07 August 2019

Ben Underwood

It goes without saying that water is essential for farms to be productive and profitable. However, the East of England faces some challenging times regarding the use and management of water in the region.

Severe flooding in some areas this summer and concerns in others that water abstraction licences, which allow farmers and landowners to take water from a natural source, are being revoked without compensation, is creating a difficult climate for profitable food production and land management.

Extreme weather events such as the devastating flooding in Lincolnshire in June brought to the fore some of the significant challenges the East of England faces in terms of water management. Many farmers and landowners feel vulnerable to the risk of flooding and the devastation it could cause their land and rural businesses.

By way of contrast, we know of some landowners in East Anglia who are having their licences to abstract water revoked by the Environment Agency due to concerns over low water levels and the environment. While we recognise there is the need for sustainable abstraction, the fact that these licences are being taken away without any compensation is of great concern.

Earlier this year, the CLA submitted a response to a government consultation, Improving our management of water in the environment and Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), has now published its answers, indicating whether they intend to go ahead with a range of proposals.

There were numerous important wins for the CLA and those it represents. Our response highlighted the importance of water trading, better options for water storage and the need to take into account all aspects of a farm business before considering reducing or revoking abstraction licences.

All of this has been listened to, with the government making it clear that water trading and flexible abstraction will be encouraged, there will be grants for farmers to invest in things like on-farm reservoirs, and that any changes to abstraction licences will be done on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all aspects of a farm business.

The CLA has always been very supportive of local Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) as we strongly believe that they are often the best placed groups locally to manage water levels and reduce flood risk. We made this point in our submission, encouraging the government to look at a new funding methodology to make it easier for new IDBs to be formed where they are needed, and existing ones expanded. This looks very likely to be going ahead which is excellent news.

The CLA, and many other farming groups, heavily criticised proposals to reduce or remove abstraction licences without providing compensation. This is something we know is happening in East Anglia. We argued that permanent abstraction licences are property rights and business assets – even when they are not in use. Climate change and a growing population will mean it is likely farmers will be using them in the future. Removing licences without compensation will have huge consequences for farmers across the country.

Despite our evidenced objections, and a unified voice from the sector, it looks likely that Defra will proceed with these proposals. Given the importance of licences to many farmers, we will explore all avenues, starting with returning to Defra and the Environment Agency as a matter of urgency stressing the need to review their current position.

While we will continue to make the case for our members on this particular issue, we are delighted to have secured some important wins for the CLA in the management and use of water.

In June this year, Water Resources East (WRE), of which the CLA is a key partner, was officially established as a not for profit, independent company. The focus of WRE – is to recognise the impact that climate change and population growth will continue to have on Eastern England’s finite water supply, combined with the need to enhance the environment in this region. This will be a key forum for raising concerns and new ideas regarding the use and management of water in the future and the CLA will be an important voice around the table.