“The Environment Agency is “falling alarmingly short” in its efforts to protect rivers from agricultural pollution, the Worldwide Fund for Nature has said, after freedom of information requests revealed that new laws are barely being enforced.
The FOI data shows that the agency has no specific budget to enforce legislation introduced in April last year to protect waterways from fertiliser and manure pollution, which is one of the main reasons that more than 80 per cent of England’s rivers fail to meet the European Union’s minimum ecological standards.
The legislation enshrined into law official codes of practice that had existed for nearly 30 years.
However, the agency is yet to issue any farm with an enforcement notice, the step taken before any sanction is imposed. This is despite it being aware of at least 16 breaches of the new laws, five of which were reported by members of the public. It has written seven less serious warning letters to farmers in the past 17 months.
Justin Neal, of Fish Legal, a non-profit group that fights river pollution, said: “The farming lobby is clearly influential. I don’t know any other sector where regulations are brought in but not enforced for a full year or more.”
Guy Linley-Adams, who filed the FOI request for the WWF, said that the agency’s officers had confided that they lack sufficient resources. “They are absolutely threadbare,” he said.
Only 14 per cent of rivers in England met the minimum “good status” standards set by the EU last year, down from almost 25 per cent in 2009. Phosphorus pollution from fertilisers and manure, which causes algal blooms that choke river ecosystems, is one of the main reasons.
The Times revealed two weeks ago that no river in the country is now certified as safe for swimmers.
Under the new legislation, farmers must take measures to prevent manure, fertiliser and soil getting into watercourses, known as diffuse pollution. The Environment Agency says that it planned from the outset not to enforce the law during the first year and to instead issue advice to farmers.
Arlin Rickard, chief executive of the Rivers Trust, said: “Without robust sanctions in place, it will be difficult to motivate those less engaged farmers to reduce their diffuse pollution.”
The WWF has said that the approach “falls short of providing any credible threat of enforcement”.
The FOI data also shows that the agency only has the equivalent of eight full-time staff to inspect England’s 212,000 farms. That means that each staff member would have to visit ten farms a day if all were to be visited within five years.
The Environment Agency said: “Clear, specific regulations were introduced to tackle the issue of water pollution caused by farms, strengthening already robust legislation . . . We work with farmers to make sure they are doing just this but will not hesitate to take enforcement action, including prosecution, where necessary.”