The high court has deemed Defra’s inability to safeguard and rehabilitate water bodies as illegal.
According to a recent court ruling, the government and environmental agency were negligent in their responsibility to clean and safeguard water sources from pollution. This ruling could potentially lead to changes in the government’s strategies.
Fish Legal and Pickering Fishery Association took the government to judicial review over its river basin management plan for the Costa Beck river in the Humber district, which had a reputation as one of the best fly fishing spots in the UK until a few years ago.
The attorneys provided the court with proof that the Costa Beck is not meeting the standards set by the Water Framework Directive for fish populations. They claimed that one of the contributing factors is sewage contamination, as Yorkshire Water’s “storm” sewage overflow at Pickering treatment works was released into the Costa Beck over 250 times in 2020 and over 400 times in 2019.
The contention was that the Environment Agency did not follow through with their planned measures against polluters.
The court determined that both the government and the Environment Agency did not fulfill their legal obligations to assess, revise, and implement actions to rehabilitate rivers and other bodies of water according to the regulations of the Water Framework Directive. The judge found no proof that the proposed measures would effectively meet the environmental goals.
The judge acknowledged that discharges were a major factor in the deterioration of the river’s condition. According to regulations, stricter control over discharges, particularly for rivers like Costa Beck, is necessary for improvement.
The judge described the secretary of state for the environment’s approach as deceptive. The angling club, who were victorious in the legal battle, accused the secretary of state of setting themselves up for failure.
Attorneys hold the belief that the decision indicates the foundation for the government’s strategies to safeguard water systems from contamination, which have faced criticism for being inadequate, may be illegal. As a result, officials may be compelled to enhance their actions.
This situation has the potential to cause difficulties for the newly appointed environment secretary, Steve Barclay. He may need to significantly revise the plans of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
This ruling may pave the way for other organizations to make similar claims against other river basin plans throughout the nation. The court determined that the crucial step of evaluating and establishing specific actions to meet legally required objectives for each body of water, such as stricter regulations for managing sewage contamination, had not been properly carried out.
According to Andrew Kelton, a lawyer at Fish Legal, this case highlights the government’s lack of success in improving the condition of rivers and lakes in England. Currently, only 16% of water bodies and 14% of rivers meet the standard for “good ecological status,” and there has been no improvement in at least 10 years. This is not unexpected, as we have witnessed the Environment Agency initially propose but ultimately fail to take strong action against polluters in this situation.
The Upper Costa Beck is only one out of 4,929 bodies of water, yet it serves as a prime example of regulatory inaction despite evidence of deteriorating river health.
He stated: “The Environment Agency and the government have taken a broad, non-committal approach to achieving targets, rather than a specific plan of action for each water body to effectively stop continued harm.”
We anticipate that this decision will result in tangible enhancements to the environment, not just for Costa Beck but for all other “failing” rivers and lakes throughout the country.
Attorneys representing the activists are of the opinion that the verdict could compel the government to reinforce its comprehensive water strategies, including its heavily criticized “water plan” that was unveiled earlier this year.
Penelope Gane, the head of practice at Fish Legal, stated that the environmental goals and data found in river basin management plans are crucial for various long-term statutory plans and strategic planning. This includes the government’s water plan, water company business plans, regional water resources plans, and the chalk stream restoration strategy. The legal action being taken reveals that all of these policies and plans are ultimately reliant on unstable foundations.
A representative from Yorkshire Water stated in the past that the EA has conducted assessments on Costa Beck according to the water framework directive. The results suggest that neither the water industry nor sewage can be definitively identified as the cause of the watercourse’s failure to meet good ecological status.
“Yorkshire Water is not involved in the current legal matter. However, we are still collaborating with the local angling association to address this issue.”
According to Steve Reed, the opposition’s spokesperson for environmental affairs, the water industry has been severely damaged by 13 years of Conservative shortcomings. This has resulted in polluted sewage contaminating our waterways. The current government’s proposed solution has been deemed inadequate and even illegal. Their inability to take action has allowed this issue to persist.
“Labour is the only party that will take decisive measures to put an end to this scandal by placing the water industry under special regulations. We will prohibit bonuses for water executives and implement strict, automatic penalties until the water companies address their pollution.”
A representative from Defra stated that they are thoroughly examining the judgement’s results and determining the appropriate course of action.
The government has a grand scheme in place for water management. It involves increased funding, stricter regulations, and stricter enforcement to improve the quality of our waterways. This includes revising river basin management plans and creating personalized long-term action plans for local organizations to enhance all water bodies in England.