High Court rules government's failure to protect English river 'unlawful'.
- November 23, 2023
- Posted by: Sinead Sprigg
- Category: Engineering, Environmental, Water Issues, Water Treatment
In a landmark ruling, the high court in the United Kingdom has declared that the government and the Environment Agency fell short in their responsibility to safeguard and rehabilitate water bodies from pollution. The case, brought forward by Fish Legal and Pickering Fishery Association, challenged the river basin management plan for Costa Beck in the Humber district, once renowned as a premier fly-fishing destination in the UK.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the Costa Beck was deteriorating for fish under the Water Framework Directive regulations, citing Yorkshire Water’s frequent sewage overflows into the river. The court heard that Yorkshire Water’s “storm” sewage discharge occurred more than 250 times in 2020 and over 400 times in 2019, contributing to the degradation of the water quality.
The high court’s decision found that the government and the Environment Agency failed to fulfill their mandatory legal obligations to review, update, and implement measures to restore rivers and other water bodies as per the Water Framework Directive regulations. The judge expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the proposed measures, stating there was no evidence to support their ability to achieve the stated environmental objectives.
The ruling acknowledged that specific rivers, like the Costa Beck, required tighter regulation of discharges to improve their condition. The judge criticized the secretary of state for the environment, characterising the approach as one of “smoke and mirrors.” The angling club, which emerged victorious in the case, accused the secretary of state of planning to fail.
Legal experts believe that the ruling may render the government’s water protection plans potentially unlawful. This could necessitate a reassessment and strengthening of measures, creating a challenge for the new environment secretary, Steve Barclay.
The implications of this decision extend beyond Costa Beck, possibly opening the door for similar challenges against river basin plans nationwide. The court found a fundamental failure to assess and identify specific measures to achieve legally mandatory targets for water bodies, such as tightened environmental permits for controlling sewage pollution.
Andrew Kelton, a solicitor at Fish Legal, emphasised the case’s significance in addressing the broader issue of declining river health in England. The ruling could prompt environmental improvements not only in Costa Beck but in other struggling rivers and lakes across the country.
Penelope Gane, head of practice at Fish Legal, argued that the ruling exposes the fragility of various long-term statutory plans and strategic planning, including the government’s plan for water, water company business plans, water resources regional plans, and the chalk stream restoration strategy.
While Yorkshire Water distanced itself from the ongoing case, a spokesperson noted ongoing collaboration with the local angling association on the issue.
In the wake of the ruling, the shadow secretary of state for the environment, Steve Reed, criticized the Conservative government’s handling of the water industry, declaring it “broken” after 13 years of failure. Reed asserted that only the Labour party would take robust action to rectify the situation, proposing measures such as banning water bosses’ bonuses and imposing severe, automatic fines until water companies address environmental concerns.