This post is by James Wallace, CEO of River Action.
When River Action began in 2021, river pollution was a little known problem for most people. Consequently, it has been left to fester, by successive governments which have not prioritised cleaning up our rivers, and by the water industry and intensive agriculture which have polluted and profiteered with impunity. Likewise, microplastics from roads and a long list of chemicals, from pesticides, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, have exacerbated the problem. The Environmental Audit Committee recognised the scale of the problem last year in its Water Quality in Rivers Report 2022: “The ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, slurry and plastic polluting English rivers puts public health and nature at risk”.
Fast forward two years and we have witnessed a surge in awareness and, at last, the powers that be seem to be listening. Thanks to the efforts of influential and well informed individuals, such as River Action’s Vice Chair Feargal Sharkey, and the power of mobilised community groups, like Windrush Against Sewage Pollution and Ilkley Clean River, and conservation NGOs, like the Rivers Trust, Angling Trust and Surfers Against Sewage, the media picked up and ran with the story based on stark facts. All of Britain’s rivers are polluted, in fact many are on the brink of ecological collapse, incidences of serious illness as a result are rising and we all face water shortages that could threaten our economy, food security and society.
Considering the many legally binding commitments our government has made (eg in the Environment Act 2021, Water Framework Directive 2017, Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, Farming Rules for Water 2018 and the Asset Management Plan 7), we are still a long way from being ready to deal with the accelerating freshwater, climate and biodiversity emergencies.
The rescue mission started locally
Cutting our campaigning teeth in the River Wye catchment, River Action quickly learned that a few important ingredients are required to succeed in our mission to rescue Britain’s rivers. We needed a high profile catchment with outraged and well-informed local stakeholders (over 20 well organised community and conservation groups across the River Wye). We needed evidence of pollution (River Action funded citizen science programmes and the RePhoKUs Report by Lancaster University) and polluters to target (over 100 intensive poultry units – factory farms – with 23.5 million chickens releasing 3,000 tonnes of excess phosphate into the catchment each year). We needed a plan to clean up the mess and a strategy for securing the necessary resources and commitments (Plan to Save the Wye).
While the Wye remains under massive threat, at least the problem is now widely recognised by major polluters such as Avara Foods, and their customers, like Tesco. The regulators, the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales, are being pressured to act.
Having focused on the local challenges of a catchment, we have extended our campaigning to national level, targeting the people that make and enforce our laws and the perpetrators of pollution.
Funding for protection has been cut to the bone
While our rivers have been trashed over the past decade, the Environment Agency has cut river monitoring and enforcement, having lost 70 per cent of its funding and resources from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The two are directly linked. Cause and effect: defunding promotes deregulation, promotes profiteering, promotes pollution.
River Action and others have instigated legal action targeting the government for its failure to implement the law. Our judicial review with Leigh Day Solicitors challenges the Environment Agency’s failure to prosecute breaches of the farming rules for water.
Similarly, private enterprises, such as developers, fisheries and tourism operators, are gathering to target a group legal action against polluters for ‘nuisance’. Or, in plain English, loss of income. The River Wye is so desperately polluted that few wish to swim, fish or paddle in it, while a nutrient neutrality planning moratorium for housebuilding stifles development.
River Action has raised a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority which challenges the Red Tractor food standard’s failure to ensure certified food does not pollute our rivers. Nicola Cutcher and The Times have discovered – using the Environment Agency’s own data – that purchasing Red Tractor labelled food is more likely to damage the environment than uncertified food.
The Charter for Rivers is targeted at those in power
Governments (both local and national) won’t change their budgetary and resourcing priorities unless they are written into manifestos, committed in law and policies and underwritten by guaranteed investment from the Treasury. It should, therefore, be no surprise that our national river pollution campaign this year has been focused on drafting the Charter for Rivers.
During early 2023, River Action gathered a group of diverse, influential people and organisations to draft a document that tells the manifesto writing teams, current and prospective policy makers and budget holders what they need to do.
We want to simultaneously inform voters of the plight of our rivers and the need to vote in local elections, by elections and the next general election for those who commit to the headline ask in the charter, which is to restore our rivers and freshwaters to health by 2030.
Along with over 50 co-signatories including The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, WWF and Rivers Trust, we propose ten priority actions to achieve this target, including ending sewage, agricultural and chemical pollution at source, properly funding and resourcing monitoring and inspection and enforcing the law and penalties against polluters.
To launch the charter, we commissioned independent research that showed nearly 50 per cent of the British public see rivers as an influential voting issue, over 90 per cent want healthy rivers by 2030 and only six per cent are satisfied the government has done a good job of protecting rivers.
Over the next few months, we and our collaborators will be campaigning to put healthy rivers at the top of every election candidate’s and voter’s priorities. A parliamentary launch, parliamentary debates and questions, public events, national media coverage and submission to No 10 will spread the word that our rivers – and therefore our future – are under threat and it’s high time that current and future governments (of whichever colour) commit to resolving this emergency.