EUROPEAN river protection rules are racking up a bill of billions of pounds, including costs to farmers, but are delivering notably poor value for money, according to a heavyweight team of researchers working on a government commission.
They say that if politicians want to save money, they should go back to Europe to insist on the freedom to apply the rules only when the benefits would outweigh the costs.
The researchers looked into the implications of the European Water Framework Directive on the Yorkshire side of the Humber catchment, using figures supplied by Askham Bryan College on the importance of fertiliser to farm incomes and interviews with farmers along the Wharfe, Aire, Ouse and Calder.
They were commissioned by the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, a collaboration between several government-funded science research councils, to look into ways of assessing value for money from river improvement. Their report was announced this week under the headline: “Implementing the European Water Framework Directive could drive some farmers out of business.”
Lead researcher Ian Bateman, of East Anglia University, said they had not actually said that. But they had said the drive to reduce run-off of pollutants into water courses “could have serious economic consequences for the countryside”.
Professor Bateman said the costs were falling indirectly on everybody, through water company charges. But farmers were paying more on top, in increased costs. And that meant rural economies were bearing a disproportionate share of the burden for measures which mainly benefited urban areas by enhancing the leisure experiences of a lot of canoeists, walkers and anglers.
The returns in recreation could be valued and would sometimes make the investment in cleaner water worthwhile. And the researchers propose a sophisticated formula for working out where and how. But at the moment, all EU members are locked into applying the rules to all water. And that means the returns are often very small.
Prof. Bateman said: “This legislation was not designed with any thought about pay-offs and costs. It was assumed all improvement would be good. Who would argue against cleaner rivers? But cleaner rivers cost a lot of money and maybe they are not such a good idea if they mean fewer hospitals.
“Once a certain level of improvement has been achieved, further measures make little difference to the environment or to the people who make use of it. We also have to recognise that those paying the costs of cleaning up rivers may not be the same people that enjoy the resulting benefits.
“These are important messages, particularly at a time of financial austerity and concerns over local communities.”
Prof. Bateman said the Water Directive was having a huge impact, but in so many directions it was hard to cost. The lowest estimate he had seen for overall cost to the UK was £2bn by 2015 and the highest was £9bn but “nobody really knows”.
He added that some anglers had been less enthusiastic about it than might have been expected. They were worried that better fishing would mean more privatisation of river stretches.
Prof. Bateman led a team from the universities of East Anglia, Manchester, Cranfield and Aberystwyth, and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
Catchment area funding
CONCERN over the prospect of a UK failure to meet European water quality targets has pushed Defra into announcing increased funding for capital works to prevent run-off from farms in areas designated “catchment sensitive”.
And the closing date for applications to be received by Natural England has been extended. Grant limit is £10,000 per holding – an increase of £2,000 on last year. Farmers can check whether their land is in a priority catchment at http://tinyurl.com/6cyeomr. Or call 0300 060 1111.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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