Environment Minister Richard Benyon MP delivered the opening speech for the Water Summit at East Malling Research highlighting the Government's achievements to date but more importantly emphasising the need for the sector to recognise its importance in the development of the forthcoming Water Bill.
The conference was convened by the Farming and Rural Issues Group South East (FRIGSE), with support from the CLA and NFU, which brought together representatives from Southern Water, Defra, County Councils, local Rural and Farming Networks, the Environment Agency, Laurence Gould Partnership, East Malling Research as well as local landowners and farmers including Lowaters Nursery and Thanet Earth.
FRIGSE Chairman and Summit Organiser Andrew Colquhoun said: "It was heartening that the Minister seemed to be more open-minded about the idea of some form of ring-fencing for food production than Defra have been in the past. Water security is fundamental to increased production by farmers and growers. Yet, parts of the south and east of England only get the same rainfall as Beirut. We want to ensure that farmers and growers in the region have access to a fair share of water resources and enjoy equal status with other users, given their vital role as producers. Among the first steps must be measures to encourage the development of on-farm water storage and flexibility in the abstraction licensing regime."
During the Summit, Environment Agency National Water Resources Manager Ian Johnson highlighted the Environment Agency's flexibility as drought loomed earlier in the year and the need for the next round of work in 2015 on river basin management systems to include business growth as an objective.
Southern Water Quality and Strategy Manager Meyrick Gough highlighted how the company supplies its water from different sources across the region and how they now work with other water companies to bring in water from other areas when required.
While representatives from Lowaters Nursery in Hampshire and Thanet Earth in Kent presented case study examples of how they have utilised reservoirs and rainwater runoff systems to combat our unpredictable weather to maintain competitive advantage.
To bring the Summit to a close a selection of major stakeholders including the CLA, Environment Agency, Defra and Southern Water took to the stage for a panel question and answer session.
CLA South East Regional Director Robin Edwards said: "This Summit provided a chance to hear direct from Government where they see water security in wider policy work but especially linked to food security. It was also important for both Panel speakers and attendees to hear the issues and problems they face so that a true partnership can be delivered for the future to ensure a fair supply is given to this valuable sector.
Back in July the CLA welcomed proposals that offered businesses more choice in the water market as set out in the draft Water Bill. Farmers and growers in the South East are increasingly worried about the long-term availability of water at an economic price in a region which is facing substantial increases in urban demand for water and more frequent dry winters. It is vital we have a well-constructed framework that ensures a fair allocation of water so farmers and land managers can meet the future challenges of food production and land management. We hope that through the Water Bill and the subsequent review of the abstraction system, the long-term needs of farmers and growers will be given proper priority."
Robin Edwards spoke to ITV Meridian at the Water Summit: http://vimeo.com/53355490