Farmers facing ‘extortionate’ new charges as new water regime comes into force

One of the reservoirs at onion growers P G Rix (Farms) Ltd which farms between Bures and Dedham Pict

Farmers are facing eye-watering increases in the cost of applying for a water abstraction licence Picture: SAM RIX - Credit: Sam Rix

Farmers are facing mind-blowing increases in what they are charged to apply for a licence to abstract water to irrigate their crops.

As of April 1, a new regime has been brought in which means some farmers are looking at their water licence applications shooting up from just £135 to £18,308 – 140 times the previous amount and more than 2,000 times the rate of inflation, experts have warned.

It follows a big government shake-up of water and environment rules. Farmers in drought-prone East Anglia – where many important and more irrigation-reliant crops are grown such as potatoes, carrots, onions, spinach, beetroot, parsnip, lettuce and asparagus – were braced for an increase. But once it came into force, they have been taken aback by the new pricing regime being implemented by the Environment Agency (EA). 

Paul Bradford, director of Sustainable Water Solutions, a specialist consultancy for water abstractors based in Framlingham, said his farmer clients were both appalled and stunned by the increases – which vary according to the amounts farmers are wanting to abstract.

Paul Bradford, director of Sustainable Farming Solutions in Framlingham

Paul Bradford, director of Sustainable Farming Solutions in Framlingham has been shocked at the huge rise in water abstraction licence fee application charges - Credit: Sustainable Farming Solutions

He cites a typical medium-sized application to abstract 120,000 to 200,000 cubic metres of water over winter for a farm reservoir where the cost has shot up to more than £18k. 

“Effectively they don’t have any choice because they need the permit,” he said.

He and his team had been encouraging farmers to abstract into their reservoirs in winter - which is much more sustainable as water levels at that point are high, he said.

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The pricing did not appear very joined up as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is offering grants to help farmers build these, he added.

“We knew that prices were going to go up but the scale of the increase has been a shock for everybody. The EA has been working on a review of their charges, but as this is based on cost recovery, we were expecting the increases to be at about the rate of inflation or in a worst case, to double. 

“When the new charges were published showing up to a 140 fold increase, we thought that there had been a mistake.  We work with Environment Agency officers all of the time – we even commented on their charging review – so we were surprised that they failed to mention that these astronomical increases were on the cards.

“This is particularly disappointing because it is bound to affect our work helping farmers move to more sustainable forms of water abstraction. We all know that Suffolk is one of the driest parts of the country and the Environment Agency tell us that it is suffering from too much water abstraction, needed to keep our taps running and to grow our food.  

“We have been working hard with local Environment Agency officers, the Essex and Suffolk Rivers Trust and other organisations, to encourage farmers to apply for new, sustainable sources of water. This includes high flow and flood water taken during the winter and stored in reservoirs, which can be used to irrigate crops during the drier parts of the year. These price rises are bound to make the move to more sustainable abstraction more difficult.”

He says the fees will vary but a small farmer reservoir of up to 50,000 cubic metres is now looking at £3,662 for an application, a small to medium farm reservoir of 50,000 to 120,000 cubic metres  £7,323, a medium farm reservoir of 120,000 to 250,000 cubic metres is £18,308 and a large farm reservoir of more than 250,000 cubic metres  is  also £18,308.

Tim Darby, manager of East Suffolk Water Abstractors Group (ESWAG), said farmers knew rises were coming and many had taken action to mitigate them but added: “It’s extortionate – absolutely extortionate – and what I’m upset at is we seem to have no ability to get into the background of how they have arrived at these charges.” 

An Environment Agency spokesman said: “Abstraction licence charges have not changed for 11 years and following extensive consultation with abstractors, including farmers and water companies, we introduced a new charging scheme this year to reflect the work the Environment Agency has to carry out and the benefits received by the abstractor.”