The High Court has ruled the department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) river basin management as unlawful.
The High Court concluded that Defra and the Environment Agency had failed mandatory legal duties to review, update and implement measures to restore rivers and other water bodies under the Water Framework Directive Regulations.
Fish Legal, acting on behalf of the Pickering Fishery Association, took the government to court over the deficient River Basin Management Plan for the Humber district, as signed off by then-Defra secretary Thérèse Coffey, and published in December 2022.
Draft river basin management plans published by the Environment Agency in summer 2021 included ‘summary programmes’ of measures supposedly intended to restore all waterbodies in each of the 10 river basin management districts in England ahead of the legally important final target date for achievement of the environmental objectives of December 2027.
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However, the Court found that the fundamental requirement to assess and identify specific measures to achieve the legally mandatory targets for each waterbody – such as tightened environmental permits for controlling sewage pollution – had unlawfully not been done.
The Judge characterised the Secretary of State’s approach as one of “smoke and mirrors”, noting the acceptance before the Court that there was no evidence that the programme of measures could reasonably be expected to achieve the environmental objectives.
The Court also found the public consultation process undertaken by the Environment Agency to be unlawful because it failed to provide the necessary information for anglers on the Upper Costa Beck to understand what action was being proposed to address the reasons for the fish failure and therefore defeated their right to participate and contribute to the river planning process.
Fish Legal solicitor Andrew Kelton said: “This case goes to the heart of why government has failed to make progress towards improving the health of rivers and lakes in England.
“Only 16% of waterbodies – 14% of rivers – are currently achieving ‘good ecological status’, with no improvement for at least a decade, which comes as no surprise to us having seen how the Environment Agency at first proposed, but then for some reason failed to follow through with the tough action needed against polluters in this case.
“The Upper Costa Beck is just one of 4,929 waterbodies, but it is a case study in regulatory inaction in the face of evidence of declining river health,” continued Kelton.
“The Environment Agency and the Government have taken a high-level, generic – and effectively non-committal – approach to achieving targets when what was needed was a waterbody-by-waterbody plan of real action to stop ongoing damage,” he added.
“We hope this ruling will lead to actual environmental improvements, not only on the Costa Beck but on every other ‘failing’ river and lake across the country.”