Environment Agency - a Cautionary Tale 2nd July 2012

Please nip over to The Avoncliff Mills Blog for the latest stuff

Back in 2009 two local builders, the Earl brothers in Bradford on Avon after many years investigating, managed to locate the owners of North Mill on the River Avon at Avoncliff, a picturesque hamlet well known to Kennet and Avon boaters a couple of miles west of the town and arranged to purchase the property which had been derelict for 35+ years and was in a dangerous tumbledown state. (Photos available at

An entirely obvious feature of any restoration project was the refurbishment of the property's capacity to generate power (Green subsidy was welcome but not a showstopper) and the Earls engaged a reputable hydro project consultancy to manage the process and they applied for the required water abstraction and impoundment licences from the Environment Agency on behalf of the Earls in September 2009.

At this point, the Earls view of the Environment Agency was that they were a trustworthy and technically authoritative public body discharging their statutory duty to process permit applications according to their documented statutory obligations - a fee of ca. £150 was paid, all the required documents were submitted and advertising required was placed in local newspapers. So far so good - the EA now had 120 days in which to evaluate the application and issue a determination.

It should be noted here that as an integral and documented part of the licence process *all* water passing over the Avoncliff weir was now legally embargoed and no other application for that water was legally viable until the original North Mill application was determined under statutory obligation by the EA - be that a yes or a no.

Another application was indeed made, almost three months after North Mill's application and accepted by the EA - from the owner of a mill building on the opposite bank - Weaver's Mill. 

The Earls were advised in February 2010 that they were issued a draft licence for the amount of water they'd requested and that this was a formality prior to the issuance of the actual licence. 

What happened next eroded the Earl's original faith in the Environment Agency's integrity out of existence.

The EA stopped communicating with North Mill - any requests for information / updates were brushed aside and the EA requested an extension to the statutory time window, which the Earls (naively in hindsight) agreed to, still clinging to their belief that the EA were a trustworthy government department. 

The subsequent non-appearance of the licence coupled to the EA's unwillingness to communicate anything prompted the Earls to ask their local MP to inquire about the matter - the way he was treated by the EA prompted him to ask questions from the floor of The House of Commons - the morning of the day after the question, a senior manager at the EA telephoned the Earls and warned "if you involve an MP in this we'll make sure you go to the end of the queue" - charming.

The agreed time extensions to the North Mill application expired and not being in receipt of a yes or a no on the licence the Earls lodged an appeal to The Planning Inspectorate for non-determination - which legally freezes the entire process (well, it's supposed to....) and the decision goes to H.M. Planning Inspectorate.

Undaunted, and determined... the EA then arbitrarily awarded a licence to Weaver’s Mill and *then* said they were refusing a licence to North Mill because there "wasn't any water available" neither of which they were legally mandated to do in any way, shape or form.

The Earls then applied for Judicial Review (a process with about a 5% success rate past application) and took the EA to the High Court  - where the EA lost and their barristers admitted illegal actions, the Weaver's Mill licence was quashed and the EA were subjected to full legal costs and conditions were imposed on them regarding any further allocation of water resources at the Avoncliff weir. It is of note that the EA successfully withheld pivotal information under Freedom of Information for over 18 months which would have made the Judicial Review even more of a disaster for them than it already was - and were criticized in uncompromising terms in an investigation by The Information Commissioner's Office.

It turned out that the North Mill application had indeed been properly and successfully determined by EA officials in the Earl's favour and that those documents relating to this fact had been hidden by certain other EA officials.

There are recurring themes in all this - in that it would appear that the EA believe that rules can be adjusted after the game, are for other people - and that the law doesn't apply to them. 

Needless to say things have not changed (as of July 2012) and it certainly seems very likely that The Environment Agency will be spending much more public money employing barristers and using their well provisioned PR department to defend the extraordinarily arbitrary, wilful and destructive activities of their officials.

To date it has been independently estimated that The Environment Agency have spent well in excess of  £500,000 of public money on this mess and they are set to add considerably to that figure. There is a lot more to this than space here allows and if you’re curious - please visit the web site.

This isn't over yet.

We welcome any information about other water power schemes involving The Environment Agency which have gone badly wrong - we already know of two more that bear striking similarities to this case.