The fight for justice against the Environment Agency

Published: Monday, 04 April 2022

A CATALOGUE of bias, bullying and bad practice resulting in serious maladministration by the Environment Agency, has put us through 12 years of physical, financial and emotional agony, write, Steve and Ewan Earl.

And run up costs to the taxpayer of well over £1million.


In spite of criticism from the Information Commissioner, a Judicial Review ordering action and an Ombudsman’s investigation finding the EA guilty of numerous instances of maladministration, the Agency has failed to put things right for Wiltshire-based builders, Steve and Ewan Earl and their families.

Now the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has taken the highly unusual step of laying his report on the EA’s actions before Parliament in a bid to force it to properly compensate the brothers for the financial loss and damage to their business and for the personal hardship and suffering they and their families have endured.

The story began in 2009 when the Earl’s building company, SPE Developments, bought North Mill on the Avon at Avoncliff, near Bradford on Avon. The brothers’ company specialised in restoring old buildings and bringing them back into useful, modern housing. Their plan at Avoncliff also involved repairing the large weir and installing hydro-electric turbines capable of providing sufficient green energy to power 150 homes.

AvoncliffBeforeGiven the go-ahead

The project involved obtaining licences from the EA so that they could repair the weir and then to abstract water to power the turbines. Initially, the brothers were given the go-ahead and everything seemed to be going to plan—until a second application to extract water from the same weir was made by a mill owner on the opposite bank.

In spite of significant obstacles to it ever coming to fruition, this option was preferred by the Environment Agency, the Earl’s draft licences were rescinded and licences issued to the second applicant.

But, in order to do that, the Environment Agency had to re-write its own policy literally 'on the hoof' and make it fit the outcome the agency wanted. In a 2015 report, the Ombudsman found there had been significant bias against Steve,66, and Ewan,57, and that the EA had failed to act in an even-handed way in the best public interest—amounting to a number of instances of serious maladministration.

AvoncliffBefore2Merited proper compensation

The Ombudsman said that this maladministration merited proper compensation both for the financial loss incurred and for the damage inflicted on the families.

To date, the agency has failed to take any account of the Ombudsman’s findings or act on the findings of a separate DEFRA investigation.

At the outset we had a perfectly viable project which would have restored this historic mill, provided green energy into the national grid, repaired the weir at Avoncliff and seen our business and our families enjoy the success we had built up over the years.

The photographs show the original wreck of the mill and the brothers' work in restoring, notwithstanding ten years of obstruction from the Environment Agency.

AvoncliffAfterBusiness and reputation shredded

Instead, our business and our professional reputation has been shredded, our savings exhausted in legal battles and our families emotionally and psychologically exhausted—yet still the Environment Agency puts itself above the law and, all these years later, is still refusing to accept its liability or meet the obligation to compensate us for the financial and non-financial injuries we have suffered, with Ombudsman Rob Behrens stating:

"The emotional impact this case has taken on Steve and Ewan Earl and their wider family demonstrates why it is vital we hold Government departments to account for their mistakes. 

“When errors are identified by the Ombudsman service, people rightly expect them to be acknowledged and put right. The refusal of the agency to comply with our recommendations and provide adequate compensation reflects a failure of the constitutional process, which was set up to give people like the Earls a remedy for the hardship they have suffered. When public bodies behave in this way it ultimately erodes public trust and confidence in the services they provide." 

EA have to account for itself

Now the EA will have to account for itself before Parliament and the Earl brothers hope that this will bring to an end this devastating chapter in their lives and enable them to finally wake up from what has been a 12 years nightmare.

[The Ombudsman is to lay an investigation report into the Earl case in Parliament under section 10(3) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 with the aim of compelling parliamentarians to take action to remedy the failure of the Environment Agency, provide adequate compensation and deliver justice to the Earl family.]