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Could he explain, then, why the evidence should not be used to allow a more refined designation, so that areas that have improved to an acceptable level can be de-designated? According to the refined method used to define NVZ designations in 2007, some 6 per cent. of England within the existing NVZ should qualify for de-designation. Areas that qualify should at the very least not be required to implement the new, more stringent action programme. That would save farmers a significant and wholly unnecessary capital investment.

A 100 per cent. designation would also exacerbate existing boundary anomalies on the edge of NVZs—for example, along the Welsh border, where NVZs are proposed to increase to only 3 per cent. of Welsh farmland, and in Scotland, where it is planned to increase them to only 14 per cent.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) on securing this debate. His constituency neighbours mine, and we share the River Teme as a constituency boundary. It seems strange, if the designation depends on science, to take different approaches in Wales and England.

Mr. Dunne: I am particularly grateful to my constituency neighbour, the hon. Gentleman. I was not going to personalise my contribution by getting into the minutiae of water systems in my constituency, but it is true that a river such as the Teme could be subject to an NVZ in England but not in Wales. Similarly, my farm is divided by a watercourse. The water flowing into the River Lugg will be subject to the regulations, but the water flowing into the Teme will not. That seems peculiar, and it will have some impact on how we conduct our farm and business.

Mr. Boswell: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend; I appreciate that he has already given way once. I wish simply to put on record an administrative principle that I hope he accepts. If Ministers are considering expanding the zones, they must not, under administrative law, close their minds to the possibility of reducing a zone if the objective indications argue for that decision.

Mr. Dunne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I hope that the Minister will take note of his intervention. The increased costs on those within the zone, to which I shall come shortly, put them at a considerable competitive disadvantage compared with those engaged in similar enterprises in neighbouring areas outside the zone.

The proposal’s second impact concerns when nitrogen applications can take place. DEFRA plans to ban spreading slurry and poultry manure for up to five months during autumn and winter. It will extend the current ban of two to three months, which applies only to that 10 to 20 per cent. of NVZ land with sandy and shallow soil, to a ban for all land within the NVZ of between three and five months, depending on average rainfall, soil type and whether the slurry is being applied to arable or grassland. That is likely to have the perverse effect, even according to DEFRA’s own figures, of increasing the ammonia emissions from manure spreading by up to
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9 per cent. Ammonia is a potent pollutant that other EU directives are targeted to reduce. It is a further irony of the proposal that, according to the NFU, the environmental damage caused by the extra emissions will cost up to £300 million.

The proposal will encourage farmers to empty their slurry stores on the first fine day after the winter spreading bans end, almost certainly in unison. That has been the experience in other countries with similar regulations, such as the Netherlands, where regulations apply to pig and dairy cattle slurry. Instead of spreading slurry little and often when soil and weather conditions align to make it suitable, farmers throughout the area will all rush to empty their stores at the same time, increasing the environmental risks of smell in dry weather and leachate in wet.

Thirdly, the proposals on how manure should be spread amount to a ban on high-trajectory, high-pressure slurry spreaders. That would slow down the process, increase the cost and require additional investment in further machinery.

Fourthly, the proposals prescribe limits on how much nitrogen can be applied to each type of crop, which will effectively limit the potential yield from any specific crop. Over the years, plant breeders have developed higher-yielding varieties of all types of crops. The measure flies in the face of the attempt to encourage a competitive, dynamic agricultural sector. Perhaps it is an example of the Prime Minister’s vision—from his bunker, he commands a new five-year plan for agriculture. The command economy will be alive and well on English farms.

Farmers can work within a farm-wide limit, so they should be free to apply fertiliser within that limit as they see fit to maximise crop potential. DEFRA recently conceded that it is willing to seek a grassland derogation from the general whole-farm limit of 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare. The derogation is essential, and I urge the Minister to confirm today whether he is seeking a grassland derogation of 250 kg per hectare, as is granted to other member states.

The proposal’s fifth and single biggest impact for farmers in affected sectors relates to the control of how slurry is stored. DEFRA proposes a minimum of six months’ storage for poultry and pig manure and five months for cattle slurry within two years of the regulations’ coming into force. That would impose a massive cost increase on hard-pressed dairy, pig and poultry farmers, many of whom would need to more than double their storage capacity, at a time when two dairy farmers a week have been leaving the industry due to the inability to make a living, poultry farmers have faced two avian flu scares in successive years and sharply volatile prices and livestock farmers, especially pig and poultry farmers, face a near-doubling of feed costs following last year’s grain price rises.

The capital cost of constructing suitable storage pits is estimated to be between £240 million and £400 million. DEFRA’s estimate seems completely out of touch with the reality of farming in Britain today. DEFRA assumes that farmers will have no difficulty in borrowing the capital cost and repaying it over 25 years, but banks—particularly in their current nervous and fragile state—might take a more jaundiced view about lending money to finance a sunk capital spend with no prospect of any return on investment. According to Promar International for Dairy UK, the capital cost for the average dairy
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farm will be £55,000. For the average pig farm, it will be £30,000, according to the British Pig Executive. For tenant farmers, such a commitment is likely to be particularly hard to fund. In an economic environment where dairy and pig farming has recently become a marginal activity for many, a bank prepared to lend might not take a 25-year view on repayment. Ten years seems more realistic, which would double DEFRA’s estimate of the annual cost of investment.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does my hon. Friend appreciate that my constituents in Staffordshire will be among those most heavily affected by the proposals? Indeed, some years ago, one of the original NVZ pilot areas was located bang in the middle of my constituency. The provision is not only virtually unchallengeable as far as the European Union is concerned, as it will lay down the requirements very stringently, but my constituents tell me that it will be one of the worst things to affect the farming industry in my constituency, particularly dairy farming, since I became a Member of Parliament in 1984. It is that serious.

Mr. Dunne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, neighbour and indeed constituent for making that point so graphically. I hope that the Minister will take it on board. The purpose of this debate is to emphasise the level of feeling out there among the farmers, particularly dairy farmers, who will be affected by the regulations.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. Will he comment on the commercial inconsistency of the Government’s position? They are heaping costs on to farmers through such measures, yet they do not acknowledge that, at the farm gate, farmers are under the cosh from supermarkets, which can dictate market conditions and state the terms and conditions under which farmers trade. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should not heap such costs on to farmers, while turning a blind eye to the way in which farmers are treated in the food supply chain?

Mr. Dunne: That was another useful contribution. I was about to tell the House of measures that the Government could take to alleviate farmers’ problems, particularly those taken by the devolved Governments in Wales and Scotland. They are providing some relief there, but apparently not in England.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend spoke of the costs to farmers and the investment required for the necessary storage, and so on. Does he agree that the problem is seriously exacerbated by the Government’s decision to abolish the agricultural buildings allowance, a small but nevertheless beneficial way to help farmers to recoup the costs of that investment?

Mr. Dunne: It is almost uncanny that every intervention raises a point that I would have mentioned later. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, one measure that the Government might consider is to reinstate some relief for that investment through the tax code.

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There are other costs in addition to the capital costs—for instance, the additional running costs of the proposed storage arrangements will lead to extra costs when dispersing slurry. Given the shorter time frame and the reduced volumes that can be spread at the same time, it will take longer, so there will probably be greater transport costs. I believe that those factors were not properly taken into account in DEFRA’s calculations.

Sixthly, the most significant aspect on farms other than dairy farms is the proposal to plant cover crops on ground harvested before 1 September that would normally be left as bare stubble over the winter. DEFRA argues that a cover crop would reduce nitrate leaching; it might do so, but I suspect only by a tiny amount. Will the Minister tell us where the idea came from and on what scientific basis it was made?

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): That change would have a significant impact in my constituency in Lincolnshire. Is my hon. Friend aware that that proposal forms no part of the directive, which has been gold-plated by DEFRA?

Mr. Dunne: My hon. Friend is clearly another clairvoyant.

The proposal bears all the hallmarks of Labour’s ill thought out, opportunistic and yet all too characteristic gold-plating—piggy-backing on an EU directive, so that the Government can blame someone else for the idea. There is no requirement for such a measure in the nitrates directive.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas) indicated dissent.

Mr. Paice: The Minister suggests from a sedentary position that my hon. Friend is wrong. It would improve the quality of debate if the Minister were to intervene and explain to us why the assertion that the directive is gold-plated was incorrect.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. If the Minister wishes to intervene, I am sure that he will do so. However, he will have adequate time at the end of the debate to comment on what has been said during it.

Mr. Dunne: The Minister declines your offer, Sir Nicholas, but he indicates that he will answer the point later, for which I am grateful. The change shows yet again a complete lack of understanding of practical farming and horticultural practice.

Mr. Roger Williams: The hon. Gentleman is extremely generous in giving way again. A number of conservation schemes pay premiums to allow over-winter stubble, to protect farm birds. It seems that one arm of Government is working against the same arm.

Mr. Dunne: Again, I was briefly going to touch on that issue, but the point is well made.

A requirement to plant a cover crop and then to plough it in before sowing a spring-planted crop would lead to additional costs in mechanical operations and labour, and it could increase soil damage through the possible the use of additional herbicides and the additional spring work necessary to establish seed beds. However,
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it would also be a direct encouragement to farmers to manage the land in such a way as to avoid the regulations—for instance, by harvesting after 1 September.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Or by doing more autumn-sown planting.

Mr. Dunne: Indeed, and such planting might adversely affect the optimum rotation for the farm.

The loss of over-wintering stubble would lead to a significant loss of habitat for farmland birds, just as set-aside is coming to an end. The environmental damage from such a proposal—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone said, it is in other respects encouraged by DEFRA—would far outweigh the tiny reduction in nitrate. The proposal should be dropped, and I very much hope that the Minister will indicate that he is minded to do so.

Finally, the imposition of a new record-keeping regime provides a further major set of proposals for farmers to contend with. It takes red tape to new dimensions, even for this Government. Those of a sensitive disposition may need to hold their noses when working through the excruciating details of the records required to be kept to comply with the provisions set out in the statutory instrument. I read them with mounting alarm.

Such records include not just what manure is stored, but what is spread and where. They must all be kept for five years. Maps hatched in specified colours must be prepared and risk assessments undertaken, including a physical inspection, which must be recorded before spreading takes place in accordance with the map. Calculations for storage must be made in accordance with the schedule, which sets out how much manure each size, type and age of animal or bird excretes—a word that I had not intended to use in the Chamber until today. Did you know, Sir Nicholas, that a laying hen excretes 120 g a day and that a duck excretes 400 g? However, a large suckler cow excretes an average of 45 kg a day, each and every day; over 11 days, that is equivalent to its body weight. That is according to DEFRA.

Failure to comply is an offence, with penalties of up to two years in prison. That is taking micro-management to a ludicrous level. Farmers, particularly livestock farmers, have a better understanding of how their animals behave, including how they defecate, than bureaucrats in Whitehall. Farmers should be trusted with a system of spot checking to ensure compliance, not compelled to spend endless spare time—time that they do not have—tied up in keeping essentially pointless records. Please rethink that, too, Minister.

Another consequence of the proposal is the impact on the production of home-grown milling wheat of bread-making quality. I have some personal knowledge of that, having grown milling in preference to feed varieties of wheat on my farm for 20 years. UK flour millers require wheat with bread-making characteristics, which include a high level of good quality protein. The varieties of milling wheat now available mean that, to achieve the required protein level, more than a third of UK crops will need more than 280 kg per hectare of nitrogen and 25 per cent. will require more than 300 kg per hectare.

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Milling wheat achieves a premium price for farmers, which can be achieved only if it meets the millers’ high standards. Last year, wheat was grown on some 1.826 million hectares in the United Kingdom, of which approximately 35 per cent. had bread-making potential. Those farmers whose soils or land quality require higher than the proposed maximum 260 kg per hectare of nitrogen inputs to achieve those standards will be encouraged to grow more feed wheat varieties, thus lowering their returns and reducing the supply of home-grown quality wheat for the mills. That will increase our imports of such wheat from France, Germany, Canada and other countries.

British farmers have supplied an increasing proportion of domestic demand, which was estimated by the milling industry at 85 per cent. last year, with imports declining over the years from 70 per cent. to 15 per cent. Did the Minister’s environmental impact assessment consider the cost of the increased food miles and the associated carbon footprint increase that will result from reversing that trend, possibly to the point where the majority of the flour needed to make bread or cakes to feed the British public must be imported? Does the Minister remember what happened to Marie Antoinette when she was held responsible for rising bread prices?

Mr. Woolas indicated assent.

Mr. Dunne: It does not have to be like that. There is already significant evidence of reducing nitrate fertiliser use on cereal crops, by 25 per cent. over the past 10 years, while yields have continued to grow. Specialist farmers who produce bread-making wheat are skilled in applying nitrogen to maximise uptake by the plant, while minimising losses and wastage through run-off. That requires a flexible approach by individual farmers, applying manure and chemical fertilisers when it is right for the crop and in weather conditions suitable to maximise take-up and minimise leachate, not when they are told to do so by Whitehall.

Are more stringent requirements really necessary? I am not a scientist, but that decision should be based on scientific evidence rather than on bureaucratic convenience. As I have just said, nitrogen fertiliser use has declined by 40 per cent. in less than 20 years and by 25 per cent. in the past 10 years. That has come about for several reasons, including a decline in the numbers of livestock after the animal health diseases of recent years, which means that less manure is generated. Furthermore, crop efficiency in absorbing nitrogen has risen substantially, so less nitrate is being leached through the soil. Nitrate trends are static or falling for 77 per cent. of river monitoring sites, and for 25 per cent. of groundwater. DEFRA’s plans seem based partly on meeting the aims of other directives or other Government objectives.

The Government have pledged to avoid all gold-plating of EU legislation, but their implementation and enforcement of these proposals fly in the face of that pledge. These measures are very costly, but not very effective. DEFRA itself has calculated a reduction in nitrates of only 1 per cent. by extending the closed period, which is responsible for the main cost of increased storage. These measures might not be regarded as cost-effective if they were introduced under the water framework directive and could be disproportionate, but mysteriously, those tests do not apply under the nitrates directive.

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