Soil Health Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Funding for remediation

1.Defra’s decision to withdraw Capital Grant funding for contaminated land remediation has undermined councils’ ability to meet their statutory duty under the Environmental Protection Act. Despite this, Defra appears complacent about the issue. Although local authorities hold the statutory duty to remediate contaminated land under Part 2A, 83% of Part 2A projects between 2000 and 2013 relied on Defra’s Capital Grant Scheme for funding. With this scheme to be fully withdrawn from 2017, and in the context of wider financial pressure, we have heard evidence that local authorities are having difficulty meeting this duty, making Part 2A “virtually unworkable”. It is therefore not credible for Defra to suggest that withdrawing the Capital Grant Scheme has not had a detrimental effect on councils’ ability to meet their statutory duty. The rationale Defra gave in 2014 for not producing an impact assessment for withdrawing the funding was entirely spurious: the fact that most Part 2A remediation depended on the funding is sufficient for its withdrawal to require an assessment. The decline of Part 2A has implications for both health inequality and regional inequality. Contamination in high-value areas such as London will continue to be remediated through planning, while sites in other cities such as Middlesbrough, Liverpool and York will not be identified or remediated at all. (Paragraph 23)

2.We are disappointed that Defra’s recently-announced temporary funding for contamination clean-up does not match the scale of the problem and the possible implications for regional inequality and public health. Funding should match the previous scheme—the £17.5m made available in 2009–10 amounts to around £19.6m in 2016–17 prices—and Defra should consider an ongoing dedicated funding stream for Part 2A. Defra should undertake a detailed assessment of the effects of its earlier decision to withdraw capital grant funding for contaminated land remediation, including (a) the ability of local authorities to meet their statutory duties in the absence of this funding, and (b) the consequences for health and inequality. DCLG should make clear what proportion of funds allocated to local authorities through the Revenue Support Grant are in service of statutory contaminated land duties. (Paragraph 24)

Data gathering on contaminated land

3.The Minister was mistaken to describe data-gathering on contaminated land as voluntary, when it is in fact required by statute. The fall in response rate from 90% to 60%, coupled with the seven-year interval between publications, is not commensurate with the importance of the issue. Defra’s approach to this dataset is completely out of step with its wider drive for better environmental data. The Government publishes hundreds of data indicators at local authority level on an annual compulsory basis, and there is no obvious reason why data on contaminated land should not be subject to the same arrangements. The fact that contaminated land is the responsibility of local authorities gives no reason for Defra to refrain from collecting data. We urge the Government to redouble its efforts to collect adequate data on contamination, which will allow us to better understand the link to health and inequality. (Paragraph 27)

4.Defra should begin annual reporting of the state of contaminated land in England and Wales from 2017/18, in line with many other local authority-level data collections. All local authorities should be expected to respond, as the law requires. This data need not be as detailed as the current, occasional, Environment Agency surveys—but should cover at minimum (a) number of sites identified, (b) number of sites remediated including funding category, and (c) level of resource available at a local level to carry out Part 2A duties. Meanwhile, Defra should continue to seek data from councils who did not respond to the recent survey, and should provide reassurance on whether any authorities failed to respond to both of the two most recent surveys. (Paragraph 28)

Action to improve soil organic matter

5.Soil organic matter content and carbon levels are central to the ability of soil to provide essential services to society. Soil also has to the potential to help mitigate climate change: it should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Carbon losses pose a threat to the sustainability of food production, with some of the most productive land in England at risk of becoming unprofitable within a generation due to soil erosion and loss of carbon. The imperative to increase carbon levels in soils is clear, and there is widespread agreement on how organic matter and thus carbon levels can be improved. Despite this, data shows that carbon levels in arable soils have been declining. For the Government to meet its ambition for all soils to be managed sustainably by 2030, and to ensure agricultural resilience and minimise the effects of climate change, urgent action is required to reverse this trend and increase carbon levels in all soils. If significant amounts of soil carbon continue to be lost into the atmosphere then this will make it harder and more expensive to keep temperature increases well under 2 degrees as set out in the Paris Agreement. Every tonne of carbon maintained in soil gives greater flexibility to the rest of the economy in meeting our carbon budgets. (Paragraph 52)

6.At COP21 the Government signed up to an initiative to increase soil carbon levels by 0.4% per year: as part of the 25-year environment plan, it should set out specific, measurable and time-limited actions that will be taken to achieve this goal. (Paragraph 53)

7.Given the concentration of carbon in peatland soils, degradation and decline of peats is particularly concerning. Mismanagement of these soils could undermine the UK’s efforts to manage climate change. The Government should take tougher action to tackle land use practices which degrade peat, such as unnecessary burning and draining when crops are absent. It should set out what has been learned about lowland peat management from the research it undertook after the 2011 White Paper and explain how this will be used to inform future action. The Government should also step up its peatland restoration programme. The upcoming 25-year environment plan should explain what measurable and time-bound actions will be taken to first halt and then reverse peatland degradation while minimising the impact on agricultural capacity. (Paragraph 54)

The cross compliance regime

8.There is reason to doubt that the current cross compliance regime is achieving its goal of preventing soil damage. In 2015 only two breaches of the soil rules were detected. Moreover, the Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition standards are not ambitious enough to support Defra’s goal that all soils are managed sustainably by 2030, since they focus only on preventing damaging practices and not on restoration or improvement of soil quality. The requirements also fail to address important aspects of soil health such as soil biota and soil structure. (Paragraph 68)

9.The Government should produce and consult on proposals to increase the ambition, scope and effectiveness of cross compliance in order to mitigate the impact of agriculture on soil health and incentivise provision of wider ecosystems services such as water quality and flood protection. Revised requirements and incentives for landowners should be centred on restoration and improvement of soil quality and organic matter, and not merely a ‘damage limitation’ approach. The upcoming 25-year environment plan should indicate how the Government plans to ensure that the incentive structure for farmers will contribute to the sustainable management of all soils by 2030. In drawing up its partner 25-year plan for food and farming, Defra must ensure that measures to improve agricultural production do not lead to compromise on soil health. In particular, in meeting its goal to reduce burdens on farmers, Defra must not undermine the effectiveness of its policy levers to ensure soil protection. (Paragraph 69)

Subsidies for maize for anaerobic digestion

10.Maize production can damage soil health when managed incorrectly, and incentives for anaerobic digestion should be structured to reflect this. The double subsidy for maize produced for anaerobic digestion is counterproductive and has contributed to the increase in land used for maize production. This subsidy regime represents a clear case in which better joined-up thinking across Government is required in order to ensure that soils are managed sustainably. The Government’s ambition to manage all soils sustainably by 2030 cannot be met if Defra does not achieve buy-in from other departments to achieve the ambition. (Paragraph 77)

11.Renewable energy subsidies for anaerobic digestion should be restructured to avoid harmful unintended consequences. Revisions should either exclude maize from the subsidy altogether or impose strict conditions on subsidised maize production to avoid practices in high-risk locations which lead to soil damage. The broader cross-compliance regime has not proved sufficient to prevent such damage. Defra and DECC should work together to evaluate the impact of energy policy on soil health across the board. The upcoming 25-year environment plan should include specific plans for inter-departmental working and structures of accountability with the goal that soil protection is not simply the responsibility of Defra, but rather is a factor against which any policy can be measured. (Paragraph 78)

Monitoring soil trends

12.As Defra recognises, collection of data is key to developing effective policy. The lack of an ongoing soil national monitoring scheme undermines the Government’s goals to managing soils sustainably. The lack of monitoring prevents us from having nation-wide knowledge about trends in the health of our soil. This gap is not new, and successive Governments have ducked the challenge since the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution recommended a national monitoring scheme in 1996. (Paragraph 92)

13.While ad hoc studies and one-off research are useful, they cannot replace a rolling national programme. We recognise that the slow-changing nature of soil properties must be borne in mind when designing soil monitoring, but this is not an excuse for long periods without certainty as to when future monitoring will take place. The state of our knowledge about soil health would be better served by an ongoing programme. The evidence we heard suggests that such a programme would be feasible, affordable, and could deliver significant benefits. The Welsh approach of a rolling programme, with one quarter of sites evaluated each year, provides a useful model for this. (Paragraph 93)

14.Defra reports that work on developing soil quality indicators has been ongoing since 2003. It has also been in possession, since 2008, of a report detailing how to combine past monitoring programmes. By now Defra should be in a position to propose a set of indicators and a method of analysis. Our witnesses told us that it is not difficult to assemble a range of indicators to reflect soil health, and that soil organic carbon levels should be central to this. (Paragraph 94)

15.We recommend that the Government develop plans for an ongoing national-scale programme to monitor soil health, potentially aligned with and co-funded by EU payments as in Wales to provide the control for soil change within agri-environment schemes and other initiatives. Merely noting an intention to undertake a new survey in the future, as Defra does, is not adequate—a one-off enterprise each decade does not provide the strategic approach we need to maintain due focus on soil health. A new ongoing programme should ensure coverage of land which has previously reported as undergoing degradation and a suitable range of indicators to assess the provision of ecosystems services. (Paragraph 95)


16.Soil is crucial to society. Neglecting soil health could have dire consequences for food security, climate change, and public health. Some of the most productive agricultural land in England is at risk of becoming unprofitable within a generation through soil erosion and loss of carbon, and the natural environment will be seriously harmed. The importance of soil has not always been reflected in public discourse or Government policy, with soil receiving little attention compared to issues like air, water and biodiversity. (Paragraph 100)

17.Defra’s upcoming 25-year environment plan should seek to rectify this long-standing deficit and place soil protection at the heart of environmental policy. Defra must also ensure that its accompanying 25-year plan for food and farming does not sit in tension with its environment plan. We must move away from viewing soil merely as a growth medium and treat it as an ecosystem in its own right. We call for more joined up soil policy between Government departments to ensure no clashes in priorities. As well as taking national action, the Government should remain open to action on a European level to ensure soil protection. (Paragraph 101)

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27 May 2016