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

Memorandum by the Country Land and Business Association (DWB 30)

  1.  The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence for the Committee's inquiry into the draft Water Bill. We represent 46,000 land managers who between them own some five million hectares of rural land in England and Wales. Our members are involved in a wide range of businesses—including agriculture, forestry, fisheries, tourism, recreation and other rural industries.

  2.  Water is important in many contexts for rural businesses, for example: crop irrigation, watering livestock, providing private water supplies, supporting biodiversity, and sustaining fisheries. Effective defences against flooding, whether coastal or inland, are also significant for many rural businesses. The CLA accordingly has a considerable interest in the Bill. We comment below on several detailed issues of particular concern.


  3.  We have long campaigned for proper redress for owners whose land and property has suffered desiccation or even subsidence as a result of groundwater abstraction. There are many documented cases of damage occurring. Indeed, Severn-Trent Water established a system to provide ex gratia payments in such cases. We accordingly welcome the proposals in clause 14 to enable any owner to secure compensation in such cases.

  4.  However, the clause as drafted will enable claims to be pursued in relation to any abstraction, whether of surface water or groundwater, and regardless of the volume. There may be a need to constrain these sweeping provisions, to avoid claims being made wherever any damage is alleged to have occurred as a result of any abstraction. For example, the scope for claims could be limited to cases where abstraction results in substantial lowering of the water table, leading to desiccation or even subsidence of land. The provisions might also be focused on major new abstractions, or on cases where the rate of abstraction is substantially increased within an existing licence, and damage results.


  5.  We do not support the proposal, in clause 15, to enable the Environment Agency to revoke any abstraction licence not used for four years—rather than seven years as now. It is quite possible that market conditions, crops rotations, weather conditions, or sale or transfer processes, might mean that an irrigator would not need to abstract water for four years running, but would need to do so in further years as an essential part of the business. We maintain that, for irrigators at least, the current seven-year period should be retained.

  6.  The removal of existing exemptions from abstraction licences, such as for trickle irrigation, may involve substantial costs for some abstractors. We support the Agency's proposal to contribute towards these costs (see October 2000 consultation paper "Securing changes to water abstraction licences and the determination of compensation"). Suitable measures should be put in place to assist such abstractors prior to the removal of exemptions.

  7.  We welcome clause 10, which will simplify licence applications. We suggest that advertisements for applications should be streamlined and updated using the Internet. The new licensing regime must be consistent with the principles of "Better Regulation" and avoid placing undue bureaucratic burdens on applicants. The Agency should always provide clear explanations for any refusal of an application for an authorisation. There must also be proper rights of appeal where changes are proposed to licences, especially when these changes involve a switch from a permanent licence to a time-limited licence.

  8.  We recognise the arguments for moving towards time-limited licences. However, such licences must have flexible time limits to allow irrigators who have invested in reservoirs to recoup their investment. The payback period for a major on-farm irrigation reservoir may be 25 years; licences should be granted in such cases to cover the full payback period. Such investments may not only secure water supplies but also bring substantial environmental benefits by alleviating summer abstraction burdens on watercourses.


  9.  We have long argued that ornamental lakes and other reservoirs which technically come within the ambit of the Reservoirs Act 1975, but which, if breached, would pose negligible risks to public safety, should be removed from supervision under the Act. In some cases, ornamental lakes have silted-up, and any breach would result in the release of far less than 25,000 cubic metres of water. In other cases, there are no homes downstream of a lake and any risk to human life is also minimal. In both cases, taking a risk-based approach to regulation would suggest that such lakes should be removed from the scope of the Act.

  10.  The previous Government issued proposals to reduce the regulatory burden on owners which supervision under the Act involves. It also appeared to have accepted the case for removing silted-up reservoirs from the scope of the Act. The Water Bill provides a welcome opportunity for deregulation which we hope the current Government will seize. The costs of supervision under the Act, in terms of regular inspections and repairs, are substantial—and quite disproportionate where the risks associated with any breach are clearly negligible.


  11.  It is important that there is proper representation of rural business on the proposed "Water Advisory Panel" and the independent Consumer Council for Water. Water supply systems to rural estates—sometimes comprising farms, homes, workshops and offices, all with different occupiers—can be difficult to manage, given the complexity of connections, pipe systems and metering. Water companies take varying approaches to problems such as requests for new connections where properties are sold, and leaks within lengthy customer pipes which serve several properties and may not be quickly detected. Rural businesses and homes deserve high standards of service from water companies just as much as businesses and homes in towns. Rural interests should be properly represented.


  12.  We view with considerable concern the proposals to "abolish" Local Flood Defence Committees (paragraph 74 of the consultation paper). No justification is made for this proposal. We consider that it is important that flood defence is managed locally, so far as possible, in the full knowledge of local conditions. Substituting central control through remote Committees may not deliver effective defences. The Local Flood Defence Committees, where they exist, provide a vital input to the work of the Environment Agency. The Committees bring together people with years of experience of local conditions. They also include representatives of the private landowners and farmers who own much of the infrastructure, and whose continued co-operation is essential in securing effective flood defences. The Government should be pressed to provide a full assessment of the relative costs and benefits of changing the existing Flood Defence Committee structure before considering any firm proposals for change.

Country Land & Business Association

January 2001

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