Campaigners have called legislation designed to reduce water pollution caused by agriculture in England “useless” as data reveals there have been no prosecutions or fines issued despite regular documented breaches of the rules.
The Environment Agency has documented 243 violations of the “farming rules for water” since they came into effect in April 2018, according to data the Guardian has obtained using freedom of information legislation.
The region with the most breaches recorded was Devon and Cornwall, with 75, followed by Wessex with 52 .
The breaches the Environment Agency has recorded are a fraction of the actual number, according to conservation organisations.
“This legislation is being violated on a regular basis across the country by farms and virtually nothing is being done to monitor it or enforce it,” said Mark Lloyd, the chief executive of the Rivers Trust, a charity that works to protect Britain’s lakes and waterways.
“Even when the Environment Agency identifies breaches, they don’t have the resources to follow up. All of the effort put into crafting the rules and consulting on this issue has proven to be a complete waste of time.”
The legislation, which was announced in November 2017, gives the Environment Agency the power to prosecute or fine individuals and companies found to be polluting waterways with contaminated runoff water, or acting in a way that creates a high risk of pollution.
Under the legislation, fixed penalties of £100 or £300 can be issued as well as so-called “variable money penalties”, which can be as much as £250,000.
The rules were designed to combat agricultural pollution that is causing widespread environmental problems in rivers.
Figures released by the Environment Agency in September showed, for the first time, that no river had achieved good chemical status and only 14% were found to be of a good ecological standard.
Runoff from agriculture is the biggest single polluter of rivers, responsible for 40% of damage to waterways, according to the same research.
The farming rules for water focus mainly on the storage and distribution of animal waste and fertiliser in order to prevent damaging pollutants from farms running into rivers where they can cause algae blooms that lead to oxygen depletion.
They also require farmers to assess weather and soil conditions before spreading fertiliser to reduce the risk of it being swept into rivers and lakes.
Fertiliser runoff from farmland can kill fish and plants and have a knock-on impact for other wildlife that are part of the ecosystem, such as birds.
“Originally, The Rivers Trust welcomed the rules,” Lloyd said. “We thought that they would have a meaningful impact on farm pollution, but they haven’t been enforced, and this non-enforcement may well have led farmers to believe that they’ve got a licence to pollute.
“Some are blatantly flouting the rules by going out and spreading slurry on days when it’s absolutely tipping down with rain, for instance. That’s not allowed under the rules, but they are doing it even though they know it’s against the law and it’s destroying rivers.”
The Rivers Trust believes that problems regarding resources allocated to the Environment Agency need to be addressed in order to fix the enforcement problems.
Environment Agency funding fell by 63% between 2009 and 2019, staff numbers by 25%, and prosecutions of businesses by 88%, according to a report published in October by the civil society group Unchecked UK.
A government report published in 2018 after a farm inspection and regulation review found that of the Environment Agency’s 10,600 staff only 40 were involved with farm inspections, meaning that farms were likely to be inspected only once every 200 years.
It concluded that enforcement was “nowhere near effective enough” and said there was “no doubt that a good deal of non-compliance remains unchecked”.
The Environment Agency said in a statement that while there had been no fines issued under the farming rules for water legislation and no prosecutions had taken place, its records showed that 14 warning letters had been issued.
It said the majority of breaches had been dealt with mainly through offering “advice and guidance on how to become compliant”.
A spokesperson added: “If advice is not heeded we will not hesitate to pursue whatever sanctions are necessary, including penalties, formal cautions or prosecutions. We are currently undertaking a review of the regulations to ensure they are as effective as possible.”
Environmental groups advocate a radical overhaul of the way the rules are policed.
Rhiannon Niven, a senior policy officer at the RSPB said: “The fact that there haven’t been any penalties issued for breaches of the rules is shocking. It is outrageous that this legislation isn’t being enforced. Proper implementation of these regulations needs to be a much higher priority.
“If it is not prioritised, large-scale agricultural pollution will continue and so will the devastating impact it is having on biodiversity in Britain. The ongoing review is a step in the right direction, but we believe that a much broader analysis of regulation and enforcement in the agricultural sector is needed.”
Tom Stuart, the UK landscapes manager at WWF, said: “Our UK rivers are in a dire state and have been for far too long. They are among the dirtiest waterways in Europe.
“The government must get a grip on this as they have promised to do and urgently ensure that polluters can be prosecuted more effectively so our vital waterways and the wildlife that they home can be protected.”