I am writing in relation to the onerous and, in my opinion, unnecessary record keeping requirements affecting farmers and land managers in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) and I feel that they should be repealed or at least significantly amended.
The NVZ designations cover 58% of England and their purpose is to reduce nitrate pollution of rivers and groundwater. There is no doubt that this objective is important and worthwhile. However, the record keeping requirements that arise from these regulations are not fit for purpose and, arguably, do not help reduce nitrate pollution. All they test is whether a farmer, or more likely their paid advisor, can produce compliant records.
The rules are so complicated that it is unrealistic to expect that farmers will be able to dedicate the time and expertise themselves to interpret them and subsequently produce the relevant records. Indeed, it is my experience that even the inspectors do not have the time (or perhaps expertise) to properly analyse these records or to see if they bear any resemblance to what is actually happening on the ground. I have heard of numerous occasions where inspectors have asked to see NVZ records and as soon as they see that a professional report has been produced, they don’t even bother to open the folder.
It is important to note that the overwhelming focus of the regulations and their enforcement is to oblige farmers to produce paperwork. There is no suggestion that land or watercourses will be tested to assess whether pollution has actually occurred. In my years of producing these records for my clients, I have never come across any that are actually breaking the nitrogen limits, but there are large numbers (none of my own clients thankfully) having their direct payments reduced for failing to produce adequate records. I suspect that the vast majority of these are also not polluters, despite them falling foul of the paper work requirements.
I would question that if a farmer or advisor does go through the figures and discovers that they are breaching the rules, are they likely hand over this paperwork to an inspector thereby guaranteeing a penalty on their direct payments? I would expect that a quick modification of figures would be done irrespective of what is happening on the ground. The inspector will never know. Indeed, I attended a government funded training event on producing these records and the instructor openly told delegates that if your calculations proved that you were breaching the regulations, it would be sensible to go back through your figures to make sure you weren’t.
These NVZ regulations have introduced needless red tape and it feels like a case of wilful ignorance on the part of those who administer them as they must know how unfit for purpose they are. I believe that they could be removed, or at least substantially modified, with no ill effect. I do not doubt the need to reduce nitrate pollution, but the regulations to achieve this at the moment are arguably counterproductive. They punish the diligent, honest farmer who has to spend the time or find the money to produce paperwork to prove they are not polluting. The dishonest polluter will carry on regardless and produce records that still show they are compliant.
As I have already identified, I have a conflict of interest in this matter as I am one of the paid advisors that charges farming clients to produce compliant records. It is not in my interest for these rules to be removed as I benefit financially from them. However, I resent having to charge my loyal clients for undertaking a service that I feel is totally unnecessary. I would willingly accept the loss of income if it means that farmers and the governing bodies that undertake inspections have time and resources to concentrate on more worthwhile tasks.
I hope this letter will in some small part help draw attention to a matter that needs action.