Habitats and Water Abstraction Court Case (UK)

On 6th September ’22, the High Court granted judicial review of an Environment Agency decision in 2021 to restrict their investigation of water abstraction impacts on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Norfolk. The judgment is here. Local press is here.

The claimants were private citizens, farmers, living in the Norfolk Broads, freehold owners of a fen and other land, and concerned that water abstraction (for food production primarily) is causing irremediable damage to the environment, their own land, including ecosystems that are legally protected. Their intervention had been on going for 14 years, and had already been instrumental in the decision of the defendant, the Environment Agency, not to renew two abstraction licences. They successfully supported the Environment Agency’s decision to vary the two licences when that decision was challenged on appeal.

The Environment Agency was established by section 1 of the Environment Act 1995. By section 6(1)(b) of the 1995 Act, its duties include the promotion of the conservation of flora and fauna which are dependent on an aquatic environment. It is responsible for the grant (and variation and revocation) of licences for the abstraction of water.

Groundwater is water that is present in the ground. Many ecosystems (habitats and species) are dependent on a supply of groundwater. Groundwater may be abstracted (in the Norfolk Broads, from either the chalk, the crag, or the Sandringham sands) for use by the public water supply, industry, and agriculture. A licence is required to extract groundwater. Such licences may either be permanent (with no requirement to renew) or time limited (with the possibility of periodic renewal). The Environment Agency has power to revoke abstraction licences: sections 52 and 53 of the Water Resources Act 1991.

Once changes to an ecosystem are apparent, it may be too late to put matters right; by that stage, irremediable damage may have occurred. For this reason, Natural England (which has statutory responsibility for providing advice to the Environment Agency and others) is an interested party and had advised the Environment Agency in October 2020 that it was necessary to consider water supply in the Broads and to take any necessary action to restore ground and surface water levels. For the same reason, the Environment Agency itself recognises an obligation to apply a “precautionary approach to dealing with adverse effects” such that it must take appropriate and proportionate action to ensure that licenced water abstraction does not lead to adverse effects.

The Norfolk Broads is, in terms of rainfall, one of the driest parts of the country. Long- term average annual rainfall is between 600mm and 730mm. The low rainfall is exacerbated by periods of drought. The Broads also lie within an area where a great deal of irrigated fruit and vegetable production takes place. This is reliant on water abstraction. In the Bure and Thurne Reporting Area alone, more than 60 million litres of ground water and surface water are abstracted each day. So, there is a relatively small amount of rainfall, but a considerable amount of water is taken from the ground.

The claimants believe that the Environment Agency ought to review more broadly the impact of water abstraction to decide whether other licences should also be withdrawn or altered. The court case is the claimants challenge, seeking judicial review, of the Environment Agency’s refusal to expand the scope of an investigation that it had conducted in 2021 into the effect of 240 abstraction licences. That investigation concerned the impact of abstraction on just three Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

The Environment Agency accepts that it must have regard to article 6(2) of the pre-Dec 2020 European Habitats Directive. It maintained that it had done so and that it had, after taking it into account, reasonably decided to limit its investigation of the impact of the 240 licences to the three SSSIs. It disputed that article 6(2) has direct effect in domestic law beyond the obligation to “have regard” to it. Irrespective, it maintained that it was acting compatibly with the requirements of article 6(2).

The High Court determined that the GB Habitats Regulations (2017) continue to have effect in domestic law even though they are EU-derived domestic legislation: by means of sections 1B(7) and 2(1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018specifically –

“The Habitats Regulations are thus retained EU Law: section 6(7) of the 2018 Act. It follows that they must be interpreted in accordance with retained EU case law and retained principles of EU law: section 6(3) of the 2018 Act.

” Questions as to the meaning and effect of retained EU law (so, including the Habitats Regulations, and the obligation under article 6(2) which continues to have effect under section 4) must be decided in accordance with retained general principles of EU law: section 6(3)(a). The precautionary principle is a retained general principle of EU law: section 6(7).

The High Court decided on 4 matters –

(1) The ambit of the obligation, under regulation 9(3) of the GB Habitats Regulations (2017), to “have regard” to the requirements of the pre-Dec European Habitats Directive, including whether that mandates compliance with article 6(2) of that Habitats Directive.

Decision – “…. the duty to “have regard” here does not implicitly permit the Environment Agency to act in a way that is inconsistent with the Habitats Directive (in other words to have regard to the requirements of the Directive but then deliberately decide to act in a way that is inconsistent with those requirements). Rather, it recognises that the Environment Agency is one part of a complex regulatory structure and, depending on the issue, it may have a greater or lesser role to play.”

“The duty on the Environment Agency to have regard to the requirements of the Habitats Directive means that the Environment Agency must take those requirements into account, and, insofar as it is (in a particular context) the relevant public body with responsibility for fulfilling those requirements, then it must discharge those requirements. In other words, the scope for departure that is ordinarily inherent in the words “have regard to” is considerably narrowed.”

“It is clear from all of the contemporaneous evidence (including internal emails) that the Environment Agency has regarded itself as bound by the Habitats Directive and has sought to act in compliance with its requirements”

(2) Whether article 6(2) of the pre-Dec 2020 Habitats Directive imposes an obligation of a kind recognised by the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) or any court or tribunal in the United Kingdom in a case decided before 2021.

Decision – “…. by reason of section 4 of the 2018 Act, article 6(2) continues to be recognised and available in domestic law and is to be enforced accordingly.”

Detail – “The parties agree that the question of whether article 6(2) is enforceable by a UK court (irrespective of regulation 9(3) of the Habitats Regulations) turns on the application of section 4(2)(b) of the 2018 Act, namely whether the obligations under article 6(2) are of a kind recognised by the CJEU, or any court or tribunal in the United Kingdom, in a case decided before 11pm on 31 December 2020.”

“… That test is satisfied once a case is identified that recognises article 6(2) as being enforceable in domestic proceedings. The statute expressly provides that it is not necessary for that to be an essential part of the court’s decision. It is not relevant to the section 4(2) test to enquire as to whether the case was correctly decided or was decided per incuriam. The position might be different if the decision had been overturned on appeal, or later overruled, but that is not the case here.”

(3) Whether the Environment Agency has breached article 6(2) of the pre-Dec 2020 Habitats Directive by limiting its investigation of water abstraction to the three SSSIs.

Decision – “The claimants have demonstrated a breach of article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive and a breach of regulation 9(3) of the Habitats Regulations.”

4) Whether the Environment Agency acted irrationally by limiting its investigation of water abstraction to the three SSSIs.

Decision – “Having committed itself to discharge that obligation, it was irrational for the Environment Agency not to expand the RSA programme without having any alternative mechanism in place that could ensure compliance with article 6(2). It follows that even if (contrary to the findings I have made in respect of issues (1) and (2)) article 6(2) is not enforceable by the High Court, the Environment Agency’s decision is flawed on common law grounds. On this basis, the claimants’ rationality challenge also succeeds.”

Summary

(A) The claimants showed that water abstraction may be causing deterioration of protected habitats or significant disturbance of protected species within The Broads Special Area of Conservation.

(B) The Environment Agency must (by reason of regulation 9(3) of the Habitats Regulations) have regard to the requirements of article 6(2) of the pre-Dec 2020 Habitats Directive. It must therefore be in a position to justify any departure from those requirements. The Environment Agency’s obligation under article 6(2) continues to be enforceable in domestic law: section 4 of the 2018 Act. That obligation must continue to be interpreted in accordance with the precautionary principle: section 6 of the 2018 Act.

(C) The Environment Agency must take appropriate steps to ensure that, in the SAC (pre-Dec 2020 European Habitat designation adopted in UK law and applied to areas of Norfolk, including SSSIs), there is no possibility of the deterioration of protected habitats or the significant disturbance of protected species as a result of licensed water abstraction. The Environment Agency has discharged that obligation in respect of three sites of special scientific interest. But it has not done so in respect of all sites within the SAC. That is because its review of abstraction licences was flawed and (at least in relation to permanent licences) it has not conducted a sufficient further review to address those flaws. It is therefore in breach of regulation 9(3) of the Habitats Regulations and article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive.

(D) Having decided to comply with article 6(2), it was not rational for the Environment Agency to limit its investigation to just three sites without undertaking further work to ensure compliance with article 6(2) across the entire SAC.

The High Court will issue Directions.

This was a court case in which the claimants relied on a pre-Dec 2020 EU Directive to gain relief. The judgment confirmed the direct influence of EU Law if, prior to 1st Jan 2021, those rules had been found by a court (the CJEU or a local UK court) to be directly enforceable against public authorities.

The Prime Minister has promised to remove the influence of EU Law by end 2023. Please note my Blog post of some days ago re the forthcoming EOR Regulations (which when enacted may alter or revoke the 2017 Habitats Regulations).

The new DEFRA Secretary has cited water security as a key objective, along with food supplies.

Water Abstraction Plan (UK)

UPDATE : the DEFRA Report to Parliament (see timeline below) is here

The UK Government has a Water Abstraction Plan. This was updated on 11th April 2019 – here.

I posted before about this.

Most businesses taking more than 20,000 litres of water a day directly from rivers or groundwater require an abstraction licence.

The Plan states that the current approach to managing abstraction has three main issues:

* some older licences allow abstraction that can damage the environment

[and indeed the decision in what became the Catfield Fen test case established this – see this useful Blog account of the issues and what happened – here]

* the current approach is not flexible enough to cope with the pressures of increasing demand for water and climate change in the long term, or to allow abstractors access to additional water when it is available

* the abstraction service is outdated and paper-based

The Plan document states – The Government published a range of approaches to address these issues in January 2016 following formal consultation. This plan explains how these will be implemented over the coming years. Our approach to addressing these issues has three main elements:

(1) making full use of existing regulatory powers and approaches to address unsustainable abstraction and move around 90% of surface water bodies and 77% of groundwater bodies to the required standards by 2021

(2) developing a stronger catchment focus – bringing together the Environment Agency, abstractors and catchment groups to develop local solutions to existing pressures and to prepare for the future. These local solutions will:

* protect the environment by changing licences to better reflect water availability in catchments and reduce the impact of abstraction

* improve access to water by introducing more flexible conditions that support water storage, water trading and efficient use

(3) supporting these reforms by modernising the abstraction service, making sure all significant abstraction is regulated and bringing regulations in line with other environmental permitting regimes

The Plan document states – We will report to parliament by May 2019 on progress made on abstraction reform.

The Plan document states – the Environment Agency will publish updated abstraction licensing strategies for 10 catchments by 2021.

The Plan document states – We are planning to move abstraction and impoundment regulations into the environmental permitting regulations. The move will provide a more modern and consistent legal framework for the day to day management of abstraction. We expect to consult on the detail of the move in early 2020.

The Plan document key milestones :

• January 2018 – start testing digital abstraction licences

• January 2018 to 31 December 2019 – application process for previously exempt abstractors open

• April 2018 – Environment Agency begins work in 4 priority catchments to test the approaches to improve access to water and begin to address local pressures

• By end of 2018 – Environment Agency to have revoked around 600 unused abstraction licences

• During 2019 – Defra reports to parliament demonstrating progress on abstraction reform

• By end 2019 – majority of licences available digitally and approach to submitting records online is improved

• Early 2020 – consult on moving water resources licensing to Environmental Permitting Regulations

• 2020 – Environment Agency publish 4 updated abstraction licensing strategies from initial catchments

• March 2020 – Environment Agency completes restoring sustainable abstraction programme

• 2021 – Environment Agency publish an additional 6 updated abstraction licensing strategies

• 2021 – 2,300 time limited licences reviewed by 2021

• 2021 – Environment Agency will report on progress against environmental targets

• 2021 – abstraction licences become environmental permits (subject to consultation)

• 31 December 2022 – all previously exempt abstractions will be permitted

• By 2027 – Environment Agency will have updated all abstraction licensing strategies

Following Catfield, and in accordance with this Plan, the Environment Agency has begun reviewing and withdrawing time limited abstraction licences in the Fens.