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Water Framework Directive


A commercial ferry passes a Thames fishing vessel

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) introduced an integrated approach to water protection, improvement and sustainable use. Unlike the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, which apply only to designated sites, it applies to all water bodies including those that are man-made. On the tidal Thames, the WFD applies not only to the estuary itself right out to the southern North Sea, but also to the tributaries and waterways.

The WFD introduced a new statutory system of river basin management plans. These plans provide the mechanism for the future management of both water use and of activities affecting water status.

Water Framework Directive and the Thames

The Environment Agency (EA) has divided the country into River Basin Districts. The Thames River Basin District (RBD) covers the freshwater and tidal Thames and its tributaries. The EA produce a management plan for each RBD, with the help of a panel of representatives from the key regulators, industries, activities and interests in the RBD. The PLA represents ports on the Thames River Basin Liaison Panel (RBLP). Other panel members include representatives from boat users, water companies, fisheries and farming in addition to the regulatory representatives.

The Thames RBD Plan outlines the current status, pressures, objectives and a programme of measures to achieve the objectives.

Guidance for Submitting a WFD Assessment with your PLA RWL, TRWL or Dredging Application

The Environment Agency has guidance for carrying out WFD assessments called Clearing the Waters for All. This expands upon Clearing the Waters, which only related to dredging, and now covers all activities in estuarine and coastal waters. An assessment will be required for certain activities to ensure that there is no deterioration of status at either water body (eg Thames Upper, Thames Middle, Thames Lower water bodies) or element (including biological, morphological and physio-chemical) levels relevant to the activity type and location.

An assessment must be submitted with your application for all activities under the PLA’s approvals which are not classified as excluded activities. There are three stages associated with the assessment process - Screening, Scoping and Further Assessment. All activities will need to have gone through at least the screening process.

Step 1 - Screening

If your activity is covered by the list of excluded activities (Table 1), then it will have been Screened out. If your activity is excluded you will need to make this clear on your application form to the PLA:

  • River Works Licence - Question 7.3 of Form 201A
  • Temporary River Works Licence - Question 7.3 of Form 201B
  • Dredging Licence - Question 9a of Form 215.

If your activity is not excluded, then Scoping will need to be carried out.

Table 1: Excluded Activities as described by the Environment Agency

Screening: excluded activities from scoping

You do not need to carry out scoping if your activity is low risk. Your activity is low risk if it's:

  • A self-service or accelerated marine licence activity that meets specific conditions
  • Maintaining pumps at pumping stations - if you do it regularly, avoid low dissolved oxygen levels during maintenance and minimise silt movement when restarting the pumps
  • Removing blockages or obstacles like litter or debris within 10m of an existing structure to maintain flow
  • Replacing or removing existing pipes, cables or services crossing over a water body - but not including any new structure or supports, or new bed or bank reinforcement
  • 'Over water' replacement or repairs to, for example bridge, pier and jetty surfaces - if you minimise bank or bed disturbance

If you carried out your activity during 2009 to 2014 and you have a WFD assessment, do not repeat it unless:

  • you've since changed how you carry out that activity, including method, size or scale, volume, depth, location or timings
  • there's been a pollution incident since your activity was last carried out
(Text from EA website, accessed: 5 June 2020.) 

Step 2 - Scoping

If your activity is not excluded during Screening then you will need to carry out a Scoping exercise to consider which elements of the water body may be impacted by the activity, for example; hydromorphology, biology, water quality, protected areas and invasive non-native species (INNS). The simplest way to complete Scoping is to use the EA Scoping template. Further information on how to carry out Scoping can be found on the EA website.

Step 3 - Further Assesment

If your Scoping identifies receptors as being at risk from your activity, then further assessment for each of these will be necessary. The assessment may cover consideration for deterioration, cumulative impacts and include recommendations on mitigations to minimise the impacts. These mitigations would be required under your approval or licence.

Submission of Assessment

The findings for Scoping and, if necessary, Further Assessment should be prepared in a report which should be included when you submit your application to the PLA.

Evidence of Environment Agency approval of the assessment may be required.

Page updated June 2020