Skip to main content

Government action against sewage discharges from storm overflows

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: water

Untreated sewage can be devastating to human health, local biodiversity and our environment which is why we have been clear that water companies must take urgent action to address sewage discharges.

Some parts of England saw surface water flooding last week, as rain fell on very hard ground after weeks of prolonged dry weather. Water quality was temporarily affected in some areas as a result, reinforcing the need for robust action from water companies to reduce discharges from storm overflows.

That’s why we are already taking action. We are the first Government to set an expectation on water companies to significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows.

The Strategic Policy Statement, laid in Parliament in February, sets out to Ofwat - the water regulator - our expectations for the sector over the next five year spending cycle and beyond. It makes clear that Ofwat and water companies should prioritise action on the environment, deliver a resilient and sustainable water supply, and significantly reduce the frequency and volume of discharges from storm overflows.

During the passage of the Environment Act through parliament last year, we announced measures that put this commitment on a statutory footing – enshrining our position in law. This will categorically reduce the amount of untreated sewage in our waters and means water companies must reduce the operation of storm overflows. This sits alongside a raft of new laws in the Environment Act to significantly reduce the use of storm overflows.

We also recently consulted on our Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which will revolutionise how water companies tackle the number of discharges of untreated sewage. The plan proposes the most significant infrastructure programme to recover the environment in water company history. Water companies will face strict limits on when they can use storm overflows and must completely eliminate the harm sewage discharges cause to the environment.

Water Minister Steve Double said:

We are the first government to take action to tackle sewage overflows. We have been clear that water companies’ reliance on overflows is unacceptable and they must significantly reduce how much sewage they discharge as a priority.

This is on top of ambitious action we have already taken including consulting on targets to improve water quality which will act as a powerful tool to deliver cleaner water, pushing all water companies to go further and faster to fix overflows.

Work on tackling sewage overflows continues at pace and we will publish our plan in line with the 1 September statutory deadline.

The Environment Agency have also significantly driven up monitoring and transparency from water companies and will not hesitate to act to eliminate the harm sewage discharges cause to the environment and hold companies to account where they fall below the minimum standards. They have:

  • Increased the number of overflows monitored across the network 15-fold - from 800 in 2016 to more than 12,000 in 2020. All 15,000 overflows will have them by the end of 2023. The vast majority of monitors (87%) operated for more than 90% of the time last year (2021).
  • Asked companies to install new flow monitors on more than 2,000 wastewater treatment works to identify what is happening at those works during the sewage treatment process itself. This has led to a major investigation, announced in November 2021, with the EA requesting more detailed data from all wastewater treatment works.
  • Agreed to increase transparency around when and how storm overflows are used through the work of the Storm Overflows Taskforce – made up of Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, Consumer Council for Water, Blueprint for Water and Water UK
  • Respond to all serious pollution incidents and where offences are identified, these are investigated and enforcement action taken in line with the Environment Agency Enforcement and Sanctions Policy.

The EA are monitoring the current situation and supporting local authorities where needed.

When the potential for a temporary reduction in water quality is forecast, a pollution risk warning is issued with advice against bathing.

You can find daily pollution risk forecasts throughout the bathing water season at the EA’s Swimfo website.

Follow Defra on Twitter, and sign up for email alerts here.

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by Stephen Austin posted on

    When we were part of the EU I believe it was illegal to discharge raw sewage without permission. Watching Feargal Sharkey on the BBC he believes the Conservatives measure would actually make things worse - legalising water companies to dump as much sewage as they wanted, as long as they showed "progressive reduction".
    He said that the government have now given the water companies until 2050 to put it right.

  2. Comment by David White posted on

    When local authorities, healthcare providers educational establishments or even rail franchisees fail to meet the required standards the government intervenes and appoints inspectors to oversee the failing body until the rquired standards are met. Why then does the government not intervene in the waterand sewerage industry and appoint managers to ensure the standards are met

  3. Comment by Derek Stewart Smith posted on

    It is concerning the Environment Agency think *monitoring the discharges” is the answer.
    This only provides information about the quantities of raw untreated sewage being discharged into our rivers and sea
    The answer is to provide larger storage capacity and increase the treatment plant to deal with the excessive discharges.
    No bonuses to staff and no dividends must be paid to shareholders until the whole problem has been dealt with

  4. Comment by Christina Aitken posted on

    As the public is being asked to save water, which is correct, the Water Companies are charging more each year and giving much worse service and plenty of leaks and then asking the public to save Water. In my mind, these companies should be fined for not following the rules and regulations which I feel will encourage them to do as they should be doing, SAVING OUR WATER AND PROTECTING IT.

    • Replies to Christina Aitken>

      Comment by P Chicken posted on

      People are missing the point here. The majority of water firms in the UK are now owned by foreign companies with vast profits and bonuses being sent abroad.

      They were gifted debt free companies with gifts of cash payments on the understanding that infrastructure was maintained and improved.

      The companies seeing that checks and balances were lacking have loaded UK water companies with crippling debt and transferred the majority of profits in the pockets of managers and share holders.

      In most cases more cash is spent on dividends and bonuses than on water repairs and upgrades.

      The government should ban any company from issuing a dividend or paying bonuses until all debt is below 5% of the revenue.

      It should also be law that salaries and bonuses should be limited and 80% of profits should be used to improve services.

      Water bills should be capped and reduced it should be statutory law that no company can make over a set limit of profit

      We don’t need to privatise companies we just need to stop the greed

  5. Comment by John W. Baxter posted on

    I find it incredible that so many years after privatisation, water companies are being ASKED to clean up their discharges of treated waste water, for which water consumers have paid. When are we going to have government that governs in the interest of water consumers and stops having to digest pathetic reasons why so much untreated waste water is dumped to watercourses in an untreated, and in many cases unscreened state ?.
    The solution to this lack of capital investment in waste water treatment plants does not lie in monitoring storm water companies know, it lies in expanded waste water treatment and additional storm water retention........all of which cost money, which taxpayers have been paying for for years.
    If farmers were to tell the EA that the high rainfall events caused overflowsof waste to watercourses they would be prosecuted for illegal discharge of waste to watercourses.
    Water companies have been doing this in unsustainable volumes for years with clearance from EA.......and that is why we no longer have any boasting rights about what a good job we are doing in how we manage waste water in the U.K......
    We still believe today what we believed in 1970........the solution to pollution is is the cheapest and most profitable way to manage U.K. water resources.

  6. Comment by Dave Stanley posted on

    Water Minister “ We are the first government to take action to tackle sewage overflows”. Excuse me. Is this the first year that the Conservative government has been in power? I recall this being a pressing issue 30 years ago when I worked for Environment Agency. The three “M”s of management.
    Measure. Has been going on
    Monitor. Some - with the odd consequential fine but not hard enough nor often enough to seriously grab the water companies attention.
    Management. Are we now to enforce installation of tertiary treatment at sewage works? Or do we continue to mislead the public and pretend that even with the ceasing eventually of raw sewage discharge - What comes out of the sewage works as “treated” – is not causing devastating damage to our river and oceanic ecosystems?

  7. Comment by ROBERT BAGULEY posted on


    • Replies to ROBERT BAGULEY>

      Comment by Stephen Austin posted on

      If you tax the water companies it will just be added to your bill!!

  8. Comment by Mick D Walters posted on

    Loads more words. The problem is that this government has a reputation for lying and breaking promises. It's gonna take more than words to convince me.
    I didn't support Corbyn but the water industry should be nationalised.