Making water policy work in the United Kingdom: A case study of practical approaches to strengthening complex, multi-tiered systems of water governance

L. Robins*, T. P. Burt, L. J. Bracken, J. Boardman, D. B.A. Thompson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)


We propose a suite of actions for strengthening water governance in contexts with complex, multi-tiered arrangements. In doing so, we focus on the collective water policies and approaches of the United Kingdom (UK), including those of devolved governments, which confront a host of serious water-related challenges—from massive flooding of urban areas and agricultural lands, to pressure on aquifers from rising water demand and drought. Further complexity in addressing these challenges has emerged in the wake of the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union (EU), so-called ‘Brexit’, and the ensuing ‘separation process’ with uncertainties for institutional and governance arrangements to follow. We make ten proposals for improving and reinvigorating water policy in complex, multi-layered situations, and comment specifically on their application in the UK setting. These are: put in place a system-wide water policy; fully embrace community-led nested river basin planning and management; fully fund river basin planning and management; re-focus the policy framing; use best-available data and information; create conversational spaces and become a more water-literate society; mobilise people; support and sustain core community networks; underpin river basin plans with regulatory provisions and effective monitoring and enforcement; and address systemic institutional amnesia. Individually and collectively, we contend that these actions will have a marked effect on transforming the planning and management of water resources. A system-wide water policy that maintains and builds on the substantive biophysical and socio-economic benefits delivered through implementation of the EU Water Framework Directive, together with the more recent Floods Directive, will galvanise stewardship of water in the UK. We urge more active engagement with and empowerment of the multiplicity of system ‘actors’, and highlight the role of non-government actors in a post-Brexit world as conduits for reaching out to and connecting directly with a wide range of water-related actors, especially across the EU. While attention to-date has focused on a plethora of specifically water-related projects, initiatives, plans and regulations, what is really needed is a systemic, long-term view of water resource management.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-55
Number of pages15
JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
Early online date7 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2017
Externally publishedYes


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