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‘The Government is Looking the Other Way as Our Rivers Are Being Poisoned’

Ministers’ failure to properly monitor nitrogen pollution in our waterways is effectively encouraging further breaches of environmental law by farmers and big business, reports Thomas Perrett

Specialist water management operators clearing the toxic algae from ‘Little Britain’ lake on the River Colne in Hillingdon, West London. Photo: David Parker / Alamy

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The Government’s own environmental watchdog has admitted that the UK may have breached environmental laws by failing to adequately monitor levels of nitrogen pollution into rivers in England.

Back in November 2022, the World Wildlife Forum (WWF), alongside the legal charity ClientEarth, issued a legal complaint against the Environment Agency (EA) following FOI requests revealing that between January 2020 and February 2021, the Agency had conducted 2,213 inspections of three important agricultural regulations, yet despite finding that half of farms surveyed had breached pollution laws, had only issued one civil sanction.

The Environment Agency also found 96 breaches of Nitrate Regulations, 291 breaches of farming rules for water quality, and 634 breaches of regulations concerning the control of slurry and agricultural fuel oil.

The WWF and ClientEarth argued that, as fewer than two per cent of all farms per year had been inspected, the Environment Agency had “little idea of the scale of law breaking taking place and of the damage being currently done to the environment”. Accusing the government body of “an unlawful abdication of its statutory responsibilities,” the organisations contended that the EA had failed to assess the environmental impacts of nitrogen oxides on protected nature sites, permitting farmers to use more fertiliser than the legal limit. 

Nitrates are responsible for degrading around 70% of sensitive habitats around Britain. A 2023 report published by the WWF found that “significant dangers associated with N2O emissions that will have lasting effects on climate change and stratospheric ozone depletion,” arguing that “as a long-lasting gas species (with a lifetime longer than 100 years), N2O will have a warming impact for more than a century after its release”. The report concluded that 45% of nitrogen fertilisers are lost into rivers and streams per year, costing farmers £397 million each year on average.

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With 300 times the warming effect of CO2, nitrogen oxides remain a significant threat to water quality, as 55% of lakes in England have failed to meet the requisite standards with respect to nitrogen levels. 

Indeed, Kate Norgrove, Executive Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at the WWF, stated that “UK nature is paying the price of the failure of the UK Government and Environment Agency to enforce the rules, and address the critical harm that nitrate pollution has done to our rivers, streams, soil and air”. 

“At a time when the UK should be accelerating action on climate change we are shocked that there has been no answer on if an investigation will take place, and fear that expectations have been raised by the Government’s watchdog that are not being met”, she added.

In response to ClientEarth and the WWF’s legal challenge, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) agreed that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had inadvertently encouraged breaches of environmental laws, challenging DEFRA to amend its guidance on water quality before September 2025. The advisory body also pledged to actively monitor the Environment Agency to ensure its compliance with legal requirements.

Moreover, the OEP has itself criticised the Government’s prolonged inaction in meeting its environmental ambitions. Last month, it published a report which assessed 40 individual targets, including legally binding obligations under the 2021 Environment Act, concluding that the Government was off track in meeting 10 and only on track in meeting 4, with 15 targets lacking sufficient evidence to form a judgement.

The OEP found that while Government investment in improving water quality had increased, this had not offset the implications of a lack of stringent regulatory oversight, as only 16% of surface waters had a satisfactory ecological condition, and levels of pollution remained excessive. The report stated that “progress in achieving outcomes is poor,” adding: “the slow pace of progress is largely due to a lack of specific measures and investment to achieve government’s main environmental objectives and the focus of efforts and investments not addressing all major pressures”.

Criticising the inefficiency of the Government’s strategies for reducing water pollution, the OEP’s report concluded that “the scale and pace of delivery of actions is not aligned with the objective to achieve good ecological status or potential by 2027”. The report also mentioned that the government had made insufficient progress in reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution from agriculture into the water environment by 40% on 2018 levels by 2038, in accordance with the requirements of the 2021 Environment Act.

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Indeed, OEP Chair Dame Glenys Stacey stated that the Government was “largely off track” in meeting legally binding ecological targets. She argued that “deeply, deeply concerning adverse environmental trends continue,” adding: “with the depleted state of our natural environment and the unprecedented pace of climate change, it does seem to many that we are at a crossroads. It is not easy for us as a nation to choose the right path, the right trajectory and to travel together at the pace needed, but we simply must”.

“So far, government [sic] has not been clear enough about how its ambitions will be delivered– about all that is to be done in each goal area, and against each statutory target, when, and by whom”, Stacey continued. “In our view, the government must do more to set out for Parliament, the public and all hose who must play a role in how it intends to deliver its ambition”.

As the Government falls behind in addressing critical environmental targets concerning the reduction of water pollution and the restoration of nature, public bodies such as the Environment Agency have neglected to actively monitor pollution levels at protected agricultural sites. With both major parties now abandoning important net zero pledges, this marks a backward step in not only addressing decarbonisation, but in ratifying measures which safeguard the natural environment. 


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