Implications for managing flood risk within Environment and Agriculture Bills

Implications for managing flood risk within Environment and Agriculture Bills

ADA takes a look at the implications for the management of flood risk and water following the second reading of the Environment Bill 2019-21 and Agriculture Bill 2019-21.

Environment Bill 2019-21

The Environment Bill makes provision to amend existing environmental legislation and introduce new measures on a range of environmental policy areas within the UK. It sits alongside the Government’s longer-term objective for “this, to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it” as set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan.

Given that a large proportion of existing environmental law and policy in the UK derives from the EU. Much of the Bill seeks to replace monitoring and enforcement functions currently undertaken by EU institutions such as the European Commission. For IDBs it also contains the powers previously set out in the former River Authorities and Land Drainage Bill 2019 to amend the land valuation process for drainage rate and special levy charges.

The Environment Bill 2019-20 was announced in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019 and passed Second Reading without division on 26 February 2020. The Committee stage and further stages of the Bill has been postponed following the Coronavirus outbreak. The Bill is the re-introduction of the Environment Bill 2019 from the previous Parliamentary session that fell at dissolution for the General Election 2019.

Key parts for Risk Management Authorities

Part 1 of the Bill specifies a series of environmental principles and establishes an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will have scrutiny, advice and enforcement functions. It also makes provision for the Government to set long-term environmental targets alongside the production of statutory Environmental Improvement Plans.

Part 5 of the Bill includes provisions relating to water resources management. These include: the development of joint regional plans for long-term water resource management; a statutory duty for water companies to develop long-term drainage and sewerage management plans; amendments to Ofwat’s water company licensing process; amendments to when abstraction licences can be varied or revoked without compensation; powers to amend requirements relating to the chemical status of water bodies; and the IDB rating powers.

Part 6 of the Bill provides for the creation of a new biodiversity net gain requirement, in England, of 10% for developers though the planning system. Gains will be mandatory and maintained for at least 30 years. It also enables the creation of Local Nature Recovery Strategies to cover the whole of England and expands the duty on public authorities, within the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, from “conserving” to “conserving and enhancing” biodiversity. This requires public authorities to actively carry out strategic assessments of the actions they can take to enhance and conserve biodiversity.

Part 7 of the Bill legislates for the introduction of voluntary legally binding conservation covenants between landowners and “responsible bodies” which conserve the natural or heritage features of the land.

Agriculture Bill 2019-21

Leaving the EU means that the UK is leaving the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Farmers in the UK currently receive around £3.5 billion support each year under the CAP. More than 80% of the CAP payments that UK farmers receive are ‘direct payments’ based on how much land they farm. The remainder pays mainly for rural and environmental farm management schemes.

The Agriculture Bill provides the legislative framework for replacement agricultural support schemes. It provides a range of powers to implement new approaches to farm payments and land management. In England, farmers will be paid to produce ‘public goods’ such as environmental or animal welfare improvements through the Government’s proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). The Bill also includes wider measures, including on improving fairness in the agricultural supply chain and on the operation of agricultural markets. The new Bill contains a provision to require Ministers to consider the need to encourage the production of food in England, in an environmentally sustainable way.

The Agriculture Bill 2019-21 was given its First Reading in the House of Commons on 16 January and Second Reading on 3 February 2020. The first Public Bill Committee session took place on 11 February 2020.

Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS)

From ADA’s perspective the key aspects of the Bill related to the provision of measures within ELMS to tackle flood risk, better manage water resources, and enhance the water environment. Within Clause 1 of the Bill it states that the Secretary of State may give financial assistance for, or in connection with, farmers and land managers managing land or water in a way that: protects or improves the environment; maintains, restores or enhances cultural or natural heritage; mitigates or adapts to climate change; prevents, reduces or protects from environmental hazards; and protects or improves the quality of soil.

The Government’s current proposals are for ELMS to commence in 2024. Defra proposes a three tier design, as set out below, with each tier to the needs of different groups of farmers, foresters and other land managers, different landscapes and land types, the adoption of different environmental actions and/or outcomes. ADA see that measures relating to reducing flood risk and managing water sit at different scales across all three tiers.

Tier 1 – Incentivising environmentally sustainable farming and forestry.
Paying farmers across the country to adopt (or continue) practices that can generate valuable outcomes that will deliver environmental benefits and improve environmental sustainability, focusing on those practices that are most effective when delivered at scale (e.g. cover crops, planting wildflower margins, or soil management)

Tier 2 – Support land managers to deliver locally targeted environmental outcomes.
Here the focus will be on local priorities, making sure that the right things are delivered in the right places, and farmers and land managers will be rewarded for collaborating. This could include a range of options to attenuate flood water upstream on and around farmland, or better manage watercourses.

Tier 3 – Delivering landscape scale landuse change projects
Here the Government has highlighted larger scale projects including woodland and forest creation, peatland restoration and the creation of coastal habitats such as wetlands and salt marsh; which could bring flood mitigation.

ADA is particularly interested in exploring the opportunities within Tier 3 to facilitate and fund the occasional controlled storage of floodwater on productive farmland, by creating washlands or landscape measures demonstrated by the Netherlands’ Room for the River project. Critically this will require a join up with the work of Risk Management Authorities and the next National FCERM Strategy, and should ensure there are suitable provisions for the evacuation of stored floodwater following a highwater event.