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UK Government taken to court over freshwater pollution

November 19, 2015
geograph-4639844-by-Hug h-Venables

Crop spraying at Swaffham Lock, Cambridgeshire. Image: Hugh Venables, Creative Commons, from Geograph.

Today the Angling Trust, Fish Legal and WWF-UK have joined together in the High Court in London to challenge “a governmental failure” to prevent agricultural pollution in UK freshwaters.

The organisations have tabled a judicial review that argues that the UK government has failed to stop agricultural pollution from degrading 44 rivers, lakes and estuaries.

They argue that under the EU Water Framework Directive, the UK government is required to ensure that these freshwaters are in good health by the end of 2015.  However, this deadline is unlikely to be met.

Campaigners are using the legal action as a means of pressuring the government to implement stronger environmental policies which promote the health and diversity of UK freshwaters.

Writing on the Angling Trust blog, Chief Executive Mark Lloyd attributes the poor health of many UK freshwaters (where, for example, only 17% of rivers are in ‘good health’) to a governmental failure to regulate agricultural practices:

“Rain landing on wet, compacted fields runs off the surface of the soil and into rivers, carrying with it slurry, soil, pesticides and fertilisers, all of which are lethal to fish and the invertebrates they eat.  Badly maintained gutters allow rainwater from roofs to wash farmyard muck into drains.  Broken pipes divert filthy water into streams.  All these trickles add up to a mighty load of pollution.  Just because it doesn’t come out of a big pipe doesn’t make it any more deadly to our aquatic wildlife.  It’s often referred to as causing death by a thousand cuts.”

In particular, the coalition of organisations argue that the government has failed to implement any Water Protection Zones (pdf), the locally-specific policy approaches designed in 2009 to tackle agricultural pollution as part of River Basin Management Plans.

David Nussbaum, Chief Executive of WWF-UK argues that such decisions have overlooked the importance of freshwater ecosystems, which has prompted today’s legal action:

“This was an ideologically driven decision, taken behind closed doors, which contravened the Government’s public position. It also flies in the face of Defra’s own analysis which has repeatedly shown that relying on voluntary action by farmers alone will not solve the problem of agricultural pollution.

We believe the use of this ‘last resort’ doctrine to evade installing Water Protection Zones has not only been devastating for our protected rivers and wetlands but is also unlawful.

Worse still, with these specially protected sites continuing to be polluted it is baffling that Water Protection Zones are still not being used as we approach the December 2015 deadline – if this doesn’t count as a time of ‘last resort’, what does?”

Responding to the judicial review, a Defra spokesperson told The Guardian that:

“Rivers in England are the healthiest they have been for 20 years and we are committed to working closely with the farming community and environmental groups to further improve water quality. Over the next five years, we are investing more than ever to promote environmentally friendly farming practices to protect our rivers and lakes and support wildlife.”

In October 2015, the European Commission issued legal guidance that warned the UK government of its failures to implement EU water legislation, which could potentially lead to fines of millions of pounds a year.

Update 20.11.15: High Court rules that the UK government must evaluate the use of mandatory Water Protection Zones. Read more on the WWF website.

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