Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Seventh Report



The implementation of the Nitrates Directive in England might appear to be a technical and specialist subject, but its importance to the 195,500 farmers who could be affected, and its wider significance in terms of the water quality that we all enjoy, are considerable. The Directive was adopted in 1991 to reduce water pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources. It requires member states to designate as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) areas of land that drain into polluted waters and to set up Action Programme in these zones. The European Commission is still not satisfied with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra's) implementation of the Directive.

The Directive is flawed. Unlike more recent legislation, such as the Water Framework Directive, it imposes prescriptive rules to achieve its aim. Moreover, the scientific basis for some of the figures mentioned in the Directive is at best unclear. However, despite its shortcomings, it appears to be here to stay and Defra must convince the Commission that it is complying with the Directive's terms, especially as other member states have managed to do so.

In the summer of 2007, Defra launched a consultation on the Nitrates Directive and proposed a number of changes. We conclude that there is insufficient evidence to asses how effective the current Action Programme in England has been in reducing nitrate pollution. However, in the light of the Commission's legal action against Defra, we agree that changes need to be made to bring England into compliance with the Directive.

Some of Defra's proposals are welcome and sensible. Others, such as those relating to the storage of manure, need further refinement. The proposal to require farmers to sow cover crops on land that would otherwise be left bare over winter should be dropped from the Action Programme altogether. Cover crops are not required under the Directive, would have a negative impact on biodiversity, and are not suitable for all soil types.

The proposed new Action Programme will place a considerable financial burden on livestock and dairy farmers at a time when they are ill-equipped to meet these costs. The Report recommends that Defra should make representations to the Treasury on the need for support in the form of tax relief for the construction of slurry storage facilities.

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