Linklog entries in February 2024

Wednesday, 28 February 2024

For the sake of the River Wye, please enforce the law 

On Friday, I chaired an event in Monmouth called ‘Restore the River’ on behalf of Friends of the River Wye. The recording is now available to watch on YouTube.

It was an ambitious evening with 14 sets of presenters, spanning environmental charities, farmers, agribusinesses and government agencies – all discussing what must be done to restore the River Wye.

The overwhelming takeaway was that we need the regulators – the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales – to enforce the law. Currently, when it comes to dealing with agricultural pollution, they mainly dish out advice and guidance.

Charles Watson, founder and chair of River Action, screwed up a template advisory letter from the EA in frustration. He stressed the futility of this approach by comparing it to a speeding motorist being stopped by the traffic police, who simply say ‘I’m terribly sorry, you’re driving recklessly, we can’t enforce the law but please, we advise you to drive a bit slower’. Is that going to change peoples’ behaviour?

A strong regulatory presence would also create a fair playing field for companies and farmers. Major poultry company Avara Foods explained how it is now exporting the majority of its chicken manure out of the catchment and introducing new soil standards for farmers who want to apply the manure to their own land. These standards are being designed to close a loophole in the Farming Rules for Water regulations, which allows the over-application of phosphorus to soil. They’re addressing a failure of regulation.

Noble Foods, behind the Happy Egg brand, explained that they’re also asking their farmers to take action to mitigate the pollution risk from their chickens. In a competitive market, some farmers will instead leave them, choosing to supply other businesses with lower environmental demands. Essentially, those trying to do the right thing pay a higher price and risk being out-competed by less scrupulous actors with lower production costs, because the poor practice is not penalised.

The health of our river shouldn’t be at the mercy of individual companies and farmers. Preventing pollution shouldn’t be voluntary, it needs to be mandatory.

EA Chair Alan Lovell gave a presentation which mentioned the number of inspections the EA has done in the Wye catchment and how many improvement actions they’d issued. It didn’t say a word about enforcement. I asked him why and he admitted that they hadn’t really done much enforcement. I asked why the EA was still in ‘advice and guidance’ mode when it’s unique selling point is that it can enforce the law. There are loads of bodies doing advice and guidance (including the Wye and Usk Foundation, the Wildlife Trusts, Farm Herefordshire) but only the regulator has the ability to dish out fines and punishment. When Lovell said this ‘will happen’, people in the audience started shouting ‘when?’

It’s a good question. When will it happen? The River Wye’s official status last year was downgraded to ‘unfavourable, declining’. The next stage down is ‘part-destroyed’. What is the EA waiting for?

Disastrously NRW was no better. NRW Chair Sir David Henshaw said, “the best form of regulation is self-regulation”. The audience booed.

I hope those boos echo in their ears. People have had enough of this statutory failure. It’s beyond time to enforce the law. That message needs to be carried back to Ministers in Westminster and Cardiff.