Environment Agency’s failure to correct permit error caused prolonged suffering to small family business, Whitehall watchdog finds

The Environment Agency (the Agency) caused prolonged suffering and years of uncertainty to a South-West family business when it refused to fix mistakes made during an application to harness a renewable energy source.   

Brothers Steve and Ewan Earl run a small building company in Wiltshire. They complained to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) about the Agency’s handling of their application to use water from the River Avon to provide electricity for a mill they were redeveloping.   

In December 2015, PHSO partly upheld the complaint from the Earls, agreeing that the way the Agency managed the application was flawed. Concerns were raised during the application process that a second request to take water from the same spot as the Earls had been submitted and that approval of both could impact water levels.

PHSO found mistakes in how the Agency managed two competing applications and its subsequent communication to the Earls. The delays caused to the scheme created a great deal of stress and anxiety to the brothers and meant they could not move on to their next project. The Agency itself acknowledged failings in how it managed the original application and that their mistakes caused delays that affected the business.   

However, since then, the Agency has continued to resist attempts to resolve the matter to the family's satisfaction. It has sought to undermine the Earls by failing to accept its mistakes had an ongoing impact on the business's finances. This position has resulted in substantial delays to the process and a failure to deliver closure for the Earl family.  

One of the brothers, Steve Earl, said:  

“Our families and our business have been put through 12 years of emotional, psychological, physical and financial agony due to a litany of bad practice, bias, bullying and maladministration by the Environment Agency.  

“We have been confronted with obstacle after obstacle, been misled and lied to, had deadlines to fix the mistakes offered and then ignored. Our reputation has been tarnished and our financial credibility compromised. We have watched our dreams and aspirations crumble.”  

Ombudsman Rob Behrens said:

"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."   

Chief Executive of the British Hydropower Association Simon Hamlyn said:  

“The failings, in this case, sadly echo the concerns of our members' experiences about the Environment Agency’s handling of hydropower licence applications.

“Many small hydropower operators and community schemes depend on the Environment Agency to get things right. If they don’t, they must fix their mistakes swiftly or risk causing long-term problems for businesses and communities. They must also put into practice their obligations under the Regulator's Code of Practice. 

We need to embrace more environmentally friendly energy solutions, such as hydropower. The Environment Agency must maintain public and business confidence when managing its different licencing schemes.”

Read the investigation report.