Alan Lovell: NFU Conference 2024 ‘Farming and the Environment: the Regulator’s view’

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Minette, thank you. It is the greatest possible pleasure to be here.  

I must say not many people have had the privilege of being set up for this discussion both by your president and by the Prime Minister in union this morning, and I’m sure that will give you opportunity for some challenging questions as we go along, as they both encouraged.  

I regret to say that I’m not a farmer. But my father was. My father was a dairy farmer. And all my grandparents and great grandparents were farmers on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border. And my uncle Charlie was farming on Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary in 1953. You can take it that I get farming and I get flooding.  

I also get the vital nature of food production. And I was so pleased to hear your President this morning say that she regards food production and a healthy environment as two sides of the same coin. That is the basis on which I would like to be forging the relationship between the Environmental Agency and the agriculture sector. 

We are in tough times I need hardly say that, with growing increasing temperatures. You’re familiar with these graphs, I think. But one that particularly stands out for me is this one which shows anomalies divergence from the average over the last 80 years, with the 40s and 50s in blue, the 60s and 70s in pink, the noughties in red but 2023 way out on its own.  

It was a very disturbing year for the climate. And I could show you a similar graph, this is air temperature, but I could show you similar for water temperature and for Antarctic ice. And as we all know, increases in temperature have a disproportionate effect on humidity.  

That’s relevant to us in the Environment Agency because, although we do some other important work on waste management and air quality, our primary focus is water. Flood, drought, and water pollution. And of course, all three of those are vital to you as well.  

Let’s start with flood. I know that many of you have experienced devastating flood and drought events, and I know that it can take a huge financial and emotional toll upon you and your families including some devastating long term mental health impacts. And we will never forget that.  

This winter has been appalling. I have been around the country a fair bit. Top left is a 1600-acre farm in Lincolnshire, entirely underwater apart from the farm and farm buildings on a little island in the middle.  

The three months at the end of last year was the wettest that we’ve had in this country since 2000 and the third wettest since 1871. I am very proud of how the Environment Agency dealt with those floods. But I’d also like to pay tribute to the NFU who worked closely with us to help warn and inform farmers during those record events. And to farmers yourselves for the support you provided for local communities in those times of flooding. 

We do want to help you to adapt, improve resilience and thrive despite the greater climate challenges that are coming. Protecting farmland is one of the key outcomes for our £5.2 billion over six years flood and coastal investment programme. We know that there is a perception that the vast majority of our investment in flood defences goes to protect urban populations. And it’s true that flat schemes must be measured against the impact on people, and quite right too. But that does not mean that we don’t protect rural communities. And as the Prime Minister mentioned this morning, approximately 40% of our schemes and 45% of the value investment better protects rural communities. And since 2015, our investments have better protected over 400,000 hectares of agricultural land.  

One aspect is watercourse maintenance which you care about. The NFU is calling for proactive management plans from the Environment Agency, controlling water courses and flood defences. But it is important to us to recognise that our water courses also fulfil other roles including water for obstruction, corridors for nature and providing opportunity for navigation and leisure. It’s not as simple as it may sound.  

In 2022 and 2023 we spent over £200 million pounds, maintaining flood risk assets. And I’m glad to say that rose by £25 million this year. Asset Management vision and plans programme are published online, and we really do prioritise maintenance work that on assets to provide the greatest flood risk benefits.  

We know that many of you would like to see more dredging. It’s not as clear cut as it seems, for a number of reasons. One, that the amount of extra volume that you can create doesn’t actually go very far compared with the vast areas of water that we have suffered.  

And second, I’m sure you will see that unless you dredge or get open water all the way to the sea, it really doesn’t help very much. It’s not always the best solution. We do take it seriously. We consult with locals, the IDBs and local farmers, local communities, about whether it’s the best way ahead and we shall continue to do so. But there is a limit to it.  

Demaining is another thing that you would like to see, and I think many of you will have heard my views on this. I favour it. I think that generally the use of local experience, expertise and equipment is good. But again, it’s not quite as simple as that. We carried out a series of pilots in 2018 and across those locations, they did generally do a good job and encouraged us to look for others, but there are challenges including financial responsibility. The process remains complex and time consuming but trust me we will be looking at it and I shall back it where we reasonably can.  

But there are other ways. Public sector cooperation agreements, particularly where we work with the internal drainage boards are really important. We have 40 of those in place, and there will be more to come. And the announcement today is incredibly helpful on this. £75 million has been allotted by the government today for us to work with IDBs, both to repair some of their equipment which has been damaged in the recent floods, but also to do more looking forward. And that can include opportunity for demaining. So, I was quite delighted to hear that announcement from the Prime Minister this morning. 

I also want to make sure that you know that you can do it if you want to. You, the riparian owners, have the responsibility for looking after these rivers. We have powers as well, but you can carry out appropriate maintenance. We shall encourage that wherever we can. I know that of course on major schemes, you need permits, and we can talk about permitting later. I think we are on the case with that. But above all use common sense. You use common sense on work, and we shall use common sense too. 

So, a big issue is using land for flood storage. And in some locations, that’s the best solution. And of course, as your president has already mentioned, you feel that it is often provided at great cost and that you want to be paid fairly for that, with agreements put in place to enable it to run smoothly.  

We will support where flood storage areas are seen to be appropriate as part of a flood risk management solution. But to be clear, we can’t use public flood money for areas that are already natural floodplains. There are other routes particularly through ELMs, which can support that, but we can’t use government flood money for it. But I was in Lincolnshire recently with the Secretary of State, and he asked us to look at this and how we can work with locals, local groups and internal drainage boards to see where we can take it further forward.  

Working with farmers and landowners is a vital part of our flood and coastal erosion management strategy roadmap up to 2026. And it’s a priority for us to help farmers and land managers to adapt their practices to be more resilient to the changing climate. And with the NFU we’ve committed to working together to quote “establish a rural resilience partnership focused on helping farmers and land managers adapt to a changing climate”. And we’re really looking forward to seeing what we can collectively achieve as we develop and plan that partnership with the other partners identified here. 

We need to drive innovation in this field. In September 2023, we launched a £25 million ring fence fund for natural flood management. It was open to farmers and to local communities. I’m delighted to say that there was a fantastic response to it, and the successful projects will be announced on Friday, but we are quite delighted with the response received.  

We’re also investing £150 million in the flood and coastal resilience innovation programme to develop, test and implement practical and innovative resilient actions in 25 local areas. And one of those wonderful project ‘Reclaim the Rain’ is a nice example of a primarily flood project, which also can help water resources. It’s working with large scale food producers. 

And I would like to move on to the subject of water resources, because although much attention at the moment is focused inevitably on flood and on water quality, it’s actually water resources that most bothers me.  

A combination of population growth, climate change, and movement of people to the southeast could leave us 4 billion litres a day short in this country of water. 

 That is a horrifying prospect. We do see a way of dealing with it. Roughly, I’m using big numbers here, but trying to deal with that 4 billion litres a day, we can see that new capital schemes, reservoirs and water transfer systems can provide two billion. If we can fix one third of the leakage, that’ll save one. And if we can drive down consumption from about 140 litres a day to 110, that will save two.  

But none of those are easy. That makes for five, but I would not want to rely on it. And if we don’t get there, then inevitably we will be putting pressure on not just on people drinking but on businesses and on you. So, we must all work together to do everything we can to conserve our water. So, I’m thoroughly in favour of water abstractor groups, delighted with the funding for onsite reservoirs and I encourage any of you who are not engaged in that already to take a good look at it.  

We are also trying to be as flexible as we possibly can over abstraction during crises of flood and drought.  

We do encourage you to be proactive in seeking obstruction licences. Try not to leave it until everybody else is, because that does test us on the permitting. But we are trying to be flexible, particularly where there’s an active flood warning in place. Or where we’re in officially declared flood conditions. As I mentioned earlier, our permitting has been way behind. We have caught up over the last month. We’ve made huge strides over the last 15 months. We are now up to our standard, which is achieving 75% within a prescribed timescale. We got to 78% last month. Is that good enough? It isn’t. But we are on the case, and we shall be trying to do more. So, I trust you will get permits quicker, but nevertheless, give us a chance, try and do it earlier.  

Now I’m going to go on to the subject of pollution and this will be an uncomfortable slide. For a start, you will be familiar with this data reflected in Defra’s Plan for Water. But the pollution from agriculture and from rural land, let’s say, is roughly equal to that coming from the water industry.  

And some of the pictures around here do not make for a nice viewing. I’m sure that nobody here has cows eating trough in the middle of a river or allows such seepage from their silage or indeed allows silt to pour into a river to that extent, but some people do it. 

I want to talk though, a bit about the water industry. Water companies have not been very good at this, it is as much of an understatement as I could say, they have been appalling and they know it. There is going to be a very significant investment in the water industry over the next five years, something like three times the investment that we have had in the current five-year period.  

I think that there has been an under investment in the water industry ever since Victorian times, for 125 years. It will take a long time to put this right but there will be a big, big increase over the next five years and that will continue. 

In addition, we have just announced today, as it happens, that we are going to take on up to 500 new extra people to increase our regulation of the water industry and we will be looking to make 4000 inspections next year and 11,000 the year after. That is restoring the position to something like what it was like before the cuts at the beginning of 10 to 15 years ago.  

So, I am optimistic, and I shall stick my neck out here, I am actually optimistic that a combination of the immense public and political pressure. Second, the investment that is going to start and third, our efforts by way of regulation, will make a difference to the water industry and that 36% will come down. 

I think that just increases the urgency on us all, us working with you to make absolutely sure that the agriculture number also comes down dramatically because otherwise it really will show up.  

You’re aware that we have significantly increased our inspections. We had a target of 4000 in the year 2022/23, we did that, and we’ll be a bit above that this year. Interesting perhaps to see the number of improvement actions, it’s running at about 1.4 improvement actions per visit. I think it is a KPI for us and for all of you that it should reduce. On the other hand, I am pleased that the action is being taken promptly, as you see, a number of improvement actions completed within the timescale here, so that’s good.  

What do we find? It won’t come as any surprise, failure to separate clean and dirty water, slurry stores, silage camps, lack of a nutrient management plan, soil testing. Some of that’s easy, let’s make sure that we all have proper nutrient management plans and soil testing. There’s no excuse for that, I know there are some cost issues, but we’ve got to do some of these things better. 

I stress that our regulation has been advice led, that has been the tradition and I confirm that it will remain and here is just a nice example of some pure advice to a farmer on silage effluent leakage and the building of a new clamp in accordance with new standards.  

Our officers are mindful of the great pressures that you are under, and we’ve held events in some areas to communicate how to handle an inspection and we should continue to do so. But equally, I think you will understand that in some cases, we will need to take enforcement action.  

Environment land management schemes were covered this morning. I think it’s great that the Prime Minister did commit to the retaining of the £2.4 billion and we work and advise Defra on many of those aspects, and we shall continue to do so. 

I hope you’re all working together; I’ve seen wonderful results from farm clusters. I’ve even encouraged one to be set up on the Upper Thames and happily it’s happened and it’s having a good impact. Generally, I think working together with other farmers and with other partners is vital. Many of you will be aware of the Poole Harbour project, there are some technical issues at the moment, which we need to deal with but the basic concept to which 202 farmers signed up, was highly encouraging.  

We helped by agreeing that those who joined the club would have reduced inspections and other benefits. We are open to those sorts of discussions, if that will make a difference.  

I’m going to finish rather nervously by talking about a subject which every person in the room knows more about than I do but I am passionate about soil. I started by talking about the EA priorities, flood, drought and water quality. I don’t need to say to this audience that healthy soils, full of organic matter with strong infiltration rates for water are great for flood resilience because they avoid runoff, are great for drought because water is stored and reduces the need for irrigation and great for water quality because they can absorb the nutrients and limit erosion. And of course, soil is also the best medium for storing carbon. It supports biodiversity, and it’s great for food production. Let’s do it together.  

We know that the NFU also feels passionately about it. You’ve said as much in the 2021 Foundation of food report on soil. Sadly, our state of the environment saw a report in 2019 showing that in England and Wales much of the soil is subject to compaction and erosion and climate change will in many cases make that worse.  

We are ambitious on this, the Environment Improvement Plan challenged us to have 40% of agricultural soil into sustainable management by 2028 and 60% by 2030, we are working with them on that. I hope that the government will respond positively to the EFRA committee’s soil health report of December 2023.  

A tremendous amount of good work is happening on our soil in universities, I was at a farming conference in Devon last week and it was great to see the dialogue with some of the soil professors there with some of the farmers but also some frustration, soil professors were saying ,‘Gosh, you’ve just been talking to me about something I wish I’d known that when I started this science scientific experiment’ so my message there is, as they were trying to say, please do engage with scientists in universities. 

The opposite applied there as well that many of the farmers who had really done a good job on their soil, wished that they had done work early on to get a solid baseline for their efforts so that they could see the improvement. So, I must encourage you all, we all know that our information on soil isn’t good enough, it’s a complicated subject, but the Defra soil team is seeking to simplify the categories of soil and we’re working with a wide range of partners to consider a unified approach. So, I do hope that we can make a difference here.  

I urge every one of you to set yourselves a personal KPI to improve your own soils, to be transparent in sharing your data and to be part of our effort to improve the information on our soils in the country. Between us we can restore, protect, and in places enhance soil health, which will help your business, certainly help my water challenges and leave a legacy which future generations will appreciate. 

To conclude, I am not a fool. There are times when you will not like the Environment Agency.  

It is our role to be good stewards of the environment and public money. That means that our decisions about how we spend money, for example on managing watercourses, will not always align with what you think we should do.  

Second, you don’t like our inspections. It’s understandable. But trust me, we are doing our best. We are really training new people who are starting. We’re putting them all or putting them all through mental health training and trying to get them as well equipped as possible. We’re also taking them on a more senior level than we were previously. We are doing our best on that.  

And third, there will be occasions when we have no choice but to prosecute businesses and individuals for serious breaches of environmental policies and procedures. And in the interests of the good reputation of the sector as a whole, I am sure that you would expect nothing less. I started by outlining that the EA’s principle focus is on water, enabling climate resilient places and creating cleaner and healthier rivers. You are our most important partners in delivering that endeavour. We stand beside you in recognition of your challenges, both financial and environmental. And we seek to work with you on the twin priorities of food production and environmental wellbeing.  

We help where we can with advice, investment and innovation programmes. We really appreciate the good work that you do. We really appreciate the partnerships that we have with you. And we look forward to working with you to do a whole lot more. Thank you very much for having me.

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