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UK/East Anglia: Water shake-up welcome but could become red tape nightmare says NFU

16:00 05 April 2014

Paul Hammett, water expert from the Fational Farmers' Union.

Paul Hammett, water expert from the Fational Farmers' Union.

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A proposed new water abstraction regime could work well, but has the potential to become a red tape nightmare, farmers’ leaders have warned.

Government proposals for the biggest shake up of water abstraction licensing in 50 years has thrown up “a mixed bag” for the farming industry, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) says.

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. The NFU agrees reform is necessary but has concerns.

Newmarket-based Paul Hammett, the NFU’s national water resources expert, 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 the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) 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.”

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