River pollution crisis: Campaigners celebrate partial victory in High Court battle with government

  • Video report by Environment Correspondent Charlotte Cross

A High Court judge has demanded the government honours promises to tackle river pollution, signalling a partial victory for anti-pollution campaigners in a battle dating back to 2015.

But she ruled that other pressures on resources, including the Covid pandemic and Brexit, were acceptable reasons for slow progress since then.

The joint case was taken to the High Court by conservation charity WWF, The Angling Trust, and Fish Legal, accusing Environment Secretary George Eustice of failing to take action to protect 37 UK rivers they say are particularly under threat.

It comes after an ITV Central investigation exposed the scale of phosphate pollution in rivers across the Midlands - with some registering levels many times higher than what’s considered ‘safe’.

Angler Bill Fairless has been fishing in the River Trent in Burton in Staffordshire for 20 years - and he says he’s seen firsthand how it’s changed.

“I’ve been to areas of the Trent where you actually see the foam and the stuff coming down the river which is a by-product of the stuff going into the river which isn’t favourable,” he said.

“Say 10 years ago, there was a lot more fish in the river - a lot more various sizes and a lot more sizeable fish. 

“[Now], there’s still plenty of fish in the river but they tend to what we call sprat-sized or medium-sized, not particularly large.”

Bill Fairless has been fishing the Trent in Burton for 20 years Credit: ITV Central

That is symptomatic of the pollution crisis facing Britain’s rivers - and similar stories can be heard from river users across the country. 

ITV Central has been reporting on ‘gunge’ covering the river bed, diminishing fish stocks and ailing waterside habitats for months.

In June, the three groups took the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) to the High Court as part of a long-running legal battle trying to force those in authority to take urgent action.

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The 37 rivers named in the case include the Rivers Wye and Lugg in Herefordshire, the Clun through Shropshire and Worcestershire, the Mease through Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, and the River Wye through the Derbyshire Peaks and Nottinghamshire.

It revolves around an agreement the government signed in 2015 to draw up plans for Water Protection Zones in these areas.

So far, of the 37, only four have been done.

In defence, the government argued that wasn’t legally binding - a claim which the judge dismissed.

Debris in the River Trent. Credit: ITV Central

But she did accept the claim that factors such as Brexit, and the Covid pandemic, had slowed down progress.

Mark Owen, chief executive of The Angling Trust, said he had a “mixed” reaction to the ruling.

“The court could have gone further, but what we’re very pleased about is that the court has said the government is obliged to do what was promised,” he said.

“The problem is that the court also found that resources could be an issue for delay. We desperately need those resources to happen now.”

Without immediate action, he and other campaigners say rivers will continue to choke on pollution.

WWF’s executive director of advocacy and campaigns, Katie White, told ITV Central the government’s record on rivers was a “national embarrassment”.

“The government hasn’t acted, and continued inaction is just not an option. Excuses about lack of resources can’t disguise the minister’s failure to prioritise the health of our rivers over the last decade,” she said.

“We are in a climate and nature crisis, and we keep hearing the government talking about this, but actually Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and the government needs to act now. 

“This is a judgement, we’re talking six years in now, and things are getting worse, pollution in our rivers is getting worse across the UK.

“But thanks to ITV and other organisations, the profile of this has been raised and we’ll all be watching and looking at what happens next, and considering what our options are, because we cannot continue in this way.”

And with river health suffering more and more - experts say they won’t rule out further legal action in future.

Under the surface, there is a pollution crisis facing Britain's rivers. Credit: ITV Central

“I think the work that we’ve been doing over the years, the work that you’ve been doing actually in your water sampling, shows that it is very urgent. We need to take action now. We needed to do something 20 years ago but successive governments have just prevaricated,” Mr Owen added.

”This isn’t the end, the beginning, or whatever. This is a journey we’ve been on for years, and we will continue pressing this government very very hard to make sure they do the right thing.” 

ITV Central did invite Environment Secretary George Eustice - or any other relevant minister from Defra - to appear on the programme to be interviewed on the problem of river pollution, which they declined.

Instead, a spokesperson issued a short statement, saying:

"This government is committed to improving our water environment. Our main tool to reduce agricultural pollution is our Catchment Sensitive Farming Programme – this is helping thousands of farmers and has already reduced series pollution incidents by 17%. 

“While we welcome the court’s decision, we share the claimants’ passion for the health of our protected sites including our rivers. We will continue to work with stakeholders including WWF, Angling Trust and Fish Legal on our work to tackle sources of water pollution."