The Environment Agency’s approach to tackling diffuse water pollution, such as run-off from agricultural land and roads, has not, to date, proved value for money, according to a report published today by the National Audit Office. The annual expenditure of £8 million has, to date, had little impact. Looking forward, the development of River Basin Management Plans now offers an opportunity to target work by the Agency and others to improve water quality and tackle this complex problem.
In 2009, only 26 per cent of rivers, lakes and other water bodies in England met the required levels of water quality, as set out in the European Water Framework Directive. The Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs and the Agency do not expect that all English water bodies will achieve these levels by the 2027 deadline, as it may be disproportionately costly or not technically feasible. Unless the European Commission agrees a lower target accordingly, the United Kingdom could be exposed to considerable financial penalties.
The Agency has not yet sufficiently identified the extent to which failure to meet standards is due to diffuse pollution and which sources contribute most to this failure. The Agency considers the agricultural sector to be the major contributor to diffuse pollution and this sector has been the focus of its activities. But there is limited information on the impact of different farming activities on water pollution and so it is not possible to establish whether the Agency is effectively targeting its resources.
Despite the Agency’s efforts to persuade farmers to recognise their responsibilities for diffuse pollution, awareness remains low. Seventy-two per cent of farmers that the NAO surveyed considered that agriculture contributed only a little or not at all to diffuse pollution, although 68 per cent stated that they considered the impact on the water environment a fair amount or a great deal when making decisions on their farm.
The Agency’s advice and the voluntary initiatives across government on changing farming practices have had limited impact and need to be co-ordinated. One joint agency scheme, the England Catchment Sensitive Farming Delivery Initiative, has led to some farmers making changes that are likely to reduce levels of pollution, but there was considerable variation in take-up between areas. Sanctions have proved relatively ineffective in changing farming practices and progress in improving them has been slow. The Agency also has limited evidence of the effectiveness of its inspection activity.