A Win For Welsh Rivers?

Judicial Review of the new rules for agriculture in Wales dismissed

In what appears to be a victory for all Welsh rivers, a judicial review brought by National Farmers Union Cymru (NFU Cymru) against tighter agricultural regulations failed in the High Court earlier this week. On Wednesday 23rd March, the verdict of Sir Wynn Williams sitting as a High Court judge was that Welsh Government had not acted unlawfully in their decision last year to bring in the new rules designed to reduce water pollution.

The “Control of Agricultural Pollution Regulations” were first announced by Lesley Griffiths SM, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, on 27th January 2021 to come into force on the 1st April that year. Their introduction followed four years of unsuccessful efforts by Welsh Government to reduce water pollution from agriculture through voluntary measures.

An immediate attempt to annul the regulations in the Senedd was narrowly defeated by 30 votes to 27 on 3rd March 2021. Following that, NFU Cymru brought this legal challenge on four grounds, all of which were ultimately rejected by the judge.

Effectively, this means that the whole of Wales’s farmers will now come under similar conditions as if operating in a “Nitrate Vulnerable Zone” or NVZ. The new regulations are designed to reduce environmental damage by placing restrictions on activities such as manure spreading and the application of fertilizers. With the water quality of so many of Wales’s rivers affected by excessively high nutrients, this can only be good news for the nation’s aquatic ecology.

While NFU Cymru have expressed their disappointment at the decision, there is also an opportunity for Welsh farmers. Only this week, Reuters reported an expected 12% in world fertilizer prices as sanctions on Russia increase. Manure and slurry might previously have been looked at as a waste product in Wales but for parts of the UK where soil nutrient levels are low, it could be a valuable commodity.

Farmers now need to be supported in implementing the new regulations if these are to have the much-needed positive effect on water quality, particularly in relation to properly funded grant schemes for the storage of slurry.

The new regulations only deal with nitrates and are therefore only part of what is needed. To resolve agricultural pollution, the problems of soil loss and phosphorus also need also to be tackled. In Wales, many of our soils are already saturated with both nitrogen and phosphorus. Not only do we need to regulate current and future inputs but we also have to deal with a significant legacy problem in the livestock producing areas.

There is also a review of the new regulations being carried out by the Senedd’s Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee. This began in September last year, barely six months after they came into force. We now await the findings given that the judicial review is out of the way. While more targeted action against polluters might be welcome (as opposed to blanket NVZ-style policy), there is always a danger of the regulations being watered-down.

But regardless of any changes to this legislation, the protection of our rivers requires robust enforcement. Quite simply, if these new regulations are not enforced they will not be effective.

Posted: March 28, 2022