Environmental Law News Update

December 3, 2019

In this latest Environmental Law News Update, Mark Davies, Angelica Rokad and William McBarnet consider the first ever televised climate change debate, coverage of environmental issues in the Conservative election manifesto and the recent prosecution of Weetabix for polluting the River Ise.


First ever televised climate change debate

Last week, in a first of its kind, UK party leaders attended a ‘climate debate’ hosted by Channel 4. Absent were Boris Johnson of the Conservatives and Nigel Farage of the Brexit Party who were represented by melting ice sculptures.

The topics debated included net zero carbon emissions targets, food production, aviation, energy efficiency in the home, energy production, biodiversity and trees. Whilst there was general agreement that something needed to be done, the party leaders were sometimes at odds over how to do it.

The main items to emerge from the debate are as follows:

With regard to national energy production, Jeremy Corbyn signalled his support for further investment in nuclear energy, which attracted criticism from the other leaders, although he claimed its role would only be to produce a “baseline” of energy production. All party leaders seemed united in viewing offshore wind energy as a major opportunity, although Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party highlighted that there needed to be a “just transition” to green energy, recalling the social effects of deindustrialisation in the West of Scotland when she was growing up.

The party leaders were also in agreement that the reduction in UK biodiversity was an important issue which deserved greater attention. Linked to this is a proposal many parties have adopted – the planting of more trees. As the discussion with Adam Price of Plaid Cymru indicated though, there is a balance to be struck with agriculture, although farmers could be forgiven if they were left a little confused as to how exactly that would be achieved. Sian Berry of the Green Party said that she had spent years arguing against development of infrastructure through significant areas of countryside, signalling that a new approach was necessary. In terms of legislative proposals, Jo Swinson stated that strict legal targets needed to be set with a Nature Act and a new Office of Environmental Protection to enforce them.

Environmental issues have gathered momentum in recent times and are now a significant feature of this General Election. Each party leader was keen to demonstrate that the scale of the problem was not lost on them and stress that their future actions would match their rhetoric. In a year in which Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have grabbed the headlines, this election may prove a turning point rather than another instance of various pledges being left on dusty shelves.


The environment in the Conservative’s Manifesto

Having covered Labour’s manifesto in last week’s blog, this week we examine the Conservative’s. It starts with two rather bemusing similes, first that the country has felt like ‘a lion trapped in a cage’ and secondly that it is like a ‘super-green supercar blocked by traffic’. However, the unbelievably naff introduction aside, there are various statements of note in relation to the environment throughout:

  • Investment of £1 billion in completing a fast-charging network to ensure that everyone is within 30 miles of a rapid electric vehicle charging station;
  • A consultation on the earliest date that the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars can be phased out;
  • Building on Britain’s pioneering work in electric and low-carbon flight;
  • The creation of environmentally friendly homes with all new streets to be lined with trees;
  • The protection and enhancement of the green belt with increased biodiversity, easier access to the countryside and continued prioritisation of brownfield development;
  • Use of the £1 billion Ayrton Fund to develop affordable and accessible clean energy;
  • The continuation of the Environment Bill to guarantee that our natural environment is protected and restored after the UK leave the EU;
  • The establishment of the Office for Environmental Protection and the introduction of legal targets, including on air quality;
  • A £640 million Nature for Climate Fund;
  • The creation of a Great Northumberland Forest with an additional 75,000 acres of trees to be planted in each year of Parliament, as well as the restoration of peatlands;
  • The creation of new National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty;
  • A levy to increase the proportion of recyclable plastics in packaging;
  • Banning the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries;
  • Increases in the penalties for fly-tipping and the introduction of a deposit return scheme;
  • Tougher sentences for animal cruelty with a crackdown on the illegal smuggling of dogs and puppies;
  • The setting up of a new international partnership to tackle deforestation;
  • A £500 million Blue Planet Fund to protect our oceans from plastic pollution, warning sea temperatures and overfishing, as well as an extension to the Blue Belt programme;
  • A focus on the environment in the first Budget with £4 billion for new flood defences;
  • Two million new high-quality jobs in clean growth;
  • £800 million to build the first fully developed carbon capture and storage cluster by the mid-2020s;
  • £500 million to help energy-intensive industries move to low-carbon technologies;
  • Support for gas for hydrogen production and nuclear energy; and
  • An investment of £9.2 billion in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals.

The verdict? No great surprises from the party currently in power with lots of well-meaning promises; should the Conservatives secure a majority on 12 December it will be very interesting to see if their first budget really does have a focus on the environment. As with Labour’s manifesto, many of the big spending policies don’t appear to be properly costed. Grade: B-


Cereal Offender: Weetabix Fined for Polluting River Ise

On 10 November 2016, 23,000 litres of diesel fuel leaked from disused tanks contained in a bund on a Weetabix site into the River Isle, Northamptonshire.

The leak occurred due to a problem with the secondary valves that controlled the flow of fuel from decommissioned storage tanks above ground. It was reported that the company, which has an annual turnover of £300 million, failed to act upon advice from the Environment Agency that had suggested, as early as 2007, removing the valves and associated pipework from the tanks in order to reduce the risk of water pollution.

The leak, which took place at the company’s plant in Burton Latimer, risked putting fish and plant life at “significant” risk. Fortunately, and only by chance, the wet weather, coupled with the flow of the river at the time of the incident, reduced the potential impact of the pollution.

Sentencing, Judge Rupert Mayo sitting at Northampton Crown Court, issued a fine of £130,694.72 to the company, following a guilty plea. In his ruling, the Judge concluded that Weetabix had been negligent in failing to carry out appropriate checks on pipes and valves in storage facilities on the plant and keep proper records of them.

The company’s failure to act was described in Court as tantamount to “corporate amnesia” – an expensive error given that the resulting clean-up operation has also cost Weetabix £400,000 to remedy.


Wiglaw: A Short Guide to Nuisance

By the time this blog has been circulated, our readers should also be able to access a “Short Guide to Nuisance” at www.wiglaw.co.uk. It will be maintained by Gordon Wignall, and is intended primarily to assist non-professional clients, as well, perhaps, as some professional colleagues, to navigate a way round this sometimes complex area. So far as private nuisance is concerned, it starts with the premise that the law can more easily understood if one of four sets of principles is applied to any factual circumstances. There are also two short areas summarising key issues which concern public and statutory nuisance. At the time of writing, the site is not open, and Gordon would very much welcome any feedback, directed either to the contact details provided on the website or to his chambers’ email address.


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