Battle to keep land value at a premium

A hearing is expected early next year in a major farm land pollution test case. The action will centre on Government policies relating to nitrate levels in drinking water.

Mr Justice Harrison has given a group of 140 farmers from Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk leave to challenge the policies. The farmers claim these are causing millions of pounds to be wiped off the value of their land.

They say the value of their land has been "decimated" by the Government decision earlier this year to introduce "nitrate vulnerable zones". They were brought in in a bid to prevent nitrate levels in drinking water exceeding 50 milligrams per litre to comply with an EU directive.

The farmers were represented in court by David Vaughan QC. In seeking leave for the challenge, Vaughan told the judge that the case centred on farmers with land near the Rivers Waveney, Blackwater and Chelmer, where nitrate levels were found to be unacceptably high, resulting in the imposition of the nitrate vulnerable zones.

He said the effect of the zoning had been to wipe an estimated £40 million off the value of the land owned by the farmers involved in the application.

Vaughan claimed that many other farmers were being affected by the regulations.

He added that everyone accepted an excessive amount of nitrates could be harmful to human health and the environment, but that it was farmers who were unfairly "having to bear the pain".

He claimed that, under the terms of the EU nitrate directive, only nitrates from agricultural sources should be taken into account when calculating whether the 50 milligrams threshold had been crossed.

Initially, the farmers had sought to by-pass the courts in the UK and have the matter referred directly to the European Court of Justice in a bid to obtain an urgent ruling.

But Mr Justice Harrison held that the case should be heard by the High Court first as a matter of urgency, probably early in 1997. Any questions of European law which needed resolving could then be referred to Luxembourg.