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Defra officer calls for a “wider dialogue” on water priorities in times of drought

A field of potatoes being irrigated. Picture: James Bass

A field of potatoes being irrigated. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2011

A spirit of compromise and co-operation can help keep vital supplies of water flowing to East Anglia’s farms – but only if farmers, environmentalists and other users can find common ground.

That was one of the key messages emerging from a winter farmers’ meeting at Easton and Otley College, discussing the topic of how to manage water supplies in an uncertain future of rising domestic demand and climate change.

One of the speakers was Henry Leveson-Gower, head of water abstraction at Defra, who updated the audience on the government’s planned reforms to make the water licencing regime “fairer and more resilient”.

He said that would include ending exemptions for horticultural “trickle” irrigators, and also changing the rule which can stop or reduce all abstraction licences for spray irrigation during a severe drought – known as a section 57 restriction.

“The one thing I can say to this audience is we’re proposing to get rid of Section 57,” he said. “No longer is agriculture picked out and targeted in times of drought. Of course the devil is in the detail, because we will replace it with something that is fairer, something that everyone is part of.

“It still opens up a dialogue, but a wider one – to say who gets control under what situation in times of drought. But we won’t have a section 57 saying you are the ones in the firing line. You become part of that wider dialogue. Fairness is so important, so having everybody feeling part of a collective endeavour in catchments is crucial.”

Martin Collison of Collison Associates said flooding and water supply should be seen as “two sides of the same coin” within that discussion, giving an example of an internal drainage board (IDB) in Lincolnshire which was pumping enough water out to sea each year to meet the domestic needs of a million people.

“As far as I am concerned, we are not short of water,” he said. “It is about the way we manage it.

“It is not just about looking at one aspect of water. We all need to work together.”

Andrew Francis, farm manager at the Elveden Estate near Thetford, said he was involved in regular discussions with water companies and other abstractors in his catchment, but said it was difficult to get the same engagement from environmental groups.

“What has been really encouraging in the last three or four years is that we are openly talking to everyone involved in our catchment,” he said. “We sit down with Anglian Water and other abstractors and we get around a table because we have all got the same issues, and there are common solutions to it.

“I don’t think the pressures on us from the regulator are driven by the regulator. I think it is from pressure groups on the outside. I will quite happily sit in a room with anyone outside of agriculture to talk about what we do, but the challenge is getting those people in a room because they are so blinkered in their thinking, and if we cannot have that dialogue, how can we have a solution?”

Mr Leveson-Gower replied: “What I would say is we all have to understand where an environmental NGO (non-governmental organisation) is coming from.

“Environmental experts are very defensive of the standards they have set. But trust works both ways. They feel like they are not being listened to either. “Somewhere along the line we need to build bridges and understand where the other side is coming from. We won’t be able to have a conversation until we build up the trust.”

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