Environment secretary faces legal challenge over storm overflow reduction plan

A non-profit campaign group has launched a legal case against DEFRA, stating that the Storm Overflow Reduction Plan is “insufficient” for meeting the secretary of state’s legal obligations on three separate grounds.

Image of wastewater from large sewage treatement plant flowing directly into a river. Source:Getty Images, Robert Brook

Good Law Project, alongside Richard Haward’s Oysters and the activist, Hugo Tagholm, have submitted a formal letter under the Pre-action Protocol for a Judicial Review to the environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, asking  him to rewrite the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan and impose tougher targets on water companies.

Under the plan, water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near designated bathing areas and improve 75% of overflows into high priority nature sites by 2035. By 2050, this will apply to all remaining storm overflows. The plan is due to be reviewed in 2027.

The group raised the point that in England alone, there are around 14,500 storm overflows in operation. Under current rules, these should only be used occasionally after exceptionally heavy rainfall, however the group has highlighted that they aredrawn on with “alarming frequency”. 

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The Good Law Project considers the plan to be “insufficient” for meeting the secretary of state’s legal obligations, on three grounds:

  1. The plan fails to discharge the secretary of state’s legal duty under the Water Industry Act (1991), as amended by the Environment Act (2021).

  2. The plan breaches various rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and is unlawful under the Human Rights Act (1998).

  3. The plan is contrary to the Public Trust Doctrine, which provides ancient common law rights for people to fish, gather food and navigate our shared waters. The Public Trust Doctrine is built upon the principle that the state has a fiduciary duty to safeguard vital natural resources for the benefit of both current and future generations.

Jo Maugham, director of Good Law Project said: “We have all been watching with horror as water companies dump sewage in our rivers and along our beaches with very little accountability.

“This is one of the biggest scandals of our times, but the Government has no plans to stop it anytime soon. This is not just incredibly dangerous; we believe it is also unlawful. We believe the ancient common law Public Trust Doctrine obliges the Crown - these days the Government - to protect our seashores and rivers for future generations."

Tom Haward, director of Richard Haward’s Oysters and eight generation oysterman, highlighted that his family’s livelihood is at risk as water quality is mitigated. He said:“ We work hard to protect and nurture the environment we rely on to produce our oysters, and the relentless dumping of sewage into our seas risks destroying something so precious.

“Just as we invest in our business so that my daughter and future generations can be proud of and continue our legacy, so too should water companies be held accountable and invest in ensuring British waterways are flourishing and safe ecosystems that future generations can enjoy”.

Surfer and activist Hugo Tagholm who is also involved in the challenge highlighted that the rivers and coastlines are becoming a “dumping ground for industrial waste”, a phenomenon he claims to have witnessed first hand.

He said: “I'm sickened that water companies have been getting away with blue murder for so long - with the health of our rivers and seas in such a perilous state. It's time for change. It's time for a decade of investment to restore our rivers and seas to sparkling health.

“They are robbing coastal and river communities of their livelihoods- who wants to swim, surf or play in polluted waters?”

Good Law Practice, Marc Willers KC of Garden Court Chambers and Peter Lockley of 11KBW have been instructed in this case. The group is currently crowdfunding the legal fees.

DEFRA told ENDS they are unable to comment on legal proceedings.