A 2022 report by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on the state of UK rivers concluded that no river in England was free from chemical contamination.
Could giving rivers legal rights help to restore them? In the town of Lewes in Sussex, the answer to this question is now a hopeful yes.
On 20 February 2023, Lewes council passed a motion which aims to recognise the River Ouse’s rights to protection amid growing concerns over pollution of waterways. This marked the first step towards developing a Rights of River Ouse Charter to secure its health and its right to be pollution-free.
Councillor Matthew Bird, Cabinet Member for Sustainability in Lewes, said: “I’m delighted that Lewes is the first council in England, I believe, to pass a motion of this kind, that is about valuing the river in its own right and rethinks our relationship with it. Our waterways face constant harm from pollution, road runoff, development and climate change, and the health and wellbeing of the River Ouse is severely under threat.
“This motion is the first step towards a Rights of River Ouse Charter through which the health and wellbeing of the river is represented and voiced by local communities throughout the Ouse Valley catchment.”
The Charter, which is to be drafted over the next two years, aims to enshrine substantive rights to the river, ‘redefine human-river interaction’, and promote a sustainable river system.
Monica Feria-Tinta has been instructed to assist in drafting the Charter, the first of its kind in England, and to advise on its operationalisation.
Monica said: “This development in England builds on the growing momentum gained by the ‘rights of nature’ approach to the protection of rivers and forests, as natural entities, around the world, and in particular reflects the aspiration of the local community of Lewes to protect the River Ouse.”
Emma Montlake of the ELF commented: “ELF is so delighted to be working with Monica, whose experience and knowledge of nature’s rights jurisprudence globally is well established. Within the timeframe that the district council has given itself, we will be exploring – with Monica’s help – where local opportunities exist to push the boundaries of what is possible in the UK legally. It is very exciting – and when so much news of the natural world is so relentlessly depressing, this is positive and gives me hope.”