Just one farm was sanctioned for breaking laws designed to stop water pollution out of 2,000 inspected, data shows.
[And: The Marine Conservation Society is announcing today that it is applying for a judicial review of the strategy, which does not require any improvement of the country’s storm overflows next to designated bathing sites until 2050.]
Adam Vaughan, Environment Editor www.thetimes.co.uk
About half had been found to have breached regulations.
Leading green groups have accused the Environment Agency of being missing in action, as figures released under freedom of information laws also show the regulator inspects only about 2 per cent of England’s farms a year to check compliance with pollution rules.
Although most public anger over England’s polluted rivers has been directed at water companies, nitrogen and phosphate pollution washing off farmers’ fields is the number one reason that waterways fail to meet good ecological standards.
Yet just 2,213 inspections to assess nitrogen pollution compliance took place on England’s 105,000 farms from the start of 2020 to the end of 2021, figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reveal.
About half the inspections found breaches, suggesting that even with such minimal oversight, incidents of pollution are frequent and widespread.
The lack of surveillance and enforcement has prompted two green groups, ClientEarth and WWF, to lodge a formal complaint with Britain’s post-Brexit green watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection. They argue the government is in breach of at least three regulations controlling nitrogen pollution.
“While many farmers are putting more sustainable practices in place, unfettered agricultural run-off from other farms is turning many of our rivers, streams and lakes into toxic soup,” said Kyle Lischak at ClientEarth, an environmental law group. “Inspections and sanctions remain pitifully low. We argue this failure is unlawful.”
Nitrogen is used by farmers in fertilisers but can pollute rivers when washed off fields, harm sensitive habitats on land and be released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Globally, 68 per cent of agriculture’s nitrogen emissions comes from crops grown to feed animals, followed by nitrogen released by the build-up and management of manure.
Tom Bradshaw, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “Good water quality is of paramount importance and farmers take their environmental responsibilities seriously and recognise the role their businesses can play, alongside producing food.” He said the farming industry had already made “great strides” on voluntary action to benefit waterways.
The government did not reply to requests for comment.
It is facing two new legal challenges against its recent flagship plan to cut sewage discharges from storm overflows. The Marine Conservation Society is announcing today that it is applying for a judicial review of the strategy, which does not require any improvement of the country’s storm overflows next to designated bathing sites until 2050.
“We’ve tried tirelessly to influence the government on what needs to be done, but their plan to address this deluge of pollution entering our seas is still unacceptable,” said Sandy Luk, the society’s chief executive.
Overflows within a kilometre of England’s marine protected area spilt untreated sewage 41,000 times last year, the society’s analysis of government data found.
The society’s legal challenge follows another by the environmental group WildFish, which announced last week that it was seeking a judicial review to see the plan withdrawn.
If granted, the cases may be heard together in court.