Legal action threatened as Environment Agency seeks to end feud with Natural England

The Environment Agency could face legal action as it seeks to end a clash with Natural England over a £4m wetland restoration project by launching a second consultation on granting permits that would enable the nature regulator to exclude fish from a lake, a move which is strenuously opposed by the angling community.

The fish barriers will islolate the broad from the river Bure. Photograph: Loop Images/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.

The long-running dispute centres around Natural England’s plan to install fish barriers in a bid to exclude the majority of fish from the broad, isolating it from the river Bure to allow an increase in algal grazing and water clarity before allowing fish back in. 

There was some confusion over whether flood risk permits were required for the fish barriers but the greatest opposition to the fish exclusion came from the angling community, with the Angling Trust describing Natural England’s barrier plans as “hare-brained” and detrimental to fish. 

Last month, an insider close to the project told ENDS that the Environment Agency was “caving into fisheries interests instead of biodiversity interests” and that Natural England was seeking compensation from the agency for jeopardising the restoration project. 

Yesterday, however, the agency published a second consultation on granting Natural England flood risk permits for the fish barriers, saying it was “minded to approve” them. An earlier consultation generated a lot of opposition from individuals expressing concern that fish such as bream would not be able to use the broad as a breeding ground. 

If approved, Natural England would be able to install three fish barriers at Foxborrow Dyke, the Dam and Hoveton marshes, which would be in place for up to 10 years.

Reacting to the new consultation, Justin Neal, Fish Legal’s solicitor, said: “It says a great deal about the Environment Agency permitting team and Natural England’s assessment of the project that they say it will not cause Water Framework Directive deterioration despite the fact that species such as bream will be effectively removed from their main spawning area on the Broads. 

“The Environment Agency’s own fisheries team’s verdict - as the real experts - is that it will obviously cause a downturn in fish populations and will change the status of the fishery. Added to that, Natural England are facing enforcement action for putting in some barriers already without a permit and in breach of planning permission. If this permit is granted it is likely that there will be a further legal challenge.”

Martin Salter, head of policy at the Angling Trust called the move “another all too typical fudge from the EA top brass who lack the backbone to stand foursquare behind the opinion of their own fisheries experts”. 

He added: “A little bit of sabre rattling from Natural England over loss of lottery funding and possible compensation claims and they roll over like lambs. Our rivers, lakes and watercourses, and wildlife they sustain, need a robust environmental regulator that puts science and evidence before political expediency.”

Last month, the regulators issued a joint statement, saying the "Environment Agency supports Natural England as a project partner on the Hoveton Project, with mutual aims to protect and restore the environment" and that the agency is "following its permitting procedures... 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."