Friday 01 July 2022

No U-turn on cuts to farming sector despite VVD vote against nitrogen plans

Farmers protested at the home of agriculture minister Christianne van der Wal. Photo: ANP/Ginopress

Rank-and-file members of the ruling VVD party have voted against the government’s plans to take drastic steps to cut nitrogen oxide emissions, including cutting the livestock herd by 30%.

At a party conference at the weekend delegates backed a motion calling on the parliamentary party to demand a rethink of the plans presented by agriculture minister Christianne van der Wal last Friday.

The narrow vote, by 51% to 49%, pits the party directly against its own minister, who said last week that the plan was the ‘only way to bring this country out of the impasse’ on nitrogen.

The government is bound by a Council of State judgment in 2019 to reduce nitrogen pollution in order to comply with European rules to protect vulnerable habitats known as Natura 200 areas. The Netherlands has 131 designated areas.

The ruling has led to a backlog in housebuilding and infrastructure projects because it requires the government to come up with new environmental regulations for building permits.

Prime minister Mark Rutte said the vote did not mean the plans would be abandoned, but the party needed to include opponents in the debate about what measures to take at provincial level. ‘I can’t deny that some farmers will have to give up. That’s dreadful. But we have to take very big steps,’ he said.

Van der Wal’s plan gives the 12 provinces a year to come up with measures to meet specific local targets by 2030, varying from 12% to 70% in the most vulnerable regions.

‘Guidelines’ for provinces

She said the proposals were designed to be ‘guidelines’ rather than ‘directives’, but the target of cutting nitrogen oxide levels by 50% in less than seven years was non-negotiable.

‘It means that for some of our farmers, they will not be able to continue with their business as they have done,’ she said.

‘We are dealing with a court judgment that is done and dusted: we have to reduce nitrogen emissions, we have to restore nature and only once we’ve done that can we start issuing permits again,’ Van der Wal said.

House protest

At the weekend a group of farmers, supported by protest group Farmers Defence Force, drove their tractors to Van der Wal’s home to confront her about the plans. The minister accepted a document before telling the farmers to leave: ‘You’re very close to my family home and my children are inside shaking.’

Delegates at the VVD conference also passed a motion calling for one of the measures taken to cut nitrogen pollution, cutting the motorway speed limit to 100 km/h in the daytime, to be reversed.

Junior coalition party D66 said there was no question of going back on the plans despite the VVD conference vote. ‘We mustn’t give farmers false hope,’ D66 MP Tjeerd de Groot told TV discussion show Buitenhof at the weekend.

Sjaak van der Talk, chairman of agricultural group LTO, said the plans were a ‘diktat’ and disputed the scientific basis for the targets. ‘It’s based on measurements that have been done at the drawing board,’ he said, ‘They haven’t taken any measurements outdoors, in the stables or in Natura 2000 areas.’

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