Abstraction reform ‘poses threat to food production’, NFU and CLA delegates warn

NFU water expert Paul Hammett.

NFU water expert Paul Hammett. - Credit: Archant

New rules on water abstraction must be accompanied planning reform to assist the creation of on-farm reservoirs, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been told.

The vital importance of a secure water supply for fruit and vegetable businesses was highlighted when a delegation of growers, including a number from Suffolk and Essex, met with Environment Minister Rory Stewart.

Members of both the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) were invited to Westminster to discuss proposed changes in the water abstraction licensing system.

NFU delegates included East Anglia regional director Robert Sheasby, Chris Newenham of Wilkin & Sons, Tiptree, and Andrew Blenkiron of the Elveden Estate who was also part of the CLA delegation together with Andrew Francis from the Euston Estate and Robin Upton of Upton Suffolk Farms, near Bury St Edmunds.

Climate change and population growth are both expected to add to the pressure on water supplies, and there are concerns that the present abstraction system does not create a sufficient incentive for farmers to use water efficiently or provide for timely changes to licences where abstraction is damaging the environment.

However, the delegation at this week’s meeting, which also included NFU water specialist Paul Hammett and the CLA’s head of land use, Damian Testa, stressed the need for flexibility if the UK’s ability to grow food is not to be compromised.

In particular, fears were expressed that future allocations of water could be constrained to the levels of historic “base years” which may have seen average or high levels of rainfall, therefore meaning that less abstraction of watercourses was required.

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There were also calls for an easing of planning rules for the creation of on-farm reservoirs, in order to help farmers store more water at times when it is in plentiful supply.

Paul Hammett said: “The Government wants abstraction reform to deliver a system whereby water use is aligned more closely to water availability, so allowing all users greater access to surplus water but restricting their access when supplies are limited.

“It follows that the ability to capture and store water for use during times of scarcity will be crucial, and farmers took this chance to tell the minister that the removal of current fiscal and regulatory barriers to more reservoir construction projects was long overdue.”

Damian Testa said: “The ability for farm businesses to continue to abstract the water they need to produce food is critical. If this important challenge is not met, UK food production and jobs will both be at risk, with shortfalls in domestic production being met by imports.”

And he added: “The new abstraction licensing system must be supported by other Government policies that can improve the success of the new system.

“If we are to have drier, hotter summers then it makes perfect sense that the new system is underpinned by a more sympathetic planning regime towards on-farm reservoirs. Currently the cost and length of time to decide planning applications is a major disincentive.”

For more food and farming news, turn to the eacountylife supplement in today’s EADT.