Government proposals for the biggest shake up of water
abstraction licensing in 50 years throws up a mixed bag for the farming industry, according to the NFU.
The consultation paper, ‘Making the most of every drop’, proposes replacing the existing system of licences with new Abstraction Permissions (AP).
Seasonal conditions and separate licences for winter or summer abstraction would disappear. Instead APs would contain conditions linking access to water
availability. This would allow higher flows to be abstracted all year, not just in winter, but would restrict use on all abstractors during very low river flows.
In its response, the NFU agrees that the system should be reformed and is pleased that the Government has started the debate. However, there is real concern with some of the important details.
Paul Hammett, NFU national water
resources specialist, said: “The way that water
is managed and licensed in this country can definitely be improved. And since farmers hold some two-thirds of all abstraction licences issued in England & Wales, while abstracting less than one per cent of water
in terms of total volume, we want to be fully involved in shaping a new and improved system.
“We like some of Defra’s ideas, particularly those that will allow farmers to more easily take surface water
at high flows coupled with an improved scheme for trading water. We also welcome the suggestion that water
should be increasingly managed on a catchment by catchment basis. There are advantages in moving away from national ‘broad brush’ rules to a governance system that tackles local problems.
“But there are potential pitfalls of such major changes. The revocation of all irrigation licences to be replaced by new APs could be a real bonus if the new regulations are ‘simple, low cost and fair to all users’ – but the transition could also become an administrative nightmare.
“We will also be pressing Defra to recognise the special circumstances that apply to irrigated cropping – full volumes of water
may only be needed in one dry year in 10, but that does not mean that the unused water
in the other nine years is ‘spare’. And we are concerned about some important omissions - surely devising solutions to water
scarcity during drought must be part - and indeed a key part - of the review process. Yet managing water
in scarce conditions is not really addressed.
“It is vital that any new system is designed to increase our water
security and ensure that farmers and growers get fair access to water
to grow the nation’s food.”
NFU Vice President Guy Smith said: “Hopefully our Government realises that, after years of decline, there is a now a need to increase agricultural, particularly horticultural, output in this country. Giving our farmers’ and growers’ access to enough water
is key to achieving this goal.”
Guy Poskitt, NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman, added: “It is essential that horticulture has a good, reliable supply of water
to deliver high quality British produce to our customers. Any reduction of water
would be catastrophic to the industry, resulting in a reduced supply of British produce, job losses and increased imports.”