Anglers win right to prosecute Southern Water over diesel pollution in river

Protest outside Southampton magistrates' court
Anglers and members of Fish Legal outside Southampton magistrates' court - Ollie Thompson/Solent News & Photo Agency

A water company accused of polluting one of the country’s most famous fishing spots is facing the first private criminal prosecution of its kind for 20 years.

An anglers’ group claims Southern Water is responsible for diesel contaminating the River Test in Hampshire.

The river, one of only 200 chalk streams in the world, is a site of Special Scientific Interest and famed for its salmon and trout fishing and diverse wildlife.

Fishing on the Test has attracted the Royal family, former US president George Bush Sr and celebrities including Jeremy Paxman, Vinnie Jones, and Nicolas Cage.

The highly unusual case comes amid public fury at water companies over the widespread contamination of Britain’s waterways and seas with sewage and other waste.

Chalk rivers in the Test Valley, Hampshire
Chalk rivers in the Test Valley, Hampshire

The prosecution has been brought by Fish Legal following “persistent” discharge including diesel, which has been blamed for the death of fish and cygnets.

At a court hearing the group – a not-for-profit organisation of lawyers who represent anglers fighting polluters – faced opposition from both Southern Water and the Environment Agency (EA).

The EA has already launched an investigation and wanted the Fish Legal case to be adjourned until it had been concluded, a position backed by the water company.

However, at Southampton magistrates’ court, Hants, the judge ruled it would be “fundamentally” wrong to deny the prosecution.

Joe Hart, on behalf of Fish Legal, said: “It has been with a degree of frustration that Fish Legal bring this prosecution to a river where there is an urgent issue.

“The fact the Environment Agency is investigating is not a problem.”

‘This is an urgent matter’

Criticising the EA’s length of investigations, he said: “The average time taken from commencement of an investigation to first appearance in court, last year [2022], was 557 days.

“And there are similar average times taken in preceding years.

“This is an urgent matter that is having a significant environmental effect on a rather special river.”

District Judge Peter Greenfield said he said he could see “no reason” why a summons could not be granted on Fish Legal’s behalf.

“I think they are interesting arguments, but there is a fundamental right to issue a summons,” the judge added.

The case is scheduled to be heard early in 2024.

Before the hearing, Fish Legal said it had acted because pollution keeps entering the chalk stream from an “outfall” operated by Southern Water.

A spokesman for the utility company said: “In June 2021, we were made aware of a release of diesel in the area of the Nursling Industrial Estate that escaped into the Little River Test.

“Our teams worked quickly, and with other agencies, to protect the watercourse and surrounding environment.

“An Environment Agency investigation into the cause of the incident and the identity of the polluters is ongoing.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.