Welcome New Farming Rules for Water

Earlier this month the Government published a set of farming rules for water, establishing a mandatory baseline of good practice that land managers across England must follow. These focus on planning farm operations to reduce the risk of water pollution, conserve soils and promote the most efficient use of nutrients. The rules make sense and are a welcome step that has been some time coming.

Tackling nutrient pollution and soil loss is one of the biggest challenges we face in improving the state of the environment in the UK. Across England and Wales, 2.9 million tonnes of soil are lost from fields every year. Nutrient pollution kills fish and other aquatic animals and can drive a change from plant communities dominated by flowering plants to ones dominated by algae. Ultimately this can lead to toxic algal blooms and pose a risk to the health of humans and animals that come into contact with polluted water. Other sectors, especially waste water treatment, contribute to the problem but across the UK agriculture is responsible for 50% of total nitrogen losses, 25% of phosphorus and 75% of sediment. For predominantly rural catchments, these proportions are much greater.

There is no doubt that there is an urgent need for action, but if the new rules are to play their part in reducing pollution from farming, we need clarity on three things:

  1. what guidance will be available? Farmers must have confidence that their practice is complying and know where they can go for advice
  2. how will these rules help? People need to know what contribution these rules are expected to make to the recovery of waters and, where compliance with these will not be enough, what other combination of regulation and incentive will be applied
  3. how will compliance be ensured? The Environment Agency does not have the resources to monitor and enforce these rules at present

The majority of farmers will already be meeting the requirements set out in the new rules and will not need to make any changes to their operation, as the rules do not raise the bar above what is already required by Cross Compliance under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

They aim to set a fair baseline of practice for everyone so that nobody can seek to gain an advantage by taking risks and imposing some or all of the cost of that risk on others. These rules are also helpful in setting out the expectations of minimum performance for the sector; an essential prerequisite to thinking about what a future system of payments for public goods might look like post-Brexit.

It is not clear how the Environment Agency intends to ensure compliance. This will require clear guidance from Government to ensure that farmers are provided with support and guidance, especially in relation to those rules that expect farmers to take ‘reasonable precautions’ without setting out explicitly what they are. Support for initiatives such as Catchment Sensitive Farming and the Catchment Based Approach will also be essential in providing trusted advice and support.

It is critical that the rules are properly enforced but far from clear that the Environment Agency has the resources to do it. The risk of soil erosion is greatest in the autumn and winter, when soils are most likely to be exposed and rainfall is highest, so inspections designed to identify problems must target that period. Many respondents to the previous consultation raised understandable concerns about privacy if monitoring was done remotely without landowner consent, but there must be a role for technology in identifying problem areas and targeting effort. Detail about how the Environment Agency will achieve adequate compliance monitoring is urgently needed.

These rules will not be enough on their own to drive the recovery of our water environment. The accompanying policy paper states that they ‘fulfil obligations under the Water Framework Directive (WFD)’ but this is a bit misleading. The WFD requires Member States to have controls in place to limit diffuse pollution and there were no such controls in place in England outside Nitrate Vulnerable Zones. However, the overriding obligation arising from the WFD is to enable water bodies to achieve good ecological status and we will still be a long way from achieving that. For example, to meet the targets of the last round of River Basin Management Plans, it was calculated that phosphorus losses due to agriculture needed to be reduced by 28-43%. By contrast, when these new rules were consulted on in 2015, they suggested only a 2.4% reduction in phosphorus. While the published rules might be better than those consulted on, there is still a significant gap. Setting out a road map for closing that gap will be a key challenge for the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment.

The new rules are a welcome first step but there is much still to do if we are to see the recovery we need in our rivers and wetlands.

Simon Wightman
Water Policy Officer, RSPB