New Environment Secretary: Defra ‘listening to all sides’ in farmer payment review

Environment Secretary Ranil Jayawarenda has used his platform at the Conservative Party conference to state that the Government will “remain committed” to environmental conservation and restoration in reforming farming regulations, “contrary to” media reports.


New Environment Secretary: Defra ‘listening to all sides’ in farmer payment review

Nature charities have accused the new Government of an "attack" on the environment, which Defra denies. Image: Defra

The former International Trade Minister addressed the conference, in Birmingham, on Monday afternoon (3 October) in his first public speech in post.

As expected, Jayawarenda dedicated the bulk of his speech to supporting Liz Truss’s Government’s plans for post-Brexit deregulation with the intent of growing the economy. Through a new ‘Retained EU Law Bill’, the Government is set to “sunset” most of the EU laws which were transcribed into UK law during the Brexit process by the end of 2023. Others would then be phased out by 2026.

Jayawarenda said: “I can assure you all today that my Department should no longer be seen as one that follows the EU, imposes rules and impedes innovation.

“Instead of being a regulatory department, we are now an economic growth department.”

Last month, several of the UK’s biggest environmental groups expressed concern that the Retained EU Law Bill would be used to weaken regulations such as those applied to building developers with the intention of minimizing their impact on water systems. This concern only heightened with widespread media reports that Defra was considering scrapping plans to incentivise farmers to improve water, air and soil quality and boost biodiversity. Instead, it was reported, the Department may look towards an area-based payout system.

Jayawarenda said: “Now that we have left the EU, I am delighted to tell you that we are going to free our farmers, and we are listening to all sides for new ideas to get Britain growing, such as the review undertaken by Baroness Rock to back our tenant farmers.

“Unlike the Labour Party, we trust our farmers, so we will cut through the red tape that has held back our farms for too long.

We announced in our growth plan that we would review farming regulations but – contrary to what you might have read in some corners of the media – we remain committed to our environmental schemes that support our farmers as they look after our countryside.”

He added: “We will use our new grant schemes to support farmers and food producers to invest in the technology that will boost their productivity and profitability,” placing a focus on technologies that enable farmers to reduce water use, given this summer’s drought.

Defra will publish more information on proposals to reform farmer payments in the coming weeks, Jayawarenda said.

Sewagegate

While much of what Jayawarenda set out in his speech had already been confirmed by the Government, there was a new revelation about plans to crack down on storm overflow use by water companies.

Storm overflows have featured prominently in the headlines since restrictions were loosened following a vote in Parliament last year. Environment Agency data for 2021 states that untreated sewage was discharged into coastal bathing waters across England for a total of 160,000 hours, in 25,000 separate discharge incidents.

Under Boris Johnson, the Government set out plans in August requiring water companies to invest £56bn through to 2050 to reduce the practice. Environmental groups have argued that they still constitute a weakening of requirements compared to previous targets and regulations,

Jayawarenda announced that Truss’s Government is building on this plan with an increased civil penalty for water companies found to be causing pollution, from £350,000 to up to £250m. There are also plans to have the fines handed out by the Environment Agency rather than the courts, thus speeding up the process.

“Our water companies have a lot to answer for,” said Jayawarenda. “Too much water is wasted through leaks each year when we should be conserving it, and, in 2022, we still find sewage in our rivers and on our beaches.

“That is not on. On my first day in office, I met water company bosses to give them their report card. They caused 62 serious pollution incidents in 2021. I’ll be polite: could do better.”

The proposed increase in civil penalty is subject to consultation.

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