Proposed water abstraction system reform in England: major changes on the way?

Posted by Ethan Desai


Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has published proposals to reform the legal regime in England relating to water abstraction. Although the proposals are not intended to come into force until the early 2020s, they mark a significant departure from the current abstraction licence system.

The proposals envisage that all abstraction licences would be converted into permits, within Environmental Permitting Regulations. This would mean that those landowners already holding a permit for a different regulated activity (such as industrial emissions) would have a single permit relating to all of their regulated activities.

The proposals also envisage that:

  • The permitted volume of water will reflect actual use, by reference to the abstractor’s past peak water usage over at least 10 years, including dry years. Abstraction volumes that have not been used will be removed, subject to appeal, if they pose a risk to the environment;
  • There will be no seasonal permits and permits will not be time limited. The new permits will allow abstractors to take water at any time when flows are high meaning they can store it for when flows are low and make better use of reservoirs;
  • All abstractors directly affecting surface water will have conditions on their permits that enable flow based controls to protect the environment;
  • Abstractors will be able to trade water in a quicker and easier way in catchments where there are potential benefits; and
  • Abstraction will be more closely linked with the amount of water available. Where water is more scarce, abstractors will still have annual and daily limits but these will be linked to proportions (‘shares’) of water available for abstraction in different parts of that catchment.
    The proposals reflect Defra’s view that the current abstraction licence system (which was set up in the 1960s) is not flexible or modern enough to respond to pressures on the environment, farming and other business requirements, and the needs of the public water supply, given a growing population and climate change.

Farmers and rural landowners who wish to learn more on the proposals may find Defra’s summary helpful.

For advice about agricultural and rural business matters contact Ethan Desai.

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