Environment Agency ‘not fit for purpose’, says Batters

Defra agencies including the Environment Agency and Natural England are not fit for purpose after Brexit, NFU president Minette Batters has said.

Addressing the NFU Conference on Monday 20 February, Mrs Batters said extreme weather has hit farming hard and farms across many parts of the country remain flooded.

It was vital that the government pays farmers to store water on their land and increase funding for on-farm reservoirs, she added.

See also: PM to unveil package of support for farmers at NFU conference

Mrs Batters later told prime minister Rishi Sunak that allowing farmers to store floodwaters on their land without payment was a “broken” system.

She asked Mr Sunak whether now, outside the EU, it was time for a reset to ensure Defra agencies are fit for purpose. But the prime minister chose not to respond directly to the question, said they were out of time and thanked the NFU for having him.   

Asked afterwards during a press briefing whether she believes the Environment Agency (EA) and other Defra agencies were fit for purpose, Mrs Batters said: “I don’t think they are fit for purpose post Brexit.

“I think there are questions to be asked about their purpose in the post-Brexit world. Natural England, as an example, has been given powers outside of government – is that fit for where we are now?

“They have a job to do, as they say. But does it work for the three criteria? We have to measure through the food security lens, the environment lens and the socio-economic lens. They are measuring through one lens, which is environment only.

“If you don’t measure with all three, you will end up with what I said in my speech, produce nothing, emit nothing, box ticked.”

Mrs Batters said she felt EA chairman Alan Lovell and chief executive Philip Duffy are “very refreshing”.

But she added: “We don’t have time on our side and I think the government must own the policy, and agencies must be accountable to parliament.”

EU compliance

During an afternoon session on farming and the environment, farmer Richard Bethan said Defra’s constituent agencies, the EA, Natural England, the Animal and Plant Health Agency and the Rural Payments Agency were designed expressly to deliver and administrate compliance with EU directives and regulations.

Now that the UK has left the EU, Mr Bethan asked Mr Lovell if he thinks Defra requires a radical restructure to focus on post-Brexit UK objectives and priorities.

Mr Lovell said he thought this would be a “terrible mistake”, explaining that the EA had just put in place a new chief executive and management team and they have “really exciting plans for improving the efficiency of the organisation and making a real difference”.

He added: “I really don’t think that putting us and Natural England back within an amorphous Defra is what you want to wish for.”