TOUGH new European Union rules aimed at saving rivers from being sucked dry to water crops could have a major impact on Hereford-shire's booming soft fruit industry.

The Environment Agency delivered a bombshell last week when it ruled that taking water from the River Lugg for trickle irrigation for a polytunnel site at Marden was "unsustainable".

Justin Burnett, a senior agency official, said it was "highly unlikely" that a water abstraction licence for the site would be granted when controls were imposed on trickle irrigation next year. Currently, growers using the watering method do not need a licence.

In the event, the grower concerned, strawberry king John Davies, suffered a setback at the hands of county planners.

The central area planning committee turned down his bid to retain 87 acres of permanent polytunnels at Brook Farm, Marden, which are used for tabletop strawberry growing, dependent on trickle irrigation from the Lugg.

Planning officials recommended approval, but more than 100 objectors at the meeting were jubilant when councillors went against official advice and turned down the S & A Davies application.

The committee considered 100 protest letters and a strong objection from the parish council. Members decided permanent polytunnels would have a detrimental impact on the landscape and Marden's setting.

Brief comments from the Environment Agency were included in a report but councillors were not shown a key letter which the Agency sent the day before the meeting.

A copy has been obtained by the Hereford Times.

Justin Burnett, team leader of the Agency's Severn Area planning section, spells out how tough new regulations will restrict growers on how much water they can pipe from rivers. Abstraction will be banned when river levels are considered too low.

Mr Burnett disputed a claim by JDIH, a firm of consultants working for S & A, which said a "small reduction" in river flows caused by strawberry growing would not significantly affect watercourses.

"We cannot agree with this conclusion and have concerns that it has not been demonstrated that there are no likely significant effects, in line with the Habitats Directive. We cannot consider the proposed method of trickle irrigation as sustainable."

Bran Russell, of Stoke Prior, spokesman for one of the county groups calling for polytunnel planning controls, praised councillors for tackling the issue of permanent polytunnels.

"The Marden application was subject to scrutiny via an Environmental Statement which was very valuable but is not done routinely," he said. "We call on the council to insist on this in every case.

"Conservation of water is becoming a huge issue - allowing firms to establish rights on water now that are not sustainable in the future would be sheer folly."

No one was available to comment at S & A.

DEFRA described the emerging EU Water Framework Directive as "the most substantial piece of water legislation from the European Union to date", with demanding environmental objectives.