Anglers fight back against ‘hopeless’ DEFRA

Fish Legal and the Angling Trust are taking DEFRA and the Environment Agency to court over river pollution for a second time.

Together with the WWF, the anglers accuse the government of dragging its feet in tackling agricultural pollution of England’s rivers, streams and lakes.

In a statement on its website, the trust says the most vulnerable waters are those protected in law such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Special Areas of Conservation.

The case originally went to court in 2015 because of pollution in water protection zones.

Justin Neal, Solicitor for Fish Legal, said: “In 2015, Defra and the Environment Agency promised to come up with plans to deal with diffuse water pollution from agriculture in sensitive sites. Some six years later, they have only managed to produce a handful of plans and in the few we have seen, there is very little evidence of any positive action. They have the legislation in place to prevent pollution but the Environment Agency has neither the will nor the resources to do anything.

“If they can’t take action to prevent deterioration of the most precious and protected areas, what hope is there for the rest of the rivers and lakes in England?”

Fish Legal is on the attack against Natural Resources Wales, too.

NRW’s planning advice on Wye pollution is ineffective say conservation organisations led by Fish Legal and Salmon & Trout Conservation.

Fish Legal and S&TC have written to NRW about on-going pollution of the River Wye and its headwaters and tributaries.

Following the publication of NRW’s “planning advice” to Councils on development on or near the River Wye and tributaries, Fish Legal and S&TC have told NRW that they consider the advice defective and risks further ecological damage to the river.

Currently 60% of the River Wye and its catchment fails environmental targets for phosphates; a key pollutant that causes algal blooms on the river leading to widespread ecological damage.

The River Wye is supposed to be protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation, but NRW is not responding adequately to the threats posed to the river.

The source of excess phosphates in the headwaters of the Wye and its tributaries is thought to be the many poultry farms that have been given permission in recent years, for example in the River Ithon catchment.

NRW’s public position in 2020 was that phosphate levels in the Wye catchment had improved. They did not address the obvious, severe and chronic ecological decline. But after belatedly admitting that levels of phosphate were too high, NRW put this down to the “tightening” of phosphate limits.

Fish Legal and S&TC point out that the recommendations for these tougher limits were made in 2016 and the river has been suffering from high phosphate levels for some years.
Despite good evidence that the phosphates come from poultry farming, particularly in Powys, NRW has repeatedly downplayed this potential cause, repeating that “phosphate is naturally occurring” or that “bank erosion”, “sewerage and foul water” are possible sources, although conceding vaguely that “land management practice” may also be a cause.

NRW has now published its ‘Interim advice for planning applications within the Wye catchment’ with the supposed intention of reducing the amount of development in and around the River Wye that could lead to further phosphate pollution.

Fish Legal and S&TC are concerned that the document is flawed. Commenting that it is not statutory guidance but simply advice which can be weighed against other considerations, such as economic benefits, and simply not followed.

It also leaves too much technical responsibility to the local authorities and fails to ensure that developments do not cause damage to SACs, where permission should not be granted unless there is certainty – beyond all reasonable scientific doubt – that the site will not be harmed.

Fish Legal and S&TC have asked NRW to clarify the status of the planning advice and believe, given the current polluted status of the River Wye, NRW should also be exercising its legal functions to impose phosphate reduction requirements – not mere ‘neutrality’ – for all relevant developments.

Fish Legal also wants NRW to indicate how it will:

  • Monitor more closely those large poultry units that it currently permits under pollution control regulations.
  • Robustly enforce permit conditions where necessary.
  • Address the cumulative impacts of multiple poultry developments in the headwaters of the Wye, including those developments which do not require pollution permits (i.e. below 40,000 birds).
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