Royal Courts of Justice, London


This new Government will be Tested in Court on Legally Binding Targets for Water

11th July 2024

In 2023, Fish Legal – acting for the Pickering Fishery Association – won a ground-breaking judicial review against the previous Government for misunderstanding, and misapplying, the law underlying its nationwide River Basin Management Plans.

The plans, covering the whole of England, were initiated in 2003 under the Water Framework Directive and are due to come to fruition after 24 years in 2027.

There are 4,929 waterbodies in England. At present only 16% – that’s 14% of rivers – are in good overall health.

The legal challenge was a Judicial Review of the Government’s deficient River Basin Management Plan for the Humber district, as signed off by then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Therese Coffey, and published in December 2022.


The Court found for the Pickering anglers on all argued grounds, including that:

  • The Environment Agency’s Humber River Basin Management Plan published in December 2022 was unlawful;
  • The Secretary of State’s decision to sign it off was also unlawful;
  • The Environment Agency’s consultation on the draft Plan was unlawful;
  • The Government made a fundamental ‘error of law’ in its decision-making.

Beware “Smoke and Mirrors”

In a damning Judgement handed down last November, the High Court concluded that DEFRA and the Environment Agency had devised River Basin Management Plans that were so vague and lacking in commitment to real, on-the-ground action, that they would inevitably be ineffectual. The Judge characterised the Secretary of State’s approach as one of ‘smoke and mirrors’.

DEFRA and the Environment Agency should have come up with waterbody specific measures to meet environmental objectives, not just generic high-level plans with few commitments and limited accountability. Without that degree of discipline, as we argued in court, the plans were a recipe for continuing drift and the Government was effectively ‘planning to fail’.

This case brings into question the Environment Agency’s whole approach to the River Basin Management Planning process.

Test Case For Every Watercourse in the Country

Given the far-reaching implications of the Judgment ‘for every other watercourse in the country’, the High Court granted permission for the case to go to the Court of Appeal.

In giving permission for the Government and Environment Agency to appeal, the Judge recognised that the Pickering anglers’ case was being brought by Fish Legal in the public interest.

The case will be heard by the Court of Appeal at the Royal Courts in London on 14 and 15 January 2025.

The Pickering Judgment: A Practical Example of Systemic Failure

On 9 May 2024, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), the new watchdog overseeing the environmental regulators in England, produced a comprehensive report agreeing with the High Court’s conclusion in our case with the Pickering anglers.

The OEP found ‘deeply concerning’ issues with how the laws in place to protect England’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters are being put into practice.

The OEP recommended to the Government that its River Basin Management Plans should be completely re-worked to comprise specific, time-bound, committed and resourced measures to effectively address identified impacts such as long-term pollution.

It found “underlying and seemingly endemic issues” such as “a lack of robust delivery arrangements and poor governance” by the Government and its agencies likely to lead to just a 5% improvement in the health of England’s rivers by 2027, the final RBMP deadline under the Water Framework Directive.

Defra has until August to respond to the OEP’s report.

SIGN THE PETITION to FORCE the Government to ACT NOW to Meet Legally Binding Targets for River Health 

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