Monday, 6 December 2021
While the world had its sights on COP26 in early November, another environmental commitment made its way into UK law - the Environment Act 2021. In this blog, our head of environment Jon Foot looks at what's new in the Act, how it will impact on farmers and crucially what people can do about it.
Despite the seemingly low profile passing in the House of Lords, the new Environment Act will arguably have a greater impact on levy payers than many of those being made at the negotiating tables in Glasgow.
Two years in the making, and a once in a generation change to the regulations that hold the UK government and others account over environmental issues, the new Act builds on the regulations previously implemented by the EU.
One of the most notable additions is the new Office of Environmental Protection (OEP), created to replace the EU Commission’s role in ensuring compliance of regulations set out in the legislation. It will issue guidance to all governments and can impose sanctions against the Secretary of States and their departments.
As part of the new Act, DEFRA is required to set out 15-year targets by late 2022 on air quality, biodiversity, water, resource efficiency and waste reduction. The key areas of concern, or opportunity for farmers are as follows.
- Abstraction licenses: From 1 January 2028, the Environment Agency (EA) will be able to amend or revoke licenses without liability or compensation. In September the Government launched a consultation (closes 22nd December 2021) on plans to bring abstraction licensing under the Environmental Permitting Regime. The EA will no longer be required to compensate license holders for revoking or enforcing changes to underused or damaging licenses.
- New objectives and targets: By the end of the year, the Government will set ways to reduce pollution from agriculture, wastewater and abandoned metal mines, and reducing water demand.
Biodiversity Net Gain
- Increasing demands on land: New Biodiversity Net Gain targets set out by the UK government will increase competition for land to farm, deliver biodiversity and forestry. Targets aim to create linked wildlife corridors, new forests, and increase (unlimited) fines for the illegal felling of trees.
- New Sustainable Farming Incentives (SFI): The announced changes to BPS payments will be the main driver for delivering the Biodiversity Net Gain targets in agriculture.
- Conservation covenant agreements: The agreements between a landowner and a body (such as a charity or public body) to do or not do something on their land for a conservation purpose, will now need to be executed as deeds, rather than just ‘in writing signed’. This change will enable Net Gain or even carbon sequestration opportunities to be given a greater legal standing.
- Biodiversity reports: Local authorities will be required to create reports every five years describing action taken and its impact to deliver Net Gain and local nature recovery networks.
- New targets: The Government is required to bring forward at least two air quality targets by October 2022 for consultation that will be set in secondary legislation. The first will aim to reduce the annual average level of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in ambient air. Ammonia from agriculture can be responsible for the production of these particulates, even some distance away from the emissions source.
- New beef and dairy permits: Ammonia permits, which currently apply to the intensive pork and poultry sectors will come into place in 2025 under the Environmental Permitting Regulations for intensive beef and dairy herds.
Waste & Waste Crime
- New single-use charges: Like the carrier bag charge, the act will take powers to enable charges for single-use plastics to incentivise consumers to use more sustainable items. This is likely to apply to all products and could include on-farm plastics such as silage wrap and crop cover. The powers will encourage the use of plastics with a recycled content or to replace them with non-plastic alternatives.
- Combat waste crime: Many farmers and land managers will welcome long-overdue measures aimed at ensuring agencies and authorities work more effectively to combat waste crime, through better access to evidence and improved powers of entry.
So how can you, as a farmer, use this information to prepare yourself for future legal changes?
- Review historic abstraction licenses as if they are not used, consider voluntarily giving them up. If they are needed to irrigate crops or to provide water for livestock, it may be worth fitting simple flow meters to understand your usage patterns in support of any new licensing requirements.
- Review the consultation and either directly respond or provide input through anybody that collectively represents you at a national level. Make sure your voice and opinions are heard.
- Sign up to AHDB’s Resilience Review before Christmas and understand how changes to BPS payments and the new SFI scheme may impact your business and identify opportunities to access funding for nature recovery activities. There is also an opportunity to obtain a free carbon audit.
- Robust records of your farm business for beef and dairy herds, in preparation for new permitting rules becoming law. AHDB will provide regular updates on the development of these regulations.
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