Government to appeal High Court ruling with country-wide implications for rivers

23rd February 2024

The Government and Environment Agency have this week been given permission to appeal a High Court ruling in November 2023 that they had misunderstood their duties to restore England’s rivers. The original decision was focussed on the Costa Beck in North Yorkshire, a case brought by Fish Legal on behalf of Pickering Fishery Association. Yet it had national implications, bringing into question the Agency’s whole approach to the river basin management planning process.

Given the far-reaching implications of her November judgement ‘for every other watercourse in the country’, Mrs Justice Lieven granted permission for the case to go to the Court of Appeal. The Agency’s request to delay measures to improve the Costa Beck while the appeal takes place was, however, refused.

In the judge’s view, such measures might only require a review of the permits for ‘a couple of fish farms and sewage works.’ Despite this, the Agency have not looked at these permits in the 20 years since the river basin plans came into effect under the Water Framework Directive in December 2003.  In that time, the health of the Costa Beck has declined drastically.  The Agency now has 20 weeks to remedy its unlawful plan to restore the Costa Beck.

Andrew Kelton, solicitor at Fish Legal said: “The river basin planning process, to restore degraded rivers and lakes across the country over 24 years with an effective deadline of 2027, has been so dragged down by bureaucratic obfuscation and attempts to find loopholes in the legislation that it’s no surprise that only 16% of water bodies are at good status, with no improvement for a decade. Monday’s ruling confirms that much of the planning can be done in a matter of months where there’s a will to do so and a path has been cleared through the prevarication and fudge.”

Penelope Gane, Head of Practice at Fish Legal said: “We’re not surprised that the Government want to appeal this ruling, given that it has revealed how woefully bad its plans are for restoring river health in England.  We hear a lot about how committed it is to ending the sewage scandal and protecting rivers so we’d much prefer the Secretary of State, Stephen Barclay, took the decision to act on the Court’s findings rather than spend taxpayer money on disputing them further.” 

Martin Smith, Pickering Fishery Association, said: “We never thought that our angling club would be at the centre of a nationally important legal case. But it is now obvious that the Environment Agency’s reluctance to tackle chronic pollution from a water company and other business on the Costa Beck is the same across the country.  Our club is determined to fight on, not just from the sake of our local river but for every river in the country which, as the Judge acknowledged, is in the public interest.”

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