The Law Lords were upholding a decision by the Divisional Court that Southern Water Authority (SWA) had not breached the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act when it damaged a government-designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). They said that although the authority was guilty of 'ecological vandalism', it was protected by a legal loophole.
The case, which began with a marsh, rich in wildlife, being damaged by drainage works in January 1989, ended up pitting two of the Government's environmental watchdogs against each other - English Nature and the National Rivers Authority.
A year later SWA was convicted in Newport magistrates' court, Isle of Wight, of breaching the Act by digging out a plant-filled ditch on Alverstone Marshes on the Isle of Wight without the consent of the Nature Conservancy Council. Marsh plants, including horned pondweed, marsh woundwort, bogbean and yellow loosestrife were destroyed.
SWA was fined a record pounds 6,000 with pounds 2,326 costs but the convictions were quashed on appeal. The Lords said the drainage work had caused 'grave damage to those natural features . . . which the (SSSI) notification had been designed to protect.' They ruled, however, that the Act only applies to 'owners and occupiers' of land. 'A stranger who enters the land for a few weeks solely to do some work on it does not fall into this category.'
The Act was so weak that 'it would be insufficient to penalise the fly-tipper,' they said. 'In truth the Act does no more in the great majority of cases than give the (NCC's successors) a breathing space within which to apply moral pressure, with a view to persuading the owner or occupier to make a voluntary agreement.'
The water authority was privatised in 1989, and the Nature Conservancy Council has also been reorganised in the meantime - in England its task has been taken over by English Nature.
SWA's appeal was fought for it by the National Rivers Authority's Southern Region and backed by Southern Water plc, its private-sector successor. Martin Davies, the NRA's regional solicitor, said that although SWA had no criminal liabilities after water privatisation, they had pursued the case to stop 'a lot more prosecutions'.
English Nature said it took the appeal to the Lords because of the severity of the damage and the need for a definitive ruling.
The judgment this week has dismayed conservationists. Friends of the Earth's countryside campaigner, Robin Maynard, said: 'The Wildlife and Countryside Act is becoming a charter for blackmailers and vandals. If somebody entered the National Gallery and defaced a Gainsborough they would be prosecuted. Do the same with our national natural treasures and they get away with it.'
Dr Roger Buisson, water policy officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: 'SSSIs need much better protection.'