Conservationists and angling groups have launched legal action against Defra, accusing ministers of failing to protect England’s rivers and wetlands from agricultural pollution.
Three of the UK’s biggest environmental bodies claim that ministers stifled action to address harmful pollution from farms.
Lawyers from the WWF-UK, the Angling Trust and Fish Legal were at the High Court in London on Thursday (19 November) to demand a judicial review into water pollution caused by agricultural practices.
They will argue that Defra and the Environment Agency failed to fulfil a commitment made in 2009 to use water protection zones (WPZs) to tackle agricultural pollution, such as diffuse runoff from soils and pesticides entering watercourses.
The conservationists claim they have uncovered evidence that in 2011 Defra ministers and the Environment Agency “put the brakes” on the use of WPZs to tackle pollution, except as a “last resort”.
The legal challenge is specifically concerned with 44 protected water sites “affected by agricultural pollution”.
These include the places such as Poole Harbour in Dorset and the River Mease in the Midlands, which they described as “crown jewels”.
Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal, said: “We cannot let the UK regain its title as the dirty man of Europe – urgent action must be taken.
“Salmon populations have declined by 40% in the past 30 years, and agricultural pollution is one of the most significant causes of this.
“This is why we are seeking the help of the court to ensure the government takes action that is needed to provide these special places with the protection to which they are lawfully entitled.”
The organisations highlighted an Environment Agency consultation in 2014, which found that getting three-quarters of rivers, lakes and wetlands up to good health would boost the economy by £8.5bn, through increased tourism, recreation, improved flood resistance and enhanced quality of life.
However, the agency’s own statistics show that currently 17% of the rivers in England are in good health.
A Defra spokesman said: “Rivers in England are the healthiest they have been for 20 years and we are committed to working closely with the farming community and environmental groups to further improve water quality.
“Over the next five years, we are investing more than ever to promote environmentally friendly farming practices to protect our rivers and lakes and support wildlife.”