In the time honoured tradition of Monty Python’s ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’, we could ask the same question of the European Union with exactly the same results – a lot as it happens, especially improving the UK’s water supply and sanitation infrastructure. So why is this? And what effect does it have on the built environment?

It started in 1975 with the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive – legislation to stop EU members discharging raw sewage directly into seas or rivers. Now there is the Water Framework Directive (which came into force in December 2000 and became part of UK law in 2003) that commits all European Union member states to achieve ‘good’ qualitative and quantitative status of all water bodies (including marine waters up to one nautical mile from shore) by 2015, covering the abstraction from water bodies as well as sewage flows into them.

The UK’s beach resorts are now infinitely cleaner and safer to bathe in as a result of both of these pieces of legislation (as an island nation we had always discharged raw sewage directly out to sea as well as dumping sewage sludge in our marine waters, both of which are now illegal under European Law). The question is would we have done it without any push from the EU? It’s unlikely. The UK spent most of the 1980’s battling against the directive until the EU actually started infringement proceedings and the Thatcher Government was forced to acquiesce. Yes it was expensive. South West Water alone spent over £2 billion stopping the discharge of raw sewage into the sea around Devon and Cornwall, a cost borne by the local inhabitants. But it is precisely the cost of such far reaching legislation that makes it unlikely that either of the two main UK parties would have introduced such legislation when the next election is always less than five years away.

The Water Framework Directive has been one of the main drivers for non-connection of stormwater drains into foul sewers. Although this has been met by the building industry in the most part to mean attenuation in the form of large underground concrete chambers, it has also been a driver – along with BREEAM and the (now-defunct) Code for Sustainable Homes – for the take-up of SuDS. Now we only dump raw sewage out to sea when it rains, and our combined sewers become overwhelmed and discharge through Combined Sewer Overflows. Under the WFD this has been illegal since 2015 though still happens across the whole of the UK. The London ‘super sewer’ is being built to conform to the directive and at the same time there are a lot of exciting retrofit SuDS schemes and rain gardens going into the UK’s cities, to release the pressure on the drainage system.

And the water supply? The WFD requirement for resilience (now enshrined in the Water Act, 2014) meant that water efficiency was addressed under Part G of the Building Regulations in 2010. Before that date the term appeared only in the Water Byelaws and was not properly enforced. In the 2015 update to Part G there is a fitting standards to show compliance; much of the argument for its inclusion was based on the requirements of the WDF. (See more here.)

Of course, the EU is not perfect. The link between hot water use and CO2 emissions is still not being made clearly enough either at European or UK level and I am sure lobbying still occurs. But it seems to me that, in the case of water, the legislation from Europe has the environment at its core not the perceived needs of the UK building industry, who have far greater lobbying powers with the UK Government than most environmental organisations. I hope we stay in.

This blog was originally published on 1st June 2016 by The Green Register. It was part of a larger blog by industry experts on the effect of a Brexit on the UK construction industry.

Sustainable Water after a Brexit – what would it mean for the UK