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Marine Science



Government back in court over failure to tackle river pollution. WWF, Angling Trust and Fish Legal renew legal challenge over harmful pollution in England’s rivers. Government accused of “shirking its responsibility” for river health.

WWF, Angling Trust and Fish Legal return to court today [16 June 2021], in a bid to force the UK government to “walk the talk” when it comes to protecting UK nature and properly fund measures to address the critical condition of England’s rivers. 

The case, first brought to court in 2015, hinges on the government’s failure to use “Water Protection Zones” – a regulatory power available since 2009 – to combat diffuse agricultural pollution, which threatens species like Atlantic salmon, freshwater pearl mussel and allis shad, one of the UK’s rarest freshwater fishes. 

Despite its own target to restore 75% of England’s rivers to Good Ecological Status by 2027, the government continues to fall far short. Only 14.6% of England’s rivers achieved this status in the latest assessment. 

The legal challenge will focus on Defra and the Environment Agency’s failure to comply with a Consent Order, agreed in 2015, requiring action to gather evidence of pollution, and plan the effective protection of 37 key sites across England. These sites are heavily protected in law and are some of the most sensitive and scenic areas for nature in the country.  

The government is expected to argue that the Consent Order “did not impose a legal obligation on the Secretary of State to prepare Diffuse Water Pollution Plans”; in other words, that the order is not binding – a point WWF, Fish Legal and Angling Trust will strongly contest in Court. 

Commenting ahead of the court hearing, Kate Norgrove, Executive Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF, said:   

“Rivers are lifelines for people and wildlife but year after year and despite promises from government, England’s rivers are left in a dire state as a result of pollution, including from poor farming practices.  

“With nature in freefall, we cannot allow the UK government to keep shirking its responsibility when it comes to protecting these vital habitats. Ministers need to walk the talk when it comes to UK nature recovery – and that’s why we are back in court today.  

“With the right measures in place – including adequate funding, and a cast-iron target in the Environment Bill to halt the decline of species and to restore nature by 2030 – the government can, and must, accelerate progress towards restoring the health of England’s rivers. Success here will not only benefit nature, but our economy too.” 

Justin Neal, Solicitor at Fish Legal, said:  

“We’ve been forced to take Defra and the Environment Agency back to court today because they have been dragging their feet for nearly 6 years on plans to stop diffuse agricultural pollution.    

“The commitments which were made by Defra and the Agency in 2015 were to produce reports on the investigations and actions to address agricultural diffuse pollution of sensitive sites in England. To date, we have had only a handful of these reports and meanwhile the protected sites continue to decline. It is hardly surprising that a government with its wavering commitment to a greener future is now reneging on binding commitments it made in Court.” 

Mark Owen, Head of Fisheries at the Angling Trust, said:  

“It’s jaw-dropping that the government is arguing that the Court Order we’re seeking to enforce in court today is not legally binding. Regulation of agricultural pollution is key to ensuring that our rivers and waterways recover to a state that fish populations are sustainable for decades to come.  

“The government report on regulatory actions taken on the river Axe shows how important this is for the survival of salmon and sea trout in particular. The Government needs to act now, so that reports on all the protected sites are finalised, and we can begin to halt the decline of these sensitive waterbodies.” 

Photo credit: Fish Legal