‘Farm water projects held up by confusing bureaucracy’

Farmers wanting to invest in critical water infrastructure are being hampered by confusing grant criteria and high costs imposed by planning authorities, experts have said.

An increasing number of farmers are looking into installing reservoirs and more efficient irrigation systems, following Environment Agency (EA) plans to reduce water abstraction licence volumes in some stressed or over-abstracted catchment areas.

But there was confusion over how the eligibility criteria for grant funding fitted with EA best practice guideline, said advisers. 

See also: Changes to water rules ‘threaten farming’

On top of this, there was a postcode lottery among local planning authorities, with some pushing applications through the full planning process, which was more lengthy and expensive.

Mike Lord, regional agricultural manager for East Anglia at AMC, said he was seeing an increasing number of farmers investing in water management projects.

These included reservoirs, upgrading underground piping, connecting boreholes to reservoirs, water harvesting equipment on buildings and more efficient irrigation technology.

“With dwindling supplies, a growing population and changing climate, securing adequate provision is a critical factor in future-proofing many farm businesses.”
Mike Lord, AMC

However, he said that some clients were being held up despite having agreement on borrowing and being in one of the country’s most water-stressed areas.  

“With dwindling supplies, a growing population and changing climate, securing adequate provision is a critical factor in future-proofing many farm businesses,” he said.

“But now, at a particularly important time of year, we’re experiencing difficulties moving these projects forward.

“Any new irrigation infrastructure should really be in place by now and reservoirs intending to fill from 2015-16 winter abstraction need to be under construction shortly.”

Postcode lottery for water projects

Simon Wearmouth, divisional partner at Brown & Co’s Norwich office, said different planning authorities were treating reservoir and irrigation proposals in different ways.

“Some apply the standard 28-day prior notification period at the minimum fee; others are forcing applications through a full planning process at significant time and cost to the farmer,” he said.

Confusing grant eligibility

Grant eligibility criteria was another issue, said Mr Wearmouth, as the new Countryside Productivity Scheme required applicants to reduce their historical abstraction volumes by 5%.

“It’s difficult to justify why a farmer would reduce his water use in this way when it would make far more sense to use his licensed quantity sustainably through better practice,” he said.  

“Furthermore, there’s a possibility that in not using 5% of his licensed quantity, a farmer risks having his abstraction licences cut by the Environment Agency.

“It’s actually in farmers’ interests to keep use at a maximum for as long as possible whilst utilising water sustainably.”

Urgent need to resolve issue 

The CLA’s head of environment Derek Holliday agreed there was an urgent need to address the lack of clarity holding up developments.

“The delivery of longer-term water management that mitigates flood risk and also plans for times of drought is essential for both town and countryside,” he said.

“However, farmers and landowners looking to play their part are often frustrated by the challenges they face.

“There needs to be greater clarity about the impact of reducing historical water consumption when applying for a grant, and a more consistent approach to the planning system for on-farm reservoirs.”

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