EA permit ends wetland restoration dispute with Natural England

The Environment Agency (EA) has granted an environmental permit for a key aspect of Natural England’s disputed plans to clean up a polluted Norfolk lake, but its decision could be subject to renewed legal action by anglers.

Hoveton Broad (on the right) has been the subject of a tussle between the Environment Agency, Natural England and anglers. Photograph: Broadsman101 / Wikimedia Commons Hoveton Broad (on the right) has been the subject of a tussle between the Environment Agency, Natural England and anglers. Photograph: Broadsman101 / Wikimedia Commons

The decision follows a consultation on granting a permit for three temporary fish barriers between the river Bure and Hoveton Great Broad, a substantial area of open water in the western end of the Broads, a special area of conservation. Some respondents, many of them local anglers, said that the proposal would have “disastrous consequences” for coarse fish, in particular “our renowned bream shoals that travel miles to this breeding site”.

But others were convinced that the barriers were a necessary part of the £4m scheme, to prevent bottom-feeding species such as bream from raising the water’s nutrient concentrations and turbidity.

“For me, I would prefer the objective to be exclusively the natural health of the Broads and river, and its wildlife, rather than angling and money,” said another respondent to the consultation.

The root of the problem is that sewage and diffuse agricultural pollution have led to high levels of algae and a decline in biodiversity. Natural England sought to stop fish from entering the lake for three years, to stop them disturbing the sediment. Doing so should allow water fleas to breed and consume the algae, clearing the water in a process dubbed ‘biomanipulation’.

As the barriers could pose a risk of flooding, their erection required permission from the EA, which was granted in July 2020.

But Angling Trust’s legal arm Fish Legal soon threatened legal action, claiming that the regulator had disregarded the advice from its own fisheries experts, who were implacably opposed to the project. So too were scientists, due to the barriers’ potentially irreversible damage to fish populations.

The action proceeded and the High Court quashed the permit for the two fish barriers last November. But it was subsequently established that Natural England had erected further barriers nearby without obtaining a permit beforehand, which was passed to the EA’s enforcement team. In turn, the biodiversity watchdog demanded compensation for delaying the project.

But there were signs this summer that the extraordinary dispute would be resolved, the two bodies agreeing a joint statement, following further pressure from anglers.

The re-grant of the permit was announced on Thursday.

An EA spokesperson said: “We have looked at all the evidence and views provided and come to the conclusion to grant the permit. Once the project is finished, fish will be allowed back in the restored broad which will provide better habitat for a wider range of species. We will continue to work with Natural England and anglers to monitor any impact on the wider broadland fishery including surveying once the barriers are installed.”

The decision disappointed angling groups.

Martin Salter, head of policy at the Angling Trust, said: “It is a crying shame, but not entirely unexpected, that the top brass at the Environment Agency have rolled over to please their colleagues in Natural England. Studies showed beyond all doubt that the proposed barriers would be harmful to the recruitment of bream stocks in the Northern Broads. Bream are one of the iconic species upon which the £100 million angling economy of the Norfolk Broads depends and this decision is simply not one we can accept."

Fish Legal solicitor Justin Neal said he would be advising the trust and the local Broads Angling Services Group on their legal options.