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High Court finds DEFRA’s river basin management planning to be unlawful in landmark ruling

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Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

The High Court has upheld a claim for judicial review brought by a Yorkshire angling club, Pickering Fishing Association – working with environmental organisation Fish Legal – against the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Environment Agency regarding its defective approach to review, public consultation and updating of river basin management plans under the Water Framework Directive Regulations.

The ultimate purpose of river basin management planning under the Regulations is to achieve prescribed environmental objectives for all waterbodies in England and Wales by the legally binding ultimate target date of 22 December 2027.

The case concerned a formerly prime trout and grayling fishery near Pickering – the Upper Costa Beck – which had become degraded by pollution and was, for example, subject to regular sewage spills from a nearby sewage treatment works. The angling club argued that the relevant programme of measures summarised in the Humber River Basin Management Plan, produced by the Environment Agency and approved by the Secretary of State – which comprised wholly generic or yet to be formulated measures – had not been lawfully reviewed and updated by reference to the environmental objectives set for the Upper Costa Beck, and lacked the legally required measures necessary to achieve these objectives.

The High Court held that the central legal requirement under the Regulations to assess and identify specific measures to achieve the environmental objectives for each waterbody had unlawfully not been discharged. Mrs Justice Lieven characterised the Secretary of State’s approach to river basin planning management as one of “smoke and mirrors”, noting the acceptance before the Court that there was no evidence that the relevant programme of measures could reasonably be expected to achieve the environmental objectives for the Upper Costa Beck. While the judicial review related to just one water body, the legal ruling is in principle applicable to the approach adopted by the Environmental Agency to all waterbodies and therefore of potentially wide significance.

David Wolfe KC and Raj Desai represented the Claimant, Pickering Fishing Association, instructed by Andrew Kelton of Fish Legal.

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