New rules may require restructure permission

DEFRA HAS proposed new regulations which aim to stop farmers undertaking large-scale restructuring projects – which could include fencing or hedging – without first seeking permission.

The government has published a consultation paper which proposes that farmers should be required to contact the Rural Development Service before they carry out the large-scale removal or addition of hedges, walls, fences, tracks and ditches.

It also proposes they seek permission if they want to re-contour agricultural land or create or fill in a lake or reservoir.

The document suggests several thresholds to determine whether an activity would be classed as “large-scale”.

The lowest threshold put forward is 1km for a hedge, wall or fence in a sensitive area such as a national park or a Site of Special Scientific Interest, or 2km in a non-sensitive area.

For area-based projects, the lowest figure suggested is 50ha (123 acres) of non-sensitive land or 20ha (50 acres) of sensitive land.

If the thresholds were breached, the RDS would look at the project and decide whether it could go ahead or whether a full Environmental Impact Assessment was needed.

Even if the project was smaller than the threshold, the RDS would have the right to stop work proceeding if it felt environmental damage would result.

Junior DEFRA minister Jim Knight said: “The new rules need to strike a balance between giving targeted protection to our landscape and biodiversity, and giving farmers the flexibility to go about the business of sustainable agriculture.

“These new regulations need to complement recent changes to farm subsidies and the launch of Environmental Stewardship.

Taken together, these changes promise to transform the rural environment over the years and decades ahead.”

Andrew Clark, NFU head of policy services, said although it would be rare for the thresholds included in the document to be breached, the consultation had to be dealt with carefully.

This was because environmental groups could suggest significantly lowering the thresholds, he warned.

“We’ve got to be really careful about this, particularly because we are going through such a period of change. There is a real danger of gold-plating this measure and that is going to be a major issue.”

Colin Hedley, conservation adviser at the Country Land and Business Association, said EIAs had a role to play, but they should not affect the development and evolution of the countryside.

“I have been reassured by the signals coming from DEFRA, but we have got to put in a robust response to the consultation, as some of these measures could be counter-productive,” he said.

The deadline for responses to the consultation is Nov 14. The government has said it would like the new rules to be in place in early 2006.