Environment Agency and Natural England clash over wetland restoration

Natural England is seeking compensation from the Environment Agency because its refusal to issue permits for fish barriers has jeopardised a £4m project to restore an internationally important wetland lake that has been polluted with sewage for decades, an insider close to the project has said.

Norfolk Broads Natura 2000 site. Photograph: Dave Porter/Getty Images

Hoveton Great Broad in Norfolk is part of the Broads Natura 2000 network, a 5,889-hectare internationally important wetland, and has been in an unfavourable condition for at least 40 years, according to the European Commission’s LIFE programme, which funded the restoration project.

Sewage and diffuse pollution in the lake has lead to “high algal biomass, loss of aquatic macrophyte biodiversity, turbid water, large amounts of fluid nutrient-rich sediment and shallow water depths, leading to an overall decline in the associated biodiversity, particularly birds and invertebrates”, according to LIFE.

A detailed £4m programme was devised by Natural England, with the Environment Agency (EA) as partner, in 2015 to bring Hoveton Great Broad back to health, part of which included the creation of fish barriers to exclude fish for three years, while the lake recovered. As part of the biomanipulation, limnologists recommended the exclusion of fish such as bottom feeding bream, because they act as a feedback loop adding to the turbidity of the lake, particularly at high population levels.

Part of the agency’s role was to support the project through fish surveys and angler engagement, the purpose of which included communicating the restoration processes aimed at making the lake more ecologically resilient in the long term.

But the angling community took issue with the fish barriers. The Angling Trust described the barriers as “environmentally disastrous” and Fish Legal said the impact on spawning fish would be “catastrophic”.  In November, after Fish Legal  - acting for the Angling Trust and the Broads Angling Services Group - launched judicial review proceedings, the High Court found that the EA had acted unlawfully when it granted a permit to Natural England to erect two fish barriers at Hoveton Broad. That decision was quashed. 

Earlier this year, the agency took enforcement action against Natural England for erecting separate barriers at Hudson’s Marsh and Gravel Dyke without flood risk permits. 

At the time, Natural England said it did not apply for a full flood risk assessment for these two installations "as a full flood risk assessment of the Hoveton project, undertaken by external consultants in consultation with and following an Environment Agency methodology, concluded that the project as a whole did not pose a flood risk". Ultimately, the EA did not issue permits for the barriers.

This week, an insider close to the project said Natural England bosses were in conversation with the EA over compensation because “the £4m project and its objectives have been severely compromised”. 

They said that the EA “caved into fishery rather than biodiversity interests”.

The agency was supposed to communicate the project among the angling community, according to the insider, but “what in fact happened is that the agency had an internal conflict between those that signed up to the project and the restoration of the special area of conservation habitat, and those who supported the fishery interest and were briefing against the project to local anglers”.

“The project is likely therefore to not go ahead with the biomanipulation and stop this year. It is also likely that Natural England will face penalties for non-completion. It is inevitable the broad will remain turbid and the money and effort invested will have been in vain without the vital step of biomanipulation,” they added.

Penelope Gane, head of practice at Fish Legal, said: “We are not aware of any change in Natural England’s biomanipulation plans for Hoveton Broad.”

While Fish Legal were fighting the EA’s first decision to allow the first set of fish barriers, “Natural England erected two separate fish barriers at Gravel Dyke and Hudson’s Marsh without a permit and with no evidence of an assessment of their impact on the fish community of Hoveton Broad,” said Gane. “The Environment Agency confirmed to Fish Legal that the matter has been passed to its enforcement team to investigate.” 

She added: “On top of that, the Broads Authority has confirmed that the barriers required planning permission but did not have it.  So it appears that Natural England are therefore in breach of both permitting and planning control.”   

“Our members are obviously concerned about the impact the project will have on fish and bream spawning sites in particular,” said Gane. “And although Natural England describes fish in the Broad as of ‘low ecological value’, it did say that it would not continue with the biomanipulation project if the Environment Agency’s fisheries team objected.  We will just have to wait and see what the Environment Agency decides.”

Martin Salter, head of policy at the Angling Trust, said: “We’ve been hearing rumours for a while that this hare-brained scheme is about to be canned but nothing has been confirmed officially. The Angling Trust would be delighted if the Environment Agency followed both the science and the professional assessments of its own fisheries experts who have been opposed to the Natural England scheme from day one. 

“Blaming indigenous fish species like roach and bream for declines in water quality rather than sewage and agricultural pollution was always ridiculous,” he added.

In a joint statement, EA area director for East Anglia Simon Hawkins and Hannah Thacker, Natural England's Norfolk and Suffolk area manager, said: “The Hoveton Great Broad project’s aim is to transform Hoveton Great Broad from its current brown, cloudy state to a clear, pristine, wildlife haven. After removing sediment from the broad, the final phase of the project is to bio-manipulate the water back to a clear state.

“This requires the installation of barriers, for which Natural England has made a second application to the Environment Agency, as the independent regulator, for a flood risk activity permit.

The Environment Agency is following its permitting procedures and is considering the application at the present time. In doing so the Environment Agency will consider its various duties which include meeting statutory environmental improvement targets and duties to maintain, develop and improve fisheries. It does this by gathering evidence from all parties and making a reasoned judgement. 

“Separate to its role as independent regulator the Environment Agency supports Natural England as a project partner on the Hoveton Project, with mutual aims to protect and restore the environment.”