowners, land managers and groups to tackle invasive non-native species on our river banks? How will her plans ensure that, in the drive to plant trees, we do not see the inappropriate and damaging plantations close to rivers that we saw in the 1950s and 1960s?

Màiri McAllan

The beauty of a statement on water quality is the breadth of questions that it can attract. I will get back to the member, if he does not mind, on what specific funding is available, because I do not have that information at my fingertips.

I can tell him that the Scottish Government’s forestry grant scheme has a section that is dedicated to the appropriate riparian planting along river banks that is essential for keeping water clean and cool, that is important for species and that is very much aligned with the biodiversity and climate targets that we are pursuing. Our forestry grant scheme is already working hard, and I will get back to the member with some information on the specific funding streams that are available to landowners.

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

I congratulate the minister on her first statement and the Scottish Government on the ambition that it is showing. Figures from the river Almond action group suggest that the Harthill waste water treatment works, in my constituency, is failing to meet water framework directive requirements and that there were 256 sewage spills into the river Almond, via the How burn, in 2019. Can the minister advise whether the welcome investments that she has announced today will help to bring the Harthill works up to licence standard and help to achieve “good” water quality status for the Almond by 2027?

Màiri McAllan

I am acutely aware of the concerns of residents and the member about the position with regard to the river Almond. The river basin management plans that I have announced today include work to upgrade seven waste water treatment works on the river Almond, with the aim of improving water quality to “good” status by 2027. I am pleased to confirm that the Harthill waste water treatment works is one of those seven.

More generally on the river Almond, the Scottish Water “Improving Urban Waters—Route Map” will address any high-priority sewer overflows in the area by 2027. I know that that will be of interest to the member and to all those in the area who have campaigned for improved water. I want them to know that the Scottish Government has listened and that we are seeking to act.

Bathing water is an issue that has occasionally been raised with me with regard to the river Almond. I put on record that any application for bathing water status will be assessed by the bathing water designation review panel, whose advice normally comes to ministers for consideration in January and February each year.

Monica Lennon is joining us remotely.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the statement, because constituents in my region are very concerned about the environmental and health impacts that are being discussed. Almost 17 million cubic metres of sewage was pumped into Hamilton waste water treatment works alone between 2016 and 2020, so it is a big concern locally. I have asked the minister this before and she was asked again by a colleague today: will she agree to bring in binding targets?

Wet wipes were mentioned in relation to plastic pollution, but will she commit to bringing in a ban on plastic-based wet wipes in the near future?

Màiri McAllan

I will address the initial part of the question by repeating the three points that I made in response to Colin Smyth.

The spilling of combined sewer overflows, in and of itself, is not an environmental hazard. Where overflows are heavily licensed, it is very dilute and SEPA regulates it. It is only when there is a problem with the system that a problem arises. We accept that problems arise; I have pointed to our 10 years of investment and the improvements that we have already made. I am now pointing to the next five years of improvements, specifically in relation to those overflows that have been identified by SEPA as having a problematic impact on the water environment. I assure the member that that work is happening, it will be monitored and ministers will get an annual report on progress towards the targets that I have set out.

On plastic pollution and wet wipes, we are working on a UK-wide basis on the fine to flush standard. I understand that there are reserved powers involved. That is now the ministerial responsibility of my colleague Lorna Slater, but I take a very close interest in it.

One thing to highlight and warn members about is the insidious impact of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which could prevent Scotland from moving faster on some of these environmental issues. We could be held back should the rest of the UK not choose to take the same direction.

We are working on a four-nations basis on the wet wipes issue and I will be glad to keep the member updated on that.

Before I ask the next MSP to pose their question, I ask members for more succinct answers, please; otherwise, not all the MSPs who wish to ask a question will be able to do so.

Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

As the minister will know, my constituency has a well-known water border, the River Clyde, which has significant links to Scotland’s shipbuilding past and present. However, because of the industrial past of the Clyde and surrounding areas, the river has been deeply affected. Can the minister outline plans to prevent future contamination, in order to improve the water quality of the Clyde, particularly for habitats and biodiversity?

Màiri McAllan

That is an excellent question, and I have an interest in it as a constituency MSP for Clydesdale, which the Clyde runs through, although people often forget that.

Much has been done to clean up the Clyde in recent decades but, of course, some pockets of industrial contamination remain. I welcome the work of Clyde Gateway in tackling problems such as the residues of chromium in the Polmadie Burn. Between 2010 and 2021, £610 million has been invested in waste water assets, to ensure that sewage is treated properly before it comes anywhere near the Clyde.

For context, until recently, the river was in the worst category for water quality—the bad category—but I am delighted that, in recent years, it has moved up the scale and is now rated as good in a number of aspects. One symbol of that is that I recently had the pleasure of attending salmon school on the banks of the Clyde at Crossford in Clydesdale, where the children learn about the return of salmon to the Clyde. They were very keen to tell me that, with the salmon being included in Glasgow’s coat of arms, they saw the return of the species as the manifestation of “Let Glasgow flourish”.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

The one figure that is missing from the minister’s statement is the one that prompted us to ask for that statement last month. As The Ferret revealed, last year alone,

“sewage spilled into Scotland’s waterways more than 12,000 times”

and, while Ian Blackford tore into UK ministers about the situation in England, officials here admitted privately that Scotland is “way behind”. It is clear that the environment watchdog’s first concern was not the health of our streams, rivers and communities but its own reputation. Will the minister commit to annual reporting of sewage spillages? Can she tell us whether the plan is to eliminate those spillages or set a specific target?

Màiri McAllan

Presiding Officer, I know that you asked for brevity, but please allow me a chance to debunk some of what the member has just said.

I will address the issue of the freedom of information request. I am not criticising the process, which is exceptionally important, but when answers are taken out of context, meaning can be lost. In the answer to the freedom of information request, reference to “unacceptably high” relates to just six out of 350 storm overflows, not to the overall system. Reference to being “way behind”, as the member quoted, was not about the frequency of spills, nor the effect on the environment, but about monitoring alone. On that point, in years gone by, Scottish Water took a strategic decision to focus investment on improving, not monitoring, the overflow problems. I think that that approach has borne fruit, given that 66 per cent of our water environment in Scotland is now of good quality. I have set out how we are not resting on our laurels but are working to improve some of the most problematic storm overflows.

On the question of elimination—

Minister, I really need to allow other members to have a chance to speak.

We will not eliminate overflow, because it is a vital part of the system.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

As an MSP whose constituency covers part of the Clyde, I confirm that it has improved tremendously throughout my lifetime.

Will the minister confirm that she said that 66 per cent of the water environment in Scotland is good, compared with 16 per cent in England? Does that not show that we are definitely getting something right?

Màiri McAllan

Our figure of 66 per cent for a good water environment, compared with England’s 16 per cent, speaks for itself. We share a lot of challenges with our neighbours in England, such as ageing infrastructure, heavy rainfall and increased rainfall with climate change, but I believe that we made the right decision to prioritise improvement, rather than monitoring, of overflows.

I also believe that we are aided by the fact that Scottish Water is in public hands, which allows us to make strategic, nationwide and democratic decisions and investments over a long period, such that we have the cheapest bills across the whole of the UK.

Dean Lockhart is joining us remotely.

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The budget is being cut across a number of environment portfolios, including environmental quality, SEPA and Scottish Water itself. Will the minister clarify precisely how the budget cuts will help to improve the future water environment in Scotland?

Màiri McAllan

I will keep my answer brief. The budget settlement was reached in exceptionally difficult fiscal circumstances. Today, I have laid out a plan for the next five years that shows that Scottish Water and SEPA are working very well indeed under the circumstances.

I call Mark Ruskell, to be followed by Stuart McMillan, both of whom are joining us remotely.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I welcome the statement, but protected species such as the Atlantic salmon are being threatened by critically low water levels in our rivers during the summer. Scottish Water is making the problem worse by deciding to restrict outflows to water bodies such as Loch Venachar. How can the minister encourage SEPA to review Scottish—[Inaudible.]—to ensure that it carries out appropriate assessments of potential damage to the environment when it makes such decisions?

I am sorry, Presiding Officer, I did not catch that.

Mr Ruskell, there was a slight glitch on the line. Could you possibly repeat just the question, rather than the preamble?

Mark Ruskell

My point was about the critically low water levels in many of our areas, which are exacerbated by Scottish Water’s decisions to restrict outflows to water bodies such as Loch Venachar. How can we encourage SEPA to review Scottish Water’s licences to ensure that it carries out appropriate assessments of potential damage to the environment when it makes such decisions?

Màiri McAllan

I am not particularly in the business of encouraging SEPA—it is independent, and it is very much my prerogative to let it get on with the rigorous independent work that it does. However, the coming together of the plans that I have set out today makes it clear that SEPA challenges Scottish Water, and Scottish Water is ready to respond. The member knows that SEPA regulates extraction of water and reviews the processes that it undertakes in order to do so. I expect that to continue, but I do not want to stand here and encourage SEPA to do that or anything else.

Will the minister detail what action the Scottish Government is taking to reduce the impact of climate change on Scotland’s water environment?

Màiri McAllan

That is a very important question. We are already seeing many aspects of climate change affecting us in Scotland. In summer, we saw the driest conditions in the west for 100 years. The Scottish Government responded to that by providing, for example, an emergency bottled water scheme.

Another impact of climate change is that it causes our rivers to warm. In response to another member’s question, I mentioned that we are promoting riparian tree planting to keep water cool and help foster species.

Of course, one of the main impacts of climate change that we are seeing is flooding. The Government is providing £42 million a year, together with an additional £150 million over the next five years, for flood mitigation. We must be prepared to respond to those very real challenges.