English soil strategy released for consultation

Carbon storage, organic wastes and flooding are the focus of the governments draft soil strategy for England.1

The Environment Department (DEFRA) has released a draft soil strategy outlining its five-year vision for soil protection in England. The draft strategy follows a 2004 action plan which sought to join up policy in areas such as agriculture, construction and planning (ENDS Report 353, pp 45-47 ). The Environment Agency also produced its own soils management plan in October last year.2

The strategy focuses on four priority areas: sustainable management of agricultural and forest soils; halting the decline of soil carbon; sustainable management of soils in the built environment; and the protection of soils during the recycling of organic matter to land. The key objectives are to protect soils, soil functions and the wider environment from erosion, declines in organic matter, and soil sealing during development.

There is a strong focus on interactions between soils and climate change. The strategy notes evidence of a 25-year fall in organic carbon stored in soils and peat. UK carbon emissions from loss of soil organic matter are thought to be 8% of those from fossil fuel burning.

Further research is proposed to establish the factors affecting soil carbon loss and the impact of climate change. This will include the impact of reducing tillage of arable land and returning carbon to the soil through manures, composts and other biowastes.

Waste-to-land can divert waste from landfill or incineration and provide soil nutrients. But it comes with health, soil contamination and water pollution risks. DEFRA seeks to minimise these by developing quality standards for organic wastes.

The strategy also promises a code of practice for the construction industry for the sustainable use of soils, and guidance for developers and local authorities on soil-related planning policies. The guidance will encourage building of sustainable urban drainage systems to minimise flooding and to recharge aquifers.

Development and impermeable surfaces increase the load on urban drainage systems and flooding risk. The strategy notes the significant economic impact of surface water flooding, pointing to the £400 million insurance bill after the 2007 summer floods.

The strategy has been released as talks on an EU soil framework Directive reached an impasse. Ironically, DEFRA considers the proposals superfluous (ENDS Report 391, pp 50-51 ).

EU environment ministers failed to reach agreement on the proposals in December. UK, French, German, Austrian and Dutch ministers considered the measure would add unnecessary costs and red tape, despite the backing of 22 other member states. Further debate is now unlikely before 2009.

The main cause of the controversy was the proposals covering contaminated land. DEFRA believes they underestimate the cost of identifying contaminated sites. They also do not consider other legislation covering soil protection, such as the Directives on environmental liability and integrated pollution prevention and control.

Nevertheless, DEFRA claims: "The vision and objectives of the strategy are entirely consistent with the broad direction of EU policy and do not therefore need to await decisions on specific legislative proposals".

The soil strategy’s consultation runs until 23 June. Scottish and Welsh governments are producing their own plans.

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