Landmark High Court Ruling on UK’s duties to restore and protect waterways

3 Dec 2023 by The Water Diplomat

High Court

In a judgement believed to be the most significant UK Court ruling on the Water Framework Directive of the last two decades, on the 20th of November, the High Court of Justice in England ruled that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had failed in its duties to review, update and implement measures to restore rivers and other water bodies. The case was brought by the Pickering Fishery Association, an angling club in Pickering, Yorkshire, working together with an environmental organization, Fish Legal.

The Pickering Fishery Association argued that a prime fishing area on the upper Costa Beck had become degraded by pollution because the Environmental Agency had failed to review, update and put in place measures to restore rivers and other water bodies as intended under the Water Framework Directive. In terms of the Water Framework Directive (WFD), EU member states need to implement the necessary measures to prevent deterioration of the status of all bodies of surface water and protect water bodies so as to achieve good ‘ecological potential’ and good ‘surface water chemical status’ by December 2027.

Concerns have been raised about the adherence of the U.K. to European water quality standards, as, although the WFD was transposed into British law in 2016, there have been incidences of divergence from EU rules. For instance, the quality of the U.K.’s rivers is currently tested only once in three years, as opposed to once a year in the EU.   

In 2021, the Environment Agency had issued summary programmes of measures intended to restore all waterbodies in each of the 10 river basin management districts in England before the legally binding final target date for the achievement of the Water Framework Directive’s water quality status of December 2027. The court found that the relevant river basin management programme for the area produced by the Environment Agency had not been reviewed and updated in relation to the environmental objectives set for the upper Costa Beck. In addition, it lacked the legally required measures necessary to achieve the obligatory targets for each waterbody - such as tightened environmental permits for controlling sewage pollution.