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

Memorandum by the National Farmers' Union (IW 47)



  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. Many of these businesses have a direct interest in the nations' inland waterways. Therefore we welcome the opportunity to submit evidence on this issue.


  The NFU believes that the nations' waterways, in particular the canal system, is an under-utilised resource for both water distribution and transportation. In principle, we believe that with increased investment and greater strategic vision the nations' waterways could make a significant contribution to sustainable development. However, we also believe that great care must be taken to address a number of substantive concerns in order for the development of this potential to be realised in a sustainable manner.

  With regard to energy use and emissions a shift of freight from road and rail to the waterways would provide significant savings.

  A national water distribution grid could alleviate some of the stresses on water resource imbalances in certain areas of the country.

  However, at the same time we have concerns about the implementation of large-scale transportation or water distribution projects, in terms of, disturbance to farming, water quality, cost implications and increased risk of flooding of farmland.

  Probably the most significant issue for farming is with regard to charges for abstraction of irrigation water from the canal system. The current and proposed charging scheme is prohibitively high and is causing farmers to seek alternative water sources, which may not offer the best environmental option.


  The NFU supports the concept of a national water grid based on the canal network. We believe it offers the opportunity of large-scale water transfers, which will ease the stress on water supplies, particularly in the South and East of England. We believe that such a grid would allow greater flexibility in the management of the nations' water resources. In particular we concur with British Waterways' (BW) view that such a system will improve reliability of supply, minimise the impact of droughts and enable strategic water transfers; and as it will mainly use an existing water distribution system the environmental impact of construction will be limited.

  However, at the same time, whilst we believe BW are in a good position to oversee the practical and technical management of such a system, the strategic operation should be managed by a national public body with responsibility for a national water strategy. Such a body should be established irrespective of the construction of a national water grid indeed, such a body should be in place to assess issues such as the establishment of a national water grid. Whilst the Environment Agency is producing national and regional water strategies, in our view there is a need for an open public debate on water resources which addresses the pertinent issues of national domestic metering, the establishment of a water grid, or the use of education to reduce demand, otherwise the nation may be expending resources on a water grid when the same objectives could be met more simply and cost-effectively through a public education programme to reduce demand.

  We also have some more detailed concerns over the development of a grid. We believe that such a project should be met from the public purse, as it would be a national asset. We have concerns over the large scale mixing of waters of differing chemistry. We also have concerns over the impact on farming and farmland of large scale engineering works and compulsory purchase, and would wish to see formal plans for compensation agreed before such a project commenced. We also have a number of concerns over the conditions and charges for farm abstraction from the grid. There are also concerns that in order to move water around the grid flows would have to be induced and measures must be taken to ensure that floods do not occur as a result of induced flows.

  In general the NFU applaud BW for their strategic thinking in this area and are meeting with them to discuss radical initiatives, such as using water from farmland drainage for canal recharge and the possibility of using the farm drainage network to augment the national water grid.


  The NFU believe that the use of the inland waterways system for increased freight traffic could have environmental benefits. However, we would wish to see speeds restricted to prevent flooding and wake damage to canal walls and riverbanks. We also have concerns about pollution of canal and river waters by increased traffic and of the increased possibility of trespass and criminal damage arising from increased traffic.


  The NFU are in the process of referring BW to the Office of Fair Trading over their charging rates for canal abstractions. Rates for raw water abstraction are currently prohibitively high and are set to double in the next five years. We believe this charging regime constitutes the abuse of a dominant position. BW are aware of our concerns and substantive negotiations have taken place.

September 2000

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