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Farms not the main cause of water quality failures, says MP

FARMERS must not be made the scapegoats for the appalling levels of pollution in Britain’s waterways, Ian Liddell-Grainger has warned.

The MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset  says it must be recognised that high phosphate levels currently being recorded across the country owe more to discharges from sewage treatment plants than agricultural run-off.

And although he has welcomed measures, including those in the Environment Bill, to remedy the situation, he says Government, water companies and the Environment Agency should have seen it developing – and reacted – well before now.

Phosphate concentrations on the Somerset Levels – part of which lie within his constituency – have now risen to such a degree that an embargo on new house-building had to be imposed across the county last year, paralysing dozens of schemes.

Scientists have warned the contamination is now so severe in some places it is threatening not only wildlife but the Levels’ international protected status.

New targets

The Environment Bill obliges water companies to draw up new targets for reducing phosphate pollution and gives the Government additional powers to enforce action. Already £4 billion has been earmarked by the companies for environmental improvements between now and 2025.

The Environment Agency recently produced statistics showing that once effluent quality from treatment works has been cleaned up agriculture will be the single largest source of environmental pollution.

But Mr Liddell-Grainger believes the measures had taken far too long to put in place

He said: “This is a classic case of bolting the stable door when the horse is already two miles down the road.

“The current situation is the result of the Government-driven housebuilding programme which has placed more strain on older sewage treatment plants; the failure of the water companies to invest to take account of that; and the failure of the Environment Agency to hoist the warning flag earlier when it was obvious that problems were developing.

Not created overnight

“This situation is not one that has been created overnight: it has been creeping up us for years but no-one has chosen to confront it. And it is certainly not acceptable to make farmers carry the can.”

Ministers are also allocating £17 million extra for their Catchment Sensitive Farming programme, including money to appoint 50 new Environment Agency inspectors.

But Mr Liddell-Grainger said he expected the farming industry to be offered help and encouragement to achieve lower pollution targets.
“This is a situation where we need to see more carrot than stick,” he said.

Farmers complying

“Most farmers have already complied, or are complying with the various requirements that are already in force but further regulation must be applied in a measured way.

“I do not want to hear of any further cases such as the one I encountered recently where an Environment Inspector presented a list of such infeasible requirements to a dairy farmer that he simply picked up the phone to the auctioneers and arranged to sell his herd.

“I have seen the projections suggesting than once discharges from sewage works are cleaned up agriculture will be the biggest contributor to environment pollution.“But they are only projections. And given the enormity of the task facing water companies no-one can be certain that the timescale suggested for resolving the problem can or will be me.

“Until such time as it is no-one – water companies, local authorities, Environment Agency or Government – should be trying to blame agriculture for the current, appalling situation.”

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