Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by Keith Weatherhead (DWB 11)


  I am employed as a Senior Lecturer at Cranfield University at Silsoe, specialising in irrigation and agricultural water resources. My present research includes work for the Environment Agency on optimum agricultural water use and licensing issues, and for the DETR on the impacts of climate change on agricultural and leisure water use. I am also currently deputy Chairman of the UK Irrigation Association (UKIA), and Chairman of the National Agricultural Water Resources Liaison Group, which brings together representatives of MAFF, DETR, the Environment Agency, CLA, NFU, UKIA and ADAS.

  The responses in this memorandum are my own, and not necessarily those of my employer or any other organisation.

  These responses refer only to those aspects of the draft Water Bill that would affect abstraction for the purpose of irrigation.


  Abstraction for agricultural irrigation represents less than 2 per cent of the total water abstraction in England and Wales, but it is important both because of its potential environmental impact and as an essential input for much of the agricultural and horticultural production in the UK.

  The relatively small depths applied and its concentration on particular crops mean that irrigation can be a high-value use of water in this country. The impact of additional water constraints on the viability of many commercial agricultural and horticultural enterprises would be substantial, with resultant effects on rural employment, national production and the balance of payments. Some irrigated sectors, particularly glasshouses, will not survive at all without adequate, reliable, good quality water. Many "downstream" sectors, eg vegetable packing and distribution, are also substantial employers at least partly dependent on irrigated production.

  The trade and employment contributions of irrigation through the golf industry, the racehorse industry, sports pitches, and other leisure uses should similarly not be forgotten.

  However, because irrigation abstraction is concentrated in the drier countries, in the drier months of the drier years, and is mostly consumptive, it can have significant environmental impacts. It is the major abstractor on some catchments in drought periods. Clearly environmental protection is important, and sometimes paramount in water management. Nevertheless, I believe that many of the potential conflicts can be avoided by good management within a flexible and fair system.

  The objective of the legislative changes must therefore be to provide a flexible and fair framework within which the Agency can manage water, rather than simply administer regulations. Generally, the contribution of this draft bill, read in conjunction with the ongoing CAMS process and other changes, towards sensible and sustainable water management policies, is to be welcomed.

  This draft Bill is one product of a long (and welcome) process of consultation undertaken by the DETR and the Environment Agency, which has already resolved many of the potential problems. Only some of the outstanding issues are therefore addressed here. For simplicity, they are addressed in the order of the relevant Clauses.

Clause 1. Temporary licences

  The introduction of temporary licences is a sensible and simple way of allowing the Environment Agency to manage short-term abstractions. However, the 28 day limit seems to be arbitrary, and is too short for many temporary irrigation needs, eg establishing new landscape plantings or turf grass for sports pitches. Provided the Agency are satisfied that there are no adverse environmental impacts, the Agency should have the power to issue longer duration temporary licences, or a monthly renewable licence. (It is not clear whether the Agency could anyway issue a series of temporary licences under these proposals, but that would lead to greater uncertainty and possibly inefficient water use.)

Clause 3. Rights to abstract small quantities

  The setting of a common threshold is sensible. 20 cubic metres a day is well below the irrigation requirements of agricultural users, but will be useful for small horticultural units (eg glasshouses), for non-irrigation agricultural use and for some landscaping and sports uses. It may help reduce the present trend towards using drinking water for irrigation in such circumstances.

  The agency will have to beware the possibility of large numbers of domestic abstractors taking significant total quantities from some streams for garden irrigation. It may be that additional safeguards are required to protect minimum flows in small streams.

Clause 4. Trickle irrigation

  The inclusion of trickle irrigation in the licensing system is sensible. It is important however that acceptable transition arrangements are made for existing trickle irrigators.

  Because of the potential of lower water use with trickle systems, it is important that new trickle irrigators are able to enter the irrigation industry—a system of local licence trading would be particularly beneficial for this.

  I note incidentally that the case study of the costs for a trickle irrigator presented in the associated Regulatory Impact Assessment is quite unrealistic.

Clauses 5 to 8. Applications for a licence.

  The intention to simplify and speed up the licence application procedure is very welcome. It would be beneficial if the Environment Agency undertook the publication of all licence applications, and included a web site in the publication procedure.

  The cost of environment impact assessments may become prohibitive for small abstractors; joint assessments covering groups of abstractors should be encouraged, rather than requiring each abstractor to repeat (or pay again for) studies.

Clause 14.  Claims arising out of water abstraction

  This is a potentially worrying clause for irrigation abstractors because its effects are quite unknown. Damage may unwittingly be caused many miles downstream from the abstraction point, and by the aggregated effects of many abstractors rather than any particular one. It is not clear how any damages and costs would be apportioned, how large the legal expenses could become in such cases, or how much insurance companies would charge to insure against such costs.

  I would urge the DETR to undertake more research into this, at the least to enable abstractors and insurers to assess the implications more clearly.

Clause 15. Revocation of unused licences

  Clearly, completely unused licences should be revoked. However, there is little published information of the reasons why many licences do appear to be "sleepers". In some cases, they could be providing an invaluable insurance as a resource of last resort, despite being apparently unused. In other cases, temporary land-use changes, crop rotation requirements, or licence conditions may have led to non-use. In some cases at least, it appears to be due to errors in the Agency database. For a weather-dependant use like irrigation, a four years period may not indicate real use, particularly where an abstractor has more than one source and leaves one unused in wetter years.


    (a)  I would therefore like to see further research into the reasons licences are or appear to be unused or partly unused.

    (b)  The legal definition of "unused" should not simply be zero abstraction for four consecutive years, particularly if those are four wet years when irrigation demand is low.

    (c)  On the other hand, the criteria for judging use should include the concept of beneficial use—simply turning on the tap once every four years should not be enough.

Clause 16. Agency transfer of licences

  The existing Act gives the Agency powers to transfer abstraction licences from one water company to another, and the proposed Clause 16 allows the Agency to recover the costs from one to compensate the other. There will be instances when sensible water management would require the reallocation of licences to, from, or between other types of abstractor. Where voluntary arrangements cannot be made, it would be sensible for the Agency to have these back-up powers with respect to all types of abstractors.

Clause 17. Licences of right and other non time-limited licences

  Other than in this clause, the draft Bill and documentation interestingly make no mention of one of the major current problems in water management, the legacy of licences of right and other non time-limited licences. These will continue to be non time-limited.

  In fact however, the DETR should be congratulated on developing a framework that in time will effectively minimise the differences between these licences and new licences, and will provide encouragement for holders to convert to time-limited status.

  This Clause seems to be a reasonable compromise between the needs of protecting the environment and protecting the legitimate interests of existing licence holders. I would hope however that any licence holder affected by this Clause would be treated similarly to other licence holders in the catchment.

Clause 53. Enforceable duty to use abstracted water efficiently

  I do not understand why the "enforceable duty to use water abstracted under licence efficiently" proposed in Taking Water Responsibly has been dropped and replaced by the duty, only on water companies, to further water conservation. Despite the acknowledged difficulties of defining and enforcing efficient use. I believe in principle that all abstractors should be under a duty to use water wisely, and that sanctions (such as suspension of licence) should be available wherever water is clearly being used unwisely. This duty should extend to all licensed abstractors, or even all abstractors.

Clause 49—Reservoir safety

  The proposed changes to the Reservoir Act to make the Environment Agency responsible for both water and safety regulation are sensible, and should help to ensure common standards for reservoir safety. I note that the local authority will still be involved at the planning and construction stages, particularly where soils or minerals are being moved on or off-site.

Work in progress—licence trading

  It is unfortunate that the DETR proposals on the use of economic instruments and licence trading are not available for consideration alongside the draft Bill.

  I support voluntary local abstraction licence trading within the irrigation sector, and believe this can lead to better use of water resources.

  I am wary of the prospect of trading between sectors. The differences in size, structure and resources between agricultural abstractors and water companies are so great that monopolistic behaviour and/or "too small to bother" attitudes by larger companies may stop realistic trading and negate any potential economic benefits. Protective "buying-up" of licences by water companies could have profound effects for future agricultural and rural employment prospects in some catchments. I believe this issue is much wider than simply efficient water allocation and needs further consideration.

January 2001

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