Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 292-315)




  292. Could I welcome you to the third session of today's evidence. Would you be kind enough to introduce yourselves for the purpose of the record?

  (Mr Montgomery) I am Archie Montgomery, mixed farmer from Somerset.
  (Mr Tompkins) Jacob Tompkins, Environmental Policy Adviser for the National Farmers' Union.
  (Mr Place) John Place. I am a fruit grower.

  293. Do any of you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
  (Mr Tompkins) We welcome the Bill and particularly the commitment to environmental protection. What we are mainly interested in is the balance between environment and business.

Mrs Ellman

  294. Why do we need a new national body to look at this strategy? Does the Environment Agency not do it?
  (Mr Tompkins) Yes, the Environment Agency do do that but they have a primary duty to the environment. What we would like to see is a national body to look at water resources, probably under the aegis of DETR, that would contain stakeholders who had views on the environment, on prices to customers, and also on supplies to businesses. I think that will probably be needed when the European Water Framework Directive is implemented within the United Kingdom. We would like to see a body that had a more strategic long term view of sustainable water resources for England and Wales.

  295. Are you saying that you are dissatisfied with the Environment Agency plus the regulators?
  (Mr Tompkins) No. What we are saying is that the regulators and the Environment Agency have specific duties, the Environment Agency to the environment, the regulators to customers, but there is not a body that directly addresses the need to have sustainable water resources for both the business environment and customers together.

  296. Are you saying then that the proposals for regulation in the draft Bill are not going to meet the needs of water supply, looking at consumer and environmental needs?
  (Mr Tompkins) What we have said as a national body is that, as the Environment Agency have pointed out, there may well be dramatic changes in the climate in the future, so we think that having a body that could meet and discuss those, to look at water resources in those contexts, to look at things like new reservoirs and other water distribution systems, would be useful in the light of that potential change.

  297. Who should be on this body?
  (Mr Tompkins) We would like it to be run by DETR and on that body we would like all the major stakeholders, probably the people you have called to give evidence within this session and the people who have given you written evidence, plus anyone else with a legitimate interest in water resources so that we have as wide a debate as possible.

  298. Would this body replace existing organisations? Would you do away with the Environment Agency and regulators?
  (Mr Tompkins) No, not at all. We would see this as a new standing committee as it were but of stakeholders that would address this and give their views to committees such as yourself but also to the other regulators and to the Environment Agency.

  299. So it would be in addition to what is proposed, not instead of it?
  (Mr Tompkins) Yes, it would be in addition.

  300. What are your views on abstraction regimes?
  (Mr Tompkins) We will deal with trickle irrigation separately because we have major concerns on that. We have a number of points on abstraction. There are concerns over the compensation issue of 2012. The removal of the right to compensation is a major concern of ours because a large number of our members have licences of right or licences in perpetuity and their businesses rely on those long term water resources. We understand that they may have to have them removed if there are environmental consequences, but if they are going to be removed without compensation that would be a major financial penalty to many of our members. We are also concerned about the removal of licences where environmental damage is occurring. Obviously we agree with that but there is no certainty over who defines environmental damage, what environmental damage is, and what level of environmental damage must be occurring. We would like to see more guidance within the Bill over that. We are very concerned at the moment that the precautionary principle is being applied and that if there is a potential threat of environmental damage we are seeing licences being revoked or being denied.
  (Mr Montgomery) It is important to us that we see a transparent mechanism for assessing the damage which we feel very vulnerable about at the moment. There is a presumption within the Bill that there will be a renewal of licences but nowhere does it actually put that in writing. We would like to see that assurance. The time period of renewal of licences we feel to be inadequate. In farming we are planning for generations whereas the original suggestion was that it might be for 15 years. We would like to see that considerably longer, for 30 years if possible. On liability issues we are not particularly happy.
  (Mr Tompkins) With specific regard to the removal of protection from liability in licensing, we are concerned that if you combine this Bill with a potential future European Directive on Environmental Liability and the precautionary principle, you may have unlimited environmental liability for farmers, which is a major concern. We think that if people are granted a licence and that has been assessed by the Environment Agency, they should be protected from liability.


  301. That is if they are granted one, but you are also trying to protect the historic ones, are you not?
  (Mr Tompkins) We are trying to protect them but obviously, if environmental damage is occurring where historic licences are in place and there are justifiable reasons why they should be removed, we understand that. However, we would like people compensated in those cases and we would not like to see the removal of that compensation.

Mrs Ellman

  302. Broadly would you like to keep things as they are now in relation to abstraction?
  (Mr Tompkins) We think that the abstraction licensing system works very well at the moment, although there are concerns, particularly in the south and east, over the length of time it takes to review certain licences or the time it takes for applications to go through. We think that the welcome changes on de minimis levels, which will eliminate the need for quite a large number of licences, should speed things up and we would welcome that. In general yes, we think that the licensing mechanism is very good but we also have concerns about the role of the Habitats Directive and the number of licences that are either being denied or revoked because of potential environmental damage. We want to see better—

Mrs Dunwoody

  303. Because you say that that is over-precautionary?
  (Mr Tompkins) Yes. We want to see the science that underlies those decisions. We want them to be founded on sound science and if there is environmental damage—


  304. But in a sense the precautionary principle says, "We do not have the clear evidence. We ought to be being careful because we may get the evidence in the next few years which suggests that there is a consequence." How can you see that sort of evidence that the precautionary principle is worrying about?
  (Mr Tompkins) Hydrological science is by nature generally uncertain, so you could always invoke the precautionary principle, but quite often the precautionary principle is invoked because there is an absence of evidence. The reason there is an absence of evidence is that studies have not been carried out and monitoring has not taken place to see whether damage is occurring. We would rather the licence were granted for a few years with a caveat within that licence that monitoring must occur so that you can see whether environmental damage is occurring and then if it is occurring and better scientific evidence can be presented to the farmers to show that, of course we would say, "This is a licence that should in this case be revoked".

  305. Can I take you on to trickle irrigation? It seems to me that the case for trickle irrigation is very strong, that it is far better than spray irrigation, but what I cannot understand is why you are objecting to there being a licensing system for trickle irrigation.
  (Mr Tompkins) I will give a general overview and then hand over to John. We are not. We understand that trickle irrigation needs to be brought into the licensing regime. We discussed this at length and it was effectively an oversight within the last Bill because things like warping and trickle irrigation were not in wide and common usage. We understand now that there should be a licensing regime that applies to all abstractions. However, if you take the example of the farmer who applied for a trickle irrigation licence, say, five years ago, it was in a catchment that at that point had enough water resources to be sustainable, and he was told by the Environment Agency that he did not need a licence but just to go away. For the past five years he has been submitting returns, monitoring what he has been doing, has built up a large business based on that trickle irrigation licence. We now come to the position where he does need a trickle irrigation licence and the Environment Agency say, "Over the past five years we have granted lots of other licences and now this catchment is over-abstracted. Therefore you cannot have a licence." His business then folds. We do not see that as equitable, since the only reason for him not having a licence before was that he was acting within the law and did not require a licence. In many cases people have applied for licences and have been told they do not need them. We see the best way forward as basically an amnesty for trickle irrigators, give them a licence now on a time limit, and then assess them in the same way that you would assess other licences within over-abstracted catchments, so that if everyone has to take a cut of, say, ten per cent in their licences within that catchment, it applies to trickle irrigation in the same way as to spray irrigators. We see that as a more equitable way forward. John has a specific example.

  306. Would you like to tell us exactly your position?
  (Mr Place) First of all I would like to say that we are very grateful to be called and we very much value water. We live amongst water. We like it. We have got a business where inadvertently we may be hung by this new legislation and it is tremendously important to us because we employ 70 regular people and 500 fruit pickers. We were really the pioneers of trickle irrigation in East Anglia because we started it in 1979 for raspberries. We were then given licences for trickle which were included until 1992. In 1993 we were told by the licensing officer, Mr Hockaday—it is with our evidence, annex 6—that we did not need a licence and, moreover, under the 1991 Water Resources Act, we did not need it, and he sent us a copy of the letter. We took the view, "Let us get on with it. It is allowed." I perhaps inadvertently thought there were two reasons for it. One was because the 1991 Act allowed it; secondly, because it was so efficient. We prepared yesterday some cards showing why trickle is so efficient, why we think this was not included in the licensing, and I can see now it ought to be and agree that it ought to be, but we do feel that we have done everything we could to keep within the law.

  307. How much water are you taking out at the moment?
  (Mr Place) On these two licences it is 45,000 cubic metres a year for one and 43,000 for the other, so it is not much. Next door to the one for which we need 45,000 cubic metres there is a borehole for Essex and Suffolk Water where they extract ten million gallons[1] and they can pump in six days the amount we pump in a year. I can appreciate there are problems but ours is a very small amount.

  308. When you say it is a very small amount, it still would be quite substantial if you were trying to do winter storage from rainwater, would it not?
  (Mr Place) Yes, it would be. We would like to do water storage and we would like, for instance, at one of our sites to put in a reservoir and extract in the winter from the aquifer, but we have been told by the Environment Agency that they would not grant us a licence.

  309. Even for winter abstraction?
  (Mr Place) Even for winter abstraction, and moreover they have told us that under the rules of the Environment Agency now applying, as from about 1995 they have closed the aquifer, so on newer boreholes on which we have got our new fruit and our new investments it would be refused. Inadvertently we feel that we have got ourselves into a dreadful muddle and we are looking for you please to help us out. I have got my son here today. I am just hoping that he and the other 70 people we employ will be able to continue.

  310. What discussions have you had with the Environment Agency about your particular problems?
  (Mr Place) We went down to see them and they said that they felt that as we put down these boreholes in 1995, which was a year after in theory they closed the aquifer, no water would be available to us and they would refuse to grant us a licence.

  311. Before 1995 you got the water from other boreholes?
  (Mr Place) I think there is a cut-off date about 1994 where, if boreholes for trickle were put down before 1994, they would grant them but after 1994 they would not. This seems to be an artificial barrier and if they had wanted to have done this they should have written and told us. Our reason why is that we used to write to them every year and tell them how much we used. I always had a letter back if I did anything wrong, but I never heard about the trickle abstraction even though we sent these by recorded delivery.

  312. As far as these aquifers are concerned has anyone looked about re-charging the aquifers presumably somewhere else where there might be better water supplies?
  (Mr Place) I was advised to say could we please lift up our horizons and think how can we do something to improve the water supply in places like east Norfolk by engineering methods, by re-charging, exactly as you said, and by various other manoeuvres. In general farming is using less than five per cent. The other users are 95 per cent. We have only got to help a very small amount to make a lot more water available for the environment and for farming as well, hopefully.

  313. Can I move on from your specific case? How strong an argument is there for the legislation to go for some demand management and to put a great deal of pressure on a lot of people who are doing spray irrigation to move to trickle irrigation or to be much more efficient with their spray irrigation?
  (Mr Place) One of our advantages is that trickle irrigation is eminently suitable for crops which are planted in rows. You can see that with a row of trickle—you have got it (a sample of trickle tubing) on a piece of paper there—you can spread that down each row and you can irrigate fruit very easily in rows. When it comes to things which are spread over a wider area, say onions, it would be very difficult to irrigate them with trickle. Really we have to look at the crop and think which is the most efficient.

  314. But there is quite a lot of spray irrigation that I have seen where the spray is going round and about a third of the water is falling on the road or on to the hedgerow and other things like that. Is there not a case for putting in the legislation a demand that consumers do look at their use of water?
  (Mr Place) Could I ask Jacob to answer that?
  (Mr Tompkins) We would welcome that and we actually said that we would welcome a requirement for efficiency of use for all abstractors. With specific regard to spray irrigation, although trickle irrigation is a highly efficient method of irrigation there are more efficient methods of spray irrigation coming on to the market. There are a number of our members who have computerised rain guns. They measure the soil moisture deficit across a field and then their rain gun can work out exactly how much to spray on to different parts of the field. One of the difficulties we have is that we are a very visible user of water. People always mention water being sprayed on to roads but that is a very small amount and only rarely occurs. People always comment when they see it. Most farmers follow ADAS guidance on how to irrigate. They have got irrigation scheduling.
  (Mr Montgomery) It is no coincidence that we all wear a badge which shows that we are members of an assurance scheme, and part of that code of good practice that is required for the assurance scheme is some form of scheduling and water management. It is equally bad for the crop to over-water as it is to under-water, so our management of the amount of water that goes on the crop is extremely scientifically targeted, which causes some expense. The point about the trickle that I would like to add is that it is not suitable for all soils. With some of the very poor soils the water goes down through the soil before the roots can catch it. One has to target different types of irrigation for different needs, as John has already said.

  315. The last set of witnesses told us that legislation was very defective in that it did not cover a lot of issues. Are there any issues that the NFU particularly would like to see put into the legislation which is not there at the moment?
  (Mr Tompkins) I think it could be tightened up in terms of efficiency which we have just mentioned. Our main concern is that there are a large number of sections within it on competition and economic instruments that are not fleshed out in detail and we when we are going to be consulted on those elements. We would like to ensure that there is full consultation as those elements go through the process. There is nothing in particular that we would like to add although the setting up of a national strategic body would be helpful because that would enable us to have a strategic view of sustainable water resources on a year-on-year basis. On the efficiency side we are already working with the Environment Agency to make sure that our sector is as efficient as possible. We would like to see it put into the Bill to ensure that other sectors have a duty of efficiency.

  Chairman: On that note, thank you very much for your evidence.

1   Witness correction: cubic metres a year. Back

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