Exempt abstractors to be licensed – but with a lighter touch approach

DEFRA has unveiled a lighter touch and more risk based approach to bringing abstractors formerly exempt from licensing into the system than previously consulted on. The changes concern around 5,000 unlicensed abstractors, many of whom are crop growers who use trickle irrigation.

The decision follows a long consultation process that started in 2009 and continued last year with further consultation and an impact assessment. Last year’s consultation took a light touch approach, with proposals including: preserving exemptions for activities without significant environmental impact; a commitment that most licences would reflect volumes previously abstracted (though DEFRA noted there may be cases where conditions are included to protect rivers at very low flows); and allowing for a five-year transition period (two years for applications and three years for licence determination).

The plans announced last month make further concessions which include the following.

Allowing the regulator flexibility to relax the requirements for volume limits on transfer licences (transfer licences are required to transfer water where there is no intervening use of the water).

Allowing the regulator to be flexible in the application of flow controls so that it can recognise the wider conservation values.

Allowing volume limits that better reflect business needs in dry periods by extending the qualifying period to include the dry weather in 2011.

DEFRA said: “Our plans balance the needs of those currently exempt and the rights and responsibilities of all for creating a sustainable water abstraction licensing system.”

Responding, the National Farmers Union said the new authorisations would have a “major impact” on trickle irrigators, but welcomed the government’s acknowledgement of existing operations as lawful activities and the light touch approach. It said it expected “that most applicants will successfully secure abstraction licences that meet their historic needs”. Paul Hammett, NFU water resources specialist, added: “We are reassured that the Environment Agency will apply a flexible, risk-based approach regarding evidence of historic use by abstractors. Nevertheless, new licences could limit potential business growth if they are based on past water use rather than future potential need.”

DEFRA published an updated impact assessment alongside the decision and said the regulations will now be laid in Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. The changes come into force on 1 January 2018, at which point the two year licence application period will open.