Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by The National Farmers' Union (NFU) (DWB 28)

INTRODUCTION

  The National Farmers' Union (NFU) represents the interests of some 70,000 businesses which are engaged in a diverse range of agricultural, horticultural and related activities throughout England and Wales. Farming businesses hold around 80 per cent of the abstraction licences in England and Wales and therefore the draft Water Bill is an issue of importance to the NFU. We welcome the chance to submit our comments on the draft Bill to the Committee.

POINTS OF PRINCIPLE

  The draft Water Bill raises a number of important matters of both principle and detail for the NFU.

    —  The NFU supports the Government in its commitment to ensure sustainable water resources. We are currently running a Waterwise campaign to promote water efficiency amongst our membership.

    —  In general we are concerned that the draft Bill appears to be incomplete. The section labelled "work in progress" constitutes around half of the Bills content and we are concerned about the future consultation arrangements for these additional issues.

    —  We also believe that the timing of the draft Bill is unfortunate given that we are currently awaiting the Environment Agency's National and Regional Water Strategies and a DETR statement on competition in the Water Industry and the use of Economic Instruments in Abstraction Licensing. There does not appear to be a Government position on how these issues interrelate and as such, we are concerned that as a number of these documents are published, the draft Bill may change significantly without consultation.

    —  Along with many other trade associations and environmental groups we are disappointed that the draft Bill does not directly address sustainability or have an overall water strategy, rather it is a number of Clauses relating to water matters. As we mentioned above, there are currently a large number of initiatives of which the new Bill is but one, however a strategic vision of water resources is lacking. We would like to see a national body established with a strategic vision of the nations water resources. We believe there are a number of hard choices that need to be made and we would welcome the chance to discuss these with other stakeholders in a government sponsored forum. Likewise, we would like to see some mention of sustainability and a balance between water users and the environment in the Bill.

    —  We also note that although the Government has been stating that there will be a presumption in favour of renewal for licences, this wording does not feature in the Bill. In fact the contrary position is apparent with the Bill stating that the burden of proof must rest with the applicant to show that environmental damage is not occurring.

    —  Our other major concern is that whilst we in general agree with the rationalisation of the licensing regime we are concerned that trickle irrigators may be unfairly treated due to the wording of the Bill.

Trickle Irrigation

  The extension of the licensing regime to trickle irrigation is an issue of great concern. Whilst it is understandable that abstraction for trickle irrigation should be treated in the same way as other forms of irrigation, we believe that the current proposals will result in inequitable treatment for trickle irrigators and ultimately to business closure and job losses.

  The draft Bill proposes that growers who use trickle irrigation should be obliged to apply for an abstraction licence. Under the current Environment Agency regime, such licences will not be granted in areas that are deemed to already be fully licensed. This applies to a large number of areas of horticultural production in Southern and Eastern England. In these areas, growers who may have been trickle irrigating for a number of years and who may have millions of pounds worth of associated investment, will be without a water supply and may have to rely on mains water resulting in dramatic cost increases. In addition, in some areas where mains supply is limited due to resources or lack of pressure, the businesses may be totally without water leading to closure. This is potentially the case for the tomato industry on the Isle of Wight whose closure would result in the loss of eight hundred jobs. The situation is ironic due to the fact that trickle is one of the most efficient forms of irrigation.

  We believe that this situation needs special consideration and we suggest that established trickle irrigators should automatically be granted time-limited licences equal to their average annual use. These can then be reviewed like other licences when they come up for renewal. Such an approach will give trickle irrigators equitable treatment.

Changes to Flood Defence Committees

  The changes to flood defence committees are described as non-contentious. This is far from the case. We are extremely concerned about this issue and believe it is against the spirit of the Water Framework Directive which calls for more local decision making.

Time-Limited Status

  The draft Bill proposes that all licences should be granted on a time-limited basis. This already occurs in many areas and is a reasonable approach. However, the NFU's position is that the time limit should be as long as possible and should always be long enough to cover the time-scale of capital investment. We believe that 30 years should be used as a standard time for time-limited licences. We would repeat that whilst the Government has stated that it intends for there to be a presumption of renewal when licences are reviewed this is not stated in the wording of the Bill.

Licences of Right

  There is nothing in the draft Bill to encourage holders of licences in perpetuity to move to time limited status. However, from July 2012 the Bill will remove the right to compensation for the removal of such licences if they are causing environmental damage. We believe that where a licence is removed there should be compensation and believe that as this may amount to the removal of property without compensation, such action may have a questionable legal status.

Removal of Protection from Liability

  We are concerned about the removal of protection from liability of licence holders. We believe that this may have serious implications when combined with a future EU Directive on Environmental Liability and the Precautionary Principle.

Removal of Licences Causing Environmental Damage

  In theory, the right to hold a licence unless it is causing environmental damage is a reasonable position. However, the areas of concern are :

    —  How is "environmental damage" defined and by whom?

    —  The level of proof required to show environmental damage, ie. will a precautionary approach be taken, or must environmental damage be shown to be occurring.

    —  The need for compensation irrespective of when a licence of right is revoked.

Efficient Use of Water

  An element of Taking Water Responsibly that has not been included in the draft Bill was the duty of abstractors to use water efficiently. This now will only apply to water companies and is vague in terms of detail.

  We would like to see this section of the Bill strengthened. The NFU is already promoting water efficiency amongst our members and we believe that there may be a case for a requirement of efficiency to be placed on all abstractors. This would be helpful in reducing stress on catchment water resources. There may also be a case for the Government strengthening its position regarding water companies ensuring efficient use by domestic users.

  We would also like to see a greater responsibility placed on abstractors to use water efficiently, a responsibility, which we take very seriously and are currently actively promoting amongst our membership.

De Minimus Levels

  The removal of the need for a licence for users of less than twenty cubic metres per day is a welcome piece of deregulation.

January 2001


 
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