England and Wales

Environment Agency

Pollution incidents

Pollution from diffuse sources

Pollution from point sources


FEPA licences

Discharge consents

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR)


National Assembly for Wales

Environment Agency

The Environment Agency was established on 1st April 1996 under the provisions of the Environment Act 1995 and has duties which include the following:

  • to monitor the state of pollution and other aspects of the environment;
  • to regulate industrial processes with the greatest pollution potential so as to prevent or minimise pollution to the environment as a whole;
  • to regulate the disposal of radioactive waste;
  • to regulate the treatment, keeping, movement and disposal of controlled waste so as to prevent pollution of the environment or harm to human health;
  • to preserve or improve the quality of rivers, estuaries and coastal waters through powers to regulate, prevent, mitigate or remedy pollution of water;
  • to take any action to conserve, redistribute, augment and secure the proper use of water resources;
  • to exercise a general supervision over all matters relating to flood defence;
  • to maintain, improve and develop salmon, trout, freshwater and eel fisheries;
  • to promote the conservation and enhancement of inland and coastal waters, and their use for recreation;
  • to maintain or improve non-marine navigation.
  • to regulate the remediation of contaminated land designated as special sites.

The Environment Agency's powers to control pollution of tidal waters are underpinned in large part by the provisions of the Water Resources Act 1991 (Section Pollution of tidal waters from the land can arise from pollution incidents (e.g. accidental spillages), diffuse sources (e.g. agricultural run-off) and from point sources (e.g. from a fixed pipe discharge). The Environment Agency has various powers to control, prevent, mitigate or remedy pollution from these sources.

Pollution incidents

The Environment Agency has powers (under Section 161 of the Water Resources Act 1991) to remedy or mitigate the effects of pollution in controlled waters, and to remove or dispose of polluting matter in them. The Environment Agency co-operates with the Counter Pollution Branch (formerly the Marine Pollution Control Unit) of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in responding to accidental spillages of substances from ships or pipelines. The lead organisations for responding to spills depend on the location and scale of the incident.

Pollution from diffuse sources

Pollution from diffuse sources is the most difficult to control since the sources of the polluting substances cannot be readily identified and therefore cannot be consented or treated. Diffuse source pollution enters the marine environment direct from land adjacent to estuarine or coastal waters, from freshwater inputs draining the land and from the atmosphere.

The most common groups of pollutants from land drainage are nutrients (principally from agricultural use of fertilisers), pesticides (mainly from agricultural use) and suspended solids (from land management activities).

Control of pollution from diffuse sources is exercised by a combination of standards applying to the use of particular products, by pollution prevention advice provided to potential polluters (e.g. farmers) and by the control of activities in designated areas.

A number of Product Directives have been adopted by the EU to prohibit the use of certain products or restrict the type of product which may be used. For example, the Detergent Directive requires a certain degree of biodegradability before a surfactant may be marketed in detergents. Similarly, the Pesticides Directive restricts the use of pesticides and specifies the purpose and application rate. However, even though the Directives or voluntary bans (e.g. the ban by local authorities to use the herbicides atrazine and simazine for road verge treatment) may prohibit or restrict the use of a substance, it may nevertheless still be present by being imported with raw materials or finished products (e.g. pesticides on imported wool).

Pollution prevention advice is provided by the Environment Agency, in collaboration with other appropriate regulatory bodies as necessary in the form of Pollution Prevention Guidance (PPG) notes and codes of good practice. For example, such advice for farmers and land managers has been provided with the collaboration of MAFF and representatives from the industry in the form of the Codes of Good Agricultural Practice for Water, Air and Soil.

Existing legislation allows for the designation of Water Protection Zones (WPZs) and Nitrate Sensitive Areas (NSAs). WPZs can be designated by Ministerial order and, within this, specific restrictions or prohibitions on particular activities can be applied. Only one WPZ has been designated in 1999 dealing with the storage of chemicals near the River Dee. NSAs have only been designated to date in relation to water supply sources with elevated nitrate concentrations and have not been used to protect controlled waters from nitrate contamination. The Environment Agency acknowledges that enforcement and monitoring of measures to control diffuse pollution is much more difficult than for point sources (Environment Agency 1998).

Atmospheric deposition introduces nitrogen, metals, persistent organic substances and radionuclides to the marine environment. These substances reach the atmosphere from point source emissions with the control mechanisms being applied at the point of discharge. These are controlled by two systems established by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The system of IPC addresses emissions from heavy industry and is enforced by the Environment Agency. The Local Authority Air Pollution Control (LAAPC) system addresses emissions from other point sources and is enforced by local authorities in England and Wales. Emissions of radionuclides to the atmosphere are controlled by the Environment Agency under the provisions of the Radioactive Substances Act 1993.

Pollution from point sources

Pollution from point sources is controlled, either by the application of a discharge consent granted by the Environment Agency under the provisions of the Water Resources Act 1991, or by the issue of an IPC 'authorisation' for 'prescribed' processes by the Environment Agency under the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. These procedures aim to ensure that substances legitimately discharged to the environment do not cause pollution.

Discharge consents

Abstraction licences

Abstraction licences are issued by the Environment Agency under the provisions of the Water Resources Acts 1963 and 1991 (see Section 2) and provide authorisation for the impoundment and/or abstraction of water from inland waters. Abstractions of less than 5 cubic metres do not require a licence and those less than 20 cubic metres require approval but not a formal licence. All abstractions greater than 20 cubic metres require a licence, with the exception of the removal of water for land drainage, mining, quarrying and related activities and for such uses as fire fighting.

The process for issuing a licence begins with an application from the abstractor (with the assistance of the Environment Agency) who should provide the correct information to enable the decision to be made within the agreed timescale. The application is advertised locally and in the London Gazette to enable representations to be made by interested parties. Statutory consultation is also carried out with Internal Drainage Boards, Navigation, Harbour and Conservancy authorities, and with English Nature/CCW where an SSSI or a European site is likely to be affected. Once respresentations have been received, the application is circulated within the Environment Agency for consideration of implications for fisheries, flood defence and water quality.

The key consideration in considering an application for water abstraction is the flow or level in the water body providing the supply. The Environment Agency has a duty to ensure that interests downstream of the abstraction will not be compromised. The Agency has the power to set conditions on the licence to ensure that the abstraction does not compromise such interests. A common condition on a licence is one that sets a prescribed flow or level in the water body below which abstraction is not permitted. This can be associated with a "hands off" condition which means that an appropriate structure of weirs or sluices has been put in place that automatically ensures that water is not abstracted when the flow or level falls below the prescribed level. The "hands off" condition is preferred because it is more reliable than a system involving human intervention to prevent abstraction. The legislation refers to minimum acceptable flows in water bodies but these have not been determined in practice and so are not used when considering abstraction applications.

Abstraction licences remain in force until revoked by the applicant or the Environment Agency. However, the Government is consulting on new legislation that would allow abstraction licences to be reviewed on a more regular basis.

The requirements for abstraction licences from estuaries and coastal waters are more complicated than for surface freshwaters. Abstractions from estuaries and coastal waters where the intake is below mean low water do not usually require abstraction licences. There are no limits on the amount of water that can abstracted. However, if the abstractor constructs an impoundment to collect water on high tides and then abstracts from the impoundment, a licence to abstract from the impoundment will be required. This is to protect any features that might exist within the impoundment. Abstractions from above mean low water in estuaries do require licences but no charge is made for the water and few limits on the amount of water abstracted will be applied.

The Environment Agency's abstraction licensing manual details the guidance and technical procedures used when considering licences to abstract.


The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has the following responsibilities related directly to water quality in the marine environment:

Licensing of the deposit of wastes and other substances at sea under Part II of the Food and Environment Protection Act (FEPA) 1985;

Statutory consultee in the consent setting process for discharges from pipelines to sea.

FEPA licences

MAFF is the competent authority in England for the issue of licences for the disposal of wastes and other substances to sea, e.g. those used during construction of, for example, pipelines (the sea includes beaches, mudflats and any other areas submerged at Mean High Water Springs). MAFF also acts under an administrative arrangement with the National Assembly for Wales for applications in Wales (see Section 3.1.5). Such wastes include colliery wastes, dredged materials, offshore installations (such as oil rigs), fish waste, and, up until the end of 1998, sewage sludge. Applications for licences to dispose of wastes are sent to MAFF with details of the chemical (e.g. concentrations of contaminants, such as metals, butyl tins and PCBs (See Section 4)) and physical (e.g. particle size distribution) nature of the waste and the proposed disposal site. MAFF refers the application to the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) for consideration of the scientific issues and they make an expert judgement in asessing the suitability of the waste for sea disposal. CEFAS report the result of the scientific consideration to MAFF who considers this in light of the following statutory obligations:

  • to protect the marine environment, the living resources which it supports and human health,
  • to prevent interference with legitimate uses of the sea, and
  • to other such matters as the authority consider relevant.

Wastes are deposited at disposal sites identified in the licence and MAFF sponsors some monitoring of major sites to ensure compliance with licence conditions. MAFF collates returns on the amounts of material deposited and associated contaminants to fulfill obligations under the OSPAR and London Conventions (see Section 2). Information on licensing and monitoring activities are reported in the Aquatic Environment Monitoring Reports produced by CEFAS (e.g. CEFAS 1997, 1998). Other chemicals requiring licences are tracers and biocides. Licences are also required for certain construction projects and beach nourishment schemes.

Certain operations are exempt from licensing under the Deposits in the Sea (Exemptions) Order 1985. These include deposit of fishing gear and fish discards by fishermen; certain deposits from the offshore oil and gas industry, deposit of navigational aids and deposit of scientific instruments.

The use of dispersants, sorbents and other products to treat oil found at sea and on beaches etc. is also exempt, provided that these products have been approved by MAFF and are used in accordance with any specified conditions. Approved products are required to pass specified tests for efficacy and toxicity. Oil treatment products may only be used in water of a depth of less than 20 metres, or within 1 nautical mile of the 20 metre contour, with the specific agreement from the relevant Fisheries Department (MAFF in England and Wales). Such agreement is normally only given after consultation with English Nature or the Countryside Council for Wales as appropriate.

Further information is given in the following booklets available from MAFF (Malcolm Peddar, Marine Policy Branch, Tel: 0171 238 5879):

  • PB3180:The Approval and Use of Oil Dispersants in the UK (1997).
  • PB4296:Oil Spill Contingency Plans - Guide to MAFF Requirements (1999).
  • The Control of Deposits of Materials at Sea and Approval of Oil Dispersants - Guidance Notes. Marine Resources and Licensing Branch (updated annually).

Discharge consents

MAFF is a statutory consultee under the Water Resources Act 1991 and the Environmental Protection Act 1990 for the issue of discharge consents and IPC authorisations to water for discharges to sea via pipelines. It is MAFF's duty to ensure there will be no adverse impact on sea fisheries or on shellfish. MAFF consults the Sea Fisheries Committees on consent applications in exercising their duties.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR)

DETR has major policy and financial oversight relating to water quality in the marine environment. Two main groups of DETR are involved: the Environmental Protection Group and the Rail, Aviation and Shipping Group.

The Environmental Protection Group has policy and financial oversight for the Environment Agency and also co-ordinates marine environmental policy, including international agreements on the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR) and North Sea (See Section 2). The Environment Agency is responsible for the decisions relating directly to water quality in the marine environment.

The Rail, Aviation and Shipping Group includes the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) which is an executive agency of DETR with a responsibility to minimise pollution from ships to the sea and the coastline. As such, the MCA enforces Merchant Shipping legislation (see Section 2) with the co-operation of port and harbour authorities.

The Counter Pollution Branch (formerly known as the Marine Pollution Control Unit) is part of the MCA and is responsible for a National Contingency Plan (currently under revision) which outlines the arrangements for managing marine pollution incidents when releases of oil or other hazardous substances in the marine environment threaten UK interests.

Local and port/harbour authorities and the Environment and Heritage Service (Northern Ireland) can ask the Counter Pollution Branch for permission to set up a Shoreline Response Centre (SRC) to deal with a major incident if all parties agree that such action is necessary (usually if a spill cannot be handled by the resources available to local authorities etc.) The MCA will bear the costs of the resources provided from its own stockpiles which the Environment and Heritage Service/port and local authorities cannot reasonably supply.

The SRC is established locally to deal with shoreline pollution and co-ordinates the activities of relevant organisations, including local authorities, statutory nature conservation agencies, MAFF and Environment Agency/SEPA. Key decisions about tackling the spill (including the use of dispersants, mechanical removal etc.) are made by the SRC in relation to protecting environmental and fisheries interests, together with public amenity sites (including beaches). A Marine Response Centre (MRC) is responsible for co-ordinating the at sea response to major incidents and will propose response actions to deal with the spill. The MRC will maintain close links with the SRC and those involved in salvage operations. The role of the MRC is to be clarified within the revised National Contingency Plan.


The Oil and Gas Direcorate of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is responsible for maximising the economic benefits to the nation from the exploitation of the nation's hydrocarbon resources, having due regard to the potential impact of such activities on the environment and on other land and sea users (DTI 1997).

Exploration and production in the oil industry is regulated primarily through a licensing system which is managed by the Exploration and Licensing Branch of the Oil and Gas Directorate. The licensing system applies throughout the UK in territorial waters and beyond to the UK Continental Shelf whose boundaries are determined through negiotation with neighbouring states. Two types of licences are issued: seaward and landward licences. Seaward licences are issued for blocks of approximately 250 square kilometres of the UK Continental Shelf and landward licences are issued for blocks comprising the 10 by 10 km grid squares of the National Grid down to the low water mark. Exploration and production under both types of licence could therefore affect European marine sites.

Seaward production and landward licences for blocks are awarded in licensing rounds. Prior to offering petroleum licences, the Department consults widely with other Government Departments and (through the JNCC) the nature conservation agencies. For Landward licences, the local authority is the principal environmental consultant.

Once blocks are offered in the licensing round, the applicant is required to undertake an Environmental Assessment of the blocks applied for and provide details of their Company Environmental Policy and Environmental Management System. These are taken into consideration in the award of the licence. Once awarded, compliance with the conditions of the licence is checked by inspectors. These licences do not prevent all losses of oil to the sea but do seek to minimise and quantify the loss.

DTI (1997) summarises the procedures for Oil and Gas licensing the UK and is available from DTI.

National Assembly for Wales

The National Assembly for Wales (NAW) was established under The National Assembly for Wales (Transfer of Functions) Order 1999 and powers were assumed on 1 July 1999. The Assembly has the following duties in relation to the marine environment:

  • Oversee land drainage, flood prevention and coast protection in Wales (jointly with UK Government in areas which straddle the England - Wales border);
  • Control marine pollution up to 12 nautical miles from the coast;
  • Control water quality and river pollution in Wales;
  • Oversee the activities of Dwr Cymru throughout its operational area.

The National Assembly for Wales has powers to determine and implement policy. The Executive part of the Assembly currently has the same departmental structure as the former Welsh Office.

With respect to water quality in the marine environment, the Transport, Planning and Environment Group and the Agriculture Department have relevant responsibilities.

Environment Division of the Transport, Planning and Environment Group has a general co-ordination responsibility for environmental issues. It has the lead responsibility for sustainable development; sponsorship of the Environment Agency in Wales; water resources and protection, other than fisheries; land drainage, flood and coastal defence; environmental pollution, including air quality and waste.

Operational decisions in relation to water quality in the marine environment in Wales are made by the Environment Agency, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the DTI Oil and Gas Directorate.

The Animal and Plant Health, Fisheries and Countryside Division of the Agriculture Department deals with fisheries and pollution matters. The NAW has taken responsibility for the control of fisheries in Welsh inland waters and in the sea within 12 nautical miles of the Welsh coast.

Operational decisions in relation to the issue of FEPA licences are currently made under an administrative arrangement by MAFF but issued under the name of the NAW Agriculture Department. This is likely to continue for the time being. Statutory consultation for discharge consents and IPC authorisations are dealt with by the NAW Environment Group in the first instance.

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