Exclusive: violations of farming rules for water last year reached highest level since legislation was introduced
The number of documented violations of legislation designed to reduce water pollution caused by agriculture in England has hit record levels as the rules remain largely unenforced.
Last year had the highest number of recorded violations of the farming rules for water since the legislation was introduced in April 2018, and environmental groups estimate tens of thousands of English farms continue to commit undocumented violations.
A total of 391 breaches were identified during the 2021-2022 financial year, which ended on 31 March, up from 106 breaches officially recorded in the previous year, according to data obtained by the Guardian and the investigative journalism organisation Point Source.
Despite the farming rules for water having been implemented more than four years ago, and the rising number of breaches being documented, the Environment Agency has yet to issue any fines or prosecute anyone under the legislation.
The increasing number of documented offences and the absence of a credible threat of enforcement of the law demonstrates a clear failure by the government to protect the country’s most fragile ecosystems, according to conservation organisations.
“It makes a mockery of our democracy and the rule of law if polluters are not prosecuted for blatant offences which cause misery and huge costs for many other people and businesses,” said Mark Lloyd, the chief executive of the Rivers Trust, a charity that works to protect Britain’s lakes and waterways.
“Agricultural pollution is the principal reason why our rivers are in such poor shape and ministers need to give regulators the resources and the mandate to take action against persistent offenders.”
The farming rules for water legislation gives the Environment Agency the power to prosecute or fine individuals and companies found to be polluting waterways with contaminated runoff water or acting in a way that creates a high risk of pollution.
Under the legislation, fixed penalties of £100 or £300 can be issued as well as “variable money penalties”, which can be as much as £250,000.
The rules were designed to combat agricultural pollution that is causing widespread environmental problems in rivers.
They focus mainly on the storage and distribution of animal waste and fertiliser in order to prevent damaging pollutants from farms running into rivers where excessive quantities of nitrogen can cause algae blooms that lead to oxygen depletion.
Runoff from agriculture is the biggest single polluter of rivers, responsible for 40% of damage to waterways, according to a report published by the Environment Agency in September 2020.
The report revealed that no river in the country had achieved good chemical status and only 14% were found to be of a good ecological standard.
Fertiliser runoff from farmland can kill fish and plants and have a knock-on impact for other wildlife that are part of the ecosystem, such as birds.
Over the past two financial years a total of 2,053 Environment Agency inspections have taken place identifying a total of 497 violations of the farming rules for water, according to data obtained by the Guardian.
The high number of violations discovered has led environmental organisations to estimate that around a fifth of the 106,000 farm businesses regulated by the Environment Agency are likely to be breaching the rules.
Nick Measham, the chief executive of the environmental group Salmon and Trout Conservation, said: “The new figures regarding the increasing number of officially documented violations and the failure to enforce sanctions are extremely concerning.
“Given our experience gained through our monitoring and the extremely low level of site visits carried out by the Environment Agency, it is conservative to estimate that as many as 20,000 of England’s farms would be likely to fail an inspection – if they were actually inspected.”
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We seek to use advice and guidance to bring farms into compliance, and impose sanctions only where farmers repeatedly fail to take necessary action.
“The secretary of state has issued new guidance on the interpretation of the rules and has said that if the Environment Agency determines that land managers have followed this guidance he does not normally expect them to take enforcement action.”
The Environment Agency’s decision not to use the sanctions at its disposal has been heavily criticised by conservation groups, who say that not punishing farming companies for breaking the law is having severe ecological consequences.
Alec Taylor, head of production policy at WWF, said: “The persistent failure to enforce these regulations, not least due to the systematic underfunding of the relevant regulatory bodies, reflects the UK government’s lacklustre approach to cleaning up England’s precious freshwater habitats.”
“UK nature is in freefall and … ministers simply cannot afford to keep shirking their responsibility to protect and restore these habitats, which are home to rare and vulnerable species like allis shad, otters and freshwater pearl mussels.”
Alice Groom, the RSPB’s senior policy officer, said: “Clearly the current system is not working if farmers and landowners feel the risk of punishment is near non-existent or the rewards for being responsible are not there.
“Failure to improve regulation will not only threaten the health of our natural environments and biodiversity, but also prevent the government from delivering against any of its new legally binding targets under the Environment Act.”
The Environment Act was passed last year and, in March, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set out targets under the act to reduce nutrient pollution in water in England.
It said it would cut phosphorus in treated sewage by 80% by 2037, and reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment from agriculture by 40% by 2037.