Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 167)



  160. Clearly it is going to mean a lower input/lower output kind of agriculture.
  (Ms Davis) From an RSPB and WWF perspective, we would say very strongly that the way to manage this system is actually to reduce input, to look at the whole farming system so that we do not end up in a situation like we are now where effectively we are mining the world's mineral phosphorous resources, pouring them into the countryside of the UK and then watching them being flushed out into our rivers with the result that we are going to lose something like a third of our entire aquatic plant flora if we carry on at the rate we are doing at the moment. It is not an intelligent way to manage. One context behind that that I do not know if people are aware of, is that something like 85 per cent of the phosphorous that goes in one end of a cow in food comes straight out the other end. These levels of dietary phosphorous supplements are very, very high in comparison to the actual benefits you get in terms of yield. That is a direct result of the fact that we have just pushed farmers into a position where they have to maximise—absolutely maximise—that output.

  161. But there are going to be costs to the farmers, are there not? You have talked about the dairy sector, the problems of pollution. It cannot all be low-cost no-cost.
  (Ms Davis) I think that is right.

  162. Are you going to tell us about that role?
  (Mr Oates) I think we touched earlier on the potential for using washlands and other forms of wetlands for flood storage. That is a case where farmers could be paid to store flood water on their land. They could actually have an income from doing a job on behalf of the wider community. Instead of building huge expensive flood defence concrete structures which may or may not do the job, we could put the money in the pockets of farmers and get them to do the job for us.

  163. So it is the old argument, to move away from subsidies on production to payments for environmental benefits.
  (Mr Oates) Yes.

Mr Borrow

  164. One of the potential points that will clash in the not too distant future between these river basic management plans is going to be where it comes into conflict with land use planning, local authorities and such, and how the objectives—if you like—are going to be married together. We already, of course, have fairly detailed structured plans and local plans and community plans and everything else, and now you are going to try and overlay on the top of that. What do you think the effect of this Water Framework Directive will be on the local authorities? How do you think they are going to deal with that and how are they going to marry it together with their existing land use planning strategies and such?
  (Mr Oates) We need to recognise we already have this conflict. There is already the conflict between the demands put on planners to provide more homes and more space for factories and roads, et cetera, and the need to prevent building on flood plains to help us control flooding. We already have the problem. The view we would take from the NGO side is that the Water Framework Directive positively helps us by providing a potential means to bring all the necessary people together to look at the problem in the round, look at who has the resources and the legal powers to help do something about it collectively; and then frame a programme of action, consult the people who will be concerned in the towns, in the villages, on the farms, get their sign up to it so that we get ahead with schemes that are holistic and start solving the problems. We need to move away from spending years of argument between the local authority, the Environment Agency, DEFRA etc.
  (Ms Lewin) Could I just to add that this is one of our biggest concerns, really, in terms of the lack of analysis at least in the public forum. It may be going on, but public discussion around how these systems are going to operate just has not been there essentially. I think that the DEFRA stakeholder sounding board has met maybe three times to date. In terms of the discussions there we have been particularly interested in the biodiversity and wetlands aspects and we have driven that quite hard and had quite a positive rapport with DEFRA on that. WWF has focussed on the public participation element, et cetera. But this whole issue is very under-developed, at least in the public arena. We would like to see that discussed very soon.

  165. At the bottom of all this you have individuals and organisations and companies which own land which has been acquired or which is now subject to existing structure plans and, indeed, sometimes planning constraints—if you like—which currently they have to abide by over a period of time. I can just see a huge number of appeals coming up here if we are going to make wholesale changes in the land use because of WFD. Where is the balance going to lie? Is it going to be in favour of the objectives of the Water Framework Directive or is it going to say that existing structure plans and such have precedence, some of which go way beyond 2015?
  (Ms Lewin) I think that is a very important question to ask the Agency when they come along in a few weeks. Clearly we have some objectives to meet under the Directive that are statutory requirements. Obviously there are some cost tests within that. If things are simply too expensive then we mitigate. I think in the short term perhaps it is not so difficult, but we do need to get the thinking right and in addition we need to think also about appeal processes within river basin management plans themselves. Not only do these plans need to link together, but what will happen if someone does not like what is happening with the plan. RSPB, for example, we might want to appeal against a decision or a local authority. That thinking just has not been done so I think it would be very useful to ask the Agency who may have much more of an idea than we have.
  (Mr Oates) What you have touched on here essentially is who and how decides the balance between the three aspects of sustainability: the environmental needs, the social needs and the economic needs. I think the answer to that, from our point of view, would be that these things have to be discussed and agreed locally by all the affected people, including the businesses, the people who want new homes, the people who want to protect their wetlands. These things have to be discussed through a system which the Environment Agency as the competent authority must set up to involve in the requirement of the Directive all the interested parties, get them to collectively come to an agreed vision for where they all want to see that river basin going, and get them to agree what the trade-offs will be. Because even at WWF we are not here solely to worry about the furry mammals, we are here to look at the environment as a whole for both people and wild life. We recognise there will have to be trade-offs. We are not saying that you can never build on a flood plain; you must always protect a wetland. Often, the decisions about how much wetland you protect, how much building you do, have to be done locally by local people with all the facts, with all the information, through a transparent process. We do not have that at present. A lot of work needs to be done to develop one and we are here offering, as I said, through our model river basin management plan, to work with government in helping to develop such a process that helps take us all forward.

  166. It is a good job we have 10 or 12 years then.
  (Mr Oates) We do not think we have, that is the problem.


  167. The stakeholder sounding board, you said it met three times and then it has sort of died, has it not? What has happened to it?
  (Ms Lewin) There is a meeting coming just before Christmas. I think the will has been there for the stakeholder sounding board but again I think that DEFRA have had really serious resourcing problems. The will is there to involve stakeholders and largely the right people are sitting round the table. There has always been a bit of an issue about what the purpose of the board is and really how much influence has been possible. Certainly from RSPB's perspective it has helped us take the wetlands issue right through to the Commission and so we have found that very useful. Again, it is a resource problem.
  (Ms Davis) I am a little concerned in terms of the public participation elements that where there is not necessarily a lot of stakeholder engagement is in the technical processes that sit behind the policy development for the Directive, if you like. The stakeholder sounding board is a nice useful opportunity to go and air some views with some important stakeholders, but it does not do the active work behind the Directive which, as a lot of you probably already know, is done by the UK TAG, the UK technical advisory group. I would be interested to know if there were possibilities of developing some more active involvement by stakeholders with the UK TAG because we want to put our effort where the decision making process is. It is not that we do not appreciate the sounding board, but it is precisely that, a sounding board. It is perhaps worth using the model at a European level where environmental stakeholders within the Common Implementation Strategy are actually helping to develop the thinking and contributing towards that thinking rather than being simply observers or spectators of the process. We would be interested to know whether the Agency would respond to that in a positive way.

  Chairman: Well, we have the opportunity to ask them that before very long. In the meantime, thank you very much for your evidence. If there is anything you wish to add to it as you reflect, then you will no doubt let our clerks know. That concludes this morning's session. Thank you.

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